If the Bengals offensive line is a concern on the team's offense, then similarly, the Bengals defensive line is a concern on the team's defense. Unlike previous years, the concern isn't so much against the rush. In 2008, the Bengals limited opposing rush offenses to 3.9 yards-per-rush, ranking 10th in the NFL. It's not like other teams didn't rush on the Bengals either. Forced to defend against over 30 rushing attempts and limit the opposing rushing offense to 3.9 yards is actually an accomplishment. In fact, of the Top Ten teams that allowed the most rushing attempts, the Bengals were by far the best limiting yards-per-rush.
|Kansas City Chiefs||31.8||5.0|
|St. Louis Rams||31.3||4.9|
|Green Bay Packers||28.6||4.6|
Furthermore, the Bengals only allowed nine plays where the opposing offense rushed for 20 yards or more -- which is tied for ninth in the NFL -- and forced 10 fumbles (tied for fifth in the NFL). Still, the defense allowed 1,921 yards rushing which ranked 21st -- what do you expect with so many rushing attempts?
No, the rush defense, based on last year alone, isn't so much a concern. The concern this year is putting pressure on the quarterback.
Ranked second-to-last with 17 sacks, it's been documented (dear god, has it ever?!) that the Bengals inability to get to the quarterback is a major issue with this defense. After signing Antwan Odom to a five-year deal worth $29.5 million, with $11.5 million guaranteed, the Bengals were expected to improve upon a 22-sack season in 2007 -- the same season that the coaching staff experimented with Robert Geathers at outside linebacker during a season in which we saw several linebackers fall to season-ending injuries. Odom recorded 3.0 sacks. Geathers followed up a 10.5-sack season in 2006 with 6.0 sacks in 27 games between 2007 and 2008.
A lot of promise between two well-paid defensive ends ending with a lot of fluff in 2008. In fairness, Odom played with an injury in 2008. It's been reported that he's gained more weight without necessarily losing quickness. Geathers missed several games last season to injury. He'll return fully healed.
When the season ended, there was no faith in the Bengals pass rush. Who knows if the rush defense can withstand another season of over 30 rushing attempts, limiting them to under four yards per rush.
In early April, the Bengals signed Tank Johnson in an effort to improve the pass rush, not from the defensive ends, but up the middle. Carson Palmer points out that when there's a pass rush coming from the guards, the defense greatly benefits. "It's not so much the fact that a sack can come from there, but just the fact a quarterback might not be able to step into every throw," Palmer said. "If you've got pressure coming up the middle, you're throwing off the back foot and can't get everything on the ball, that's when turnovers happen. Balls get intercepted, balls get tipped and it makes it extremely difficult on the quarterback."
Mike Zimmer points out that an offensive line's weakness on pass protection are the guards.
"If you look at the personnel in the NFL now, the offensive tackles are all pretty good. The guards are not quite as good," Zimmer said. "If you can get a guy that can beat a guard, a lot of times that's the worst pass protector. And a lot of times they're going to get a lot of single blocks, where the tackle gets help by the back, the center is helped by the other guard. So if you can work it out that guys are getting one-on-one, they've got a chance (to win) some one-on-ones."
Obviously Tank Johnson isn't the be-all end-all of acquisitions to get the team's pass rush off the ground. So with their third selection in the NFL draft, the Bengals drafted noted pass rushing defensive end Michael Johnson. In only 15 career starts at Georgia Tech, Johnson recorded 19 quarterback sacks and 30.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, as well as ten forced fumbles -- nine sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss his final collegiate season.
Rey Maualuga could figure into pass rushing equation as well. Learning a new position, moving from the middle to the outside, will take time, especially with pass coverage. Would the Bengals choose to rush Maualuga rather than throwing him into pass coverage? The 2008 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and Bednarik Award winner (NCAA defensive player of the year) could be a sort of Wild Card in all of this. His physicality could put enough pressure on the quarterback to step out of the pocket, or force bad throws. Either way, the Bengals need that Wild Card.
The question now is can the Bengals improve the pass rush with acquisitions and team's incumbent pass rushers? It would be hard for the Bengals not to improve on their terrible pass rushing effort last year.