There was some debate as to whether or not the offense was quite as deep as I contended it was, particularly at the running back positions. Today, I'll take a look at the Bengals defensive depth, and make use of the jump to try to shorten our front page a little bit!
In short, I think the defense this year can only improve upon last year's 12th place effort. Additions of guys like Roy Williams and Tank Johnson, rookies Rey Maualuga and Michael Johnson are the primary reasons that the defense is so deep this year. Add to the mix that Chris Crocker will have a full off-season under his belt this year, DT Pat Sims has shown flashes of excellence in his second year, and Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers look to be healthy, and you've got to feel good about this defense.
Significant losses on the defensive side of the ball were relatively few. John Thornton is no longer with the team and Orien Harris was traded (the Harris loss is listed as the only "key" defensive loss at nologoneeded.com, which I find to be hilarious.)
A look at defensive depth (note, I'm looking at depth more than I'm focusing on overall talent), position by position, after the jump.
Defensive Tackle: We'll start up front with the big men. While our defensive tackle rotation is not particularly deep, I think it is more talented this year than we've seen it in quite some time. Domata Peko is the real deal. Pat Sims, as this blog has mentioned, looks like he could be a very good player this year too. Tank Johnson, the smallest of the top three at 305 pounds, has a history of being a productive player when he stays focused on the field.
Peko is a pretty good all around tackle. I think he is especially strong against the run. I haven't seen enough of Sims to really quantify his skill set, but he is a big, powerful man, and could occupy multiple blockers as he develops this year. Johnson is reputed as a guy that gets good pressure on the quarterback from an interior line position. If these 3 stay healthy, I think there is a good chance that this unit is extremely productive this year. Mike Zimmer and DL Coach Jay Hayes have a good combination of size and various skill sets at the tackle position this year.
Defensive End: Similar to defensive tackle, the depth at end is not astounding, but it's solid and exciting. This unit should vastly outperform last year's lackadaisical effort that mustered little-to-no pressure on the quarterback week in and week out.
All that really starts with the return of a healthy Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers. It had to be a very encouraging moment for Bengals fans to see Geathers absolutely light up Tom Brady on Thursday night. Here's to hoping that speed endures this season, and Geathers continues to run around offensive tackles to lay the hurt on opposing QBs. Antwan Odom has not been remarkable this preseason, but looks much better than he did last year when he was hurt.
What makes this unit exciting is the continuing emergence of Jonathan Fanene and the addition of rookie freak athlete Michael Johnson. I was a little put off at the end of the game on Thursday when I saw Johnson take a play off - but I guess it didn't really matter, there were 15 seconds left in a preseason game. It's something to keep an eye on, however. We'll have to really watch how he does at shedding blockers and using his 6'7", 260 pound frame to his advantage this year. Fanene was a project when we picked him up in 2005. But he is a big man (292 pounds) and was very productive when th team was winning games and being "competitive" late last year.
It really seems like every time he's on the field, good things happen. Bengals fans have got to like this sort of depth and potential. All four of these guys are young and can still get better, especially as Zimmer employs more blitzes and the tackles improve this year.
Linebackers: I'm lumping all these guys together because there are a lot of interchangeable parts at linebacker for the Bengals this year. You've got to really like the wide array of skill sets and talent in the top 6 linebackers this year. Keith Rivers is in line for a monster season. The guy plays with a mean streak and has a chip on his shoulder after suffering the broken jaw last year. I liken him to Troy Polomalu in terms of demeanor - that is, he is soft spoken and cerebral off the field, but he has an animalistic drive to hit, hit, hit on Sundays.
Dhani Jones is a pretty cool guy, and a good football player. He did a very good job last year for the Bengals. I mean very good: he was one of only five players on the entire team to start every game. He led the team in tackles. He was third on the team in passes defensed. To top it off, his teammates voted him defensive captain. He is a positive influence on the young guys like Rivers and Maualuga, and a vibrant locker room personality.
Then it gets interesting. Rashad Jeanty has worked extremely hard since the Bengals acquired him out of the CFL in 2006. But how long can Rey Maualuga ride pine? For now, this is sort of inconsequential because Jeanty has played in the preseason and Maualuga has limited time. We'll see how the preseason finishes out at SAM. Jeanty will likely go into the season as the starter, but Rey Rey will get time off the bench, and he'll be a fun little fireball to watch.
I think Brandon Johnson and Abdul Hodge have had good showings in preseason, and both of these guys are likely to be special teams contributors as well as solid defensive substitutes to keep the starters fresh. There is a pretty significant drop off here, but that's more due to the talent of Rivers, the leadership of Jones, and Jeanty's consistency than a slight to Johnson and Hodge (who, to be fair, have flashed some pretty nice skills in this preseason). We'll see what happens with Maualuga's progression as the regular season nears, but he may need some time to prepare for a prominent role.
Cornerback: I am not particularly ecstatic with our cornerback corps this year. Joseph and Hall, if healthy, will be pretty serviceable and can occasionally cover guys on an island. I still think they'd be best served by regular help over the top, although Jonathan Joseph has speed to burn. Leon Hall shows good coverage skills, especially on intermediate routes. I think our high expectations for these guys are legitimate. Joseph had a pretty good game against Randy Moss on Thursday.
Beyond the starters though, I don't have much confidence in Geoffrey Pope, David Jones, Morgan Trent, or Jamar Fletcher. I was a strong advocate of picking up a third corner in free agency, but the Bengals spurned my desires and instead decided that David Jones could hack it at Nickel Corner. I guess Jones had a lot of playing time last year with injuries to our top corners, so maybe he'll be passable.
Coverage last year was solid - especially given the lack of a pass rush. Can't argue with results. This unit will be okay as long as Hall and Joseph are healthy. It might be okay for a few weeks without one of them, but if both go down, there will be problems.
Safety: Lumping these guys together too for simplicity's sake. I think this is a very deep position for the Bengals this year. The most attractive thing about Bengal safeties this year is a good mix of hard-hitting and strong coverage. Chinedum Ndukwe and Marvin White have not looked great this preseason, and it's sort of early to judge as we haven't seen many teams go over the top against the Bengals first team defense (Brady overthrew somewhat open receivers twice on Thursday).
There is some valid concern about the coverage skills of guys like Roy Williams and Chris Crocker, who are generally known for their hitting - and in Williams's case, knocked for coverage. It is hard to argue that this is not a talented top 4 guys, though. A rotation that caters to the strengths of Williams in the running game and White in coverage could be efficient for Zimmer this year.
The Bengals will likely retain Corey Lynch this year, as he showed value on special teams last year and is a smart defender. While we're talking about safeties, I'll point out that Tom Nelson is from my hometown (Arlington Heights, a NW Chicago Suburb), and is a guy that really improved his stock on Thursday.
Overall: Depth on the defensive side of the ball is strong at safety, defensive end, and linebacker. Defensive tackle and corner depth is decent at best, with some significant fall off in talent and production once you get past the top guys on the depth chart. Let me know what you think about the backup corners, who I haven't paid much attention to but tend to feel unsure about.