The defense for the Bengals has shown great improvement over the past couple of seasons. Marvin Lewis finally has a defensive coordinator in Mike Zimmer that shares his same philosophy. They have worked well together in determining the week areas and then looked to both free agency and the draft to fill the voids. One area that has received the most focus is at linebacker as they have put together one of the best groups in the league.
The Bengals linebacker corp is a prime example of finding the right blend of veteran experience and youthful energy. It started with the signing of Dhani Jones in 2007 when nearly every member of the defense was out with injury. At one point that season, they had safeties playing linebacker due to the overwhelming injuries. Talk about a miss match. Once brought in, Jones stabilized the linebacker position with his poise and leadership. The coaching staff didn't stop there with the additions. They continued to build by drafting Keith Rivers and fellow USC teammate Rey Maualuga with both picking up where they left off in college. This could be the best linebacker group in franchise history and they may be the best in the NFL this season.
Below is the projected depth chart heading into training camp.
When the 2007 season deteriorated into a pool of injuries on defense, Jones was plucked from the waiver wire to provide a shot of stability when needed most. In his second game as a Bengal, he was given defensive play calling duties which he never had but coveted so much. After that season, he was given an extension and is comfortable in his new home. Since his arrival, he has been part of the maturation of a defense that finished near the top last season for the first time in, well, ever. Jones comes into training camp the defacto starting middle linebacker, but will get pushed by Maualuga. The likelihood that he loses his starting spot is possible if he shows a miss step or two. Since the Bengals gave him a second chance and bestowed him the defensive captain, expect his ouster to be very difficult.
Rey Maualuga is entering his second season after being drafted in the second round in 2009, much to everyone's surprise since he was a projected first rounder. Since his arrival, it can be said the he has been motivated to show that it was a mistake to bypass on him in the first round. He has already made an impact helping solidify the middle linebacker spot backing up Dhani Jones. Prior to being drafted, he was often compared to Junior Seau whose motor never stopped when he was playing. With his sideline to sideline pursuit, he is fast becoming a game changing player that teams will have to plan around. He is competitive and hits like a jackhammer. Heading into preseason, Rey will look to grab the starting position from Jones, which will be difficult due to Dhani's experience and abilities. He should get substantial playing time during the preseason to prove his worth to claim the starting spot. And if he is successful, this could become his breakout year.
Keith Rivers has become the center stone of the Bengals resurrection on defense. He finished second in tackles behind Jones last season despite missing three games with a calf injury. From his weak side linebacker position, he make plays sideline to sideline with his speed and drive. He has a great burst up field when rushing the quarterback and is relentless in pursuit of the ball carrier from the backside. As he heads into training camp, he should continue to develop his play making abilities. Expect to see him limited in playing time during preseason games as the coaching staff works to see who should be his backup.
Michael Johnson is another member of the young linebacker group that is looking to continue to build on a good season. Playing as a backup defensive end last season, he was able to increase his role as the season progressed. This season, he is listed as a linebacker as he may be a bit undersized defensive end. As he heads into training camp, expect to see him play outside linebacker as he begins the process to learn the position. He should see plenty of playing time especially against the opposition's top offense. Johnson's size and speed should make him an effective blitzing linebacker along with his penchant to deflect passes, leading the defensive line last season with five. He will have to overcome his lack of NFL experience at the position but should become part of the rotation.
Rashad Jeanty is coming into training camp recovering from a fractured fibula suffered against the Jets in the Wild Card Playoff game. He has seen limited action during off-season workouts and was expected to resume full participation in training camp. However, after being placed on the physically unable-to-perform list (PUP), his action will be limited. Despite losing his starting spot last season, he has proven to be a solid starter finishing fourth in tackles in 2008 with 97. Contending for a starting position this season is now in jeopardy unless he is moved off of the PUP list quickly, which can occur since he was placed on the PUP list prior to training camp opening. Had it occurred prior to the regular season starting, he would have had to wait six weeks before competing. Once he is cleared to play, he should be part of the rotation but not starting unless injury to another player strikes.
Brandon Johnson is in his third season with Cincinnati after coming from Arizona as a free agent. Since his arrival, he has proved himself as a worthy pickup finishing seventh in tackles last season. He initially started last season as a reserve but finished the season with nine starts. He displays good speed getting to the quarterback forcing bad passes that has lead to either interception or incompletion. Against Cleveland, his eight solo tackles contributed to the defense holding the Browns to 167 yards of total offense, fewest yards allowed since 1983. Heading into this preseason, Johnson will be vying for a starting spot and should get ample opportunity to meet that expectation. It will be a tough grid to accomplish this due to the position depth, but expect to see him often as the coaches will give him every opportunity to earn the spot.
Abdul Hodge is in his second full season with the Bengals coming from Green Bay. He played in all 16 games last season but saw limited action, mainly on special teams. His best effort came in the playoff game against the Jets with seven tackles in relief of Dhani Jones. Coming into training camp, he will look to break into the starting lineup, but will have a difficult time due to depth at the position. The coaches will give him plenty of opportunity to prove himself as a starter, but will need number of things to occur. He also has the added pressure of two rookies looking take his spot which could be his undoing.
Dan Skuta is a 2009 undrafted free agent from D-II Grand Valley State who spent much of his playing time last season on special teams. He started on the practice squad and was later signed to the regular roster in October. Skuta comes into training camp looking to make the regular season roster and not just the practice squad. Expect to see him on special teams during training camp but he may find time on the defensive side of the ball as the coaches will want to take a good look at him. Skuta will have to continue to prove himself as the rookies will be looking to take his spot.
Roddrick Muckelroy comes to the Bengals as a 2010 fourth round draft pick from Texas. While playing for the Longhorns, he led the team in tackles in 2008 and 2009 garnering All Big-12 honors each season. He showed versatility his senior season playing middle and outside linebacker as injuries warranted it. His performance at the combine can be considered average as he posted a 4.73 time in the 40-yard dash and did 19 bench presses. Coming into preseason, look for Muckelroy to spend much of his time on special teams with an occasional appearance at linebacker. The possibility exists that he could spend time as the nickel back due to his size and versatility. Roddrick may not be the fastest or the strongest linebacker on the team, he makes up for it with his play and desire on the field. He could surprise many and gain a roster spot.
Vincent Rey comes in an undrafted rookie free agent from Duke. He finished his college career ninth in school history in tackles with 330. During Dukes' Pro Day, Rey was able to show his speed with a time of 4.54 seconds in the 40, but didn't impress the scouts as he completed 20 bench presses. Like Muckelroy, he comes into training camp with hopes of landing a roster spot. Expect to see him on special teams for much of camp with little or no time on defense. If he is to make the team, he will have to use his speed on special teams to run down kick and punt returners.
The Bengals defensive coaching staff has their work cut out for them. They have to sort through a group of quality linebackers to continue to build on what they established last season. As an integral part of the defense, this group could be the biggest surprise in the NFL as they look to carry the team to heights that has never been seen or felt in Bengaldom.