The Bengals defense took a step backwards in 2010 from where they were in 2009. That isn't to say that they were bad last season, but they weren't good. They were just... meh.
In 2009, the Bengals defense finished the regular season with a No. 4 ranking, allowing only 301.4 yards per game. They allowed only 203.1 yards per game through the air (No. 6) and 98.3 yards per game on the ground (No. 7). They were good.
Then in 2010 the Benglas defense dropped out of the top-five and fell all the way down to No. 15 in total defense, allowing 332 yards per game. They allowed 216.8 passing yards per game (No. 14) and 115.2 rushing yards per game (No. 19). See... just meh.
Meh might get it done in some divisions but not in the AFC North, especially when your offense can't move the ball down the field. The Bengals still have most of the pieces to the puzzle in place to be successful again in 2011, but they need to make some specific moves to seal the deal on the defensive line, at the linebacker positions and in the secondary.
Here's what they should do.
Here's where the Bengals could save some money to use later on. Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom are due a combined $8 million in 2011. They are by far the highest paid players on the defensive line. They have also done less for the team than players who haven't broken the $1 million mark yet. Geathers finally played a full season in 2010 but didn't play to the level of his paycheck. Odom spent most of the season on the bench because of a nasty combination of injuries and a suspension.
Even though the Bengals didn't draft a defensive lineman in 2011, specifically a defensive end, the first thing that should be done is to release both Geathers and Odom, saving some of that money. Yes, that leaves the team fairly inexperienced at the end position, especially considering that Carlos Dunalp has never started a single game in his career, but I still think he should be the starter and play opposite of the other starting end, Michael Johnson. Defensive line coach Jay Hayes stated during the Senior Bowl that Dunlap could start in 2011saying, "There's no doubt he'll do it right." He broke the rookie sack record last year and has earned the starting job in 2011. Johnson and Dunlap make a good team. They're both fast around the edge and many of the sacks that Dunlap had in 2011 were because the quarterback was flushed from the pocket by Johnson. There's your two defensive ends: quarterbacks beware.
When it comes to the interior defensive line, Domata Peko, who led all defensive linemen in tackled in 2010 with 24, should get one of the starting jobs. The other starting job should go to Pat Sims, as long as he learns not to jump offsides on fourth-and-one. During obvious passing situations, Geno Atkins should make his way on the field to add some pressure on the quarterback from the middle.
They Bengals should also work to re-sign Jonathan Fanene, who can play any position on the line if people start to get hurt.
Starting Defensive Line:
DE: Dunlap DT: Peko DT: Sims DE: Johnson
DE: Dunlap DT: Atkins DT: Sims DE: Johnson
Last year, the three linebackers, Dhani Jones, Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga led the Bengals in tackles in that order. Now Jones is a free agent and Maualuga is primed to move to the middle linebacker position, where he has belonged all along anyway. But, that leaves one of the outside linebacker positions open.
Here's who the Bengals will have on their roster to fill that spot: Roddrick Muckelroy, Vincent Rey and Dontay Moch (Dan Skuta is an exclusive rights free agent). Unfortunately, neither Muckelroy, Rey nor Moch have the experience that I would like a starting outside linebacker to have. That's why in my opinion, the Bengals need to do one of two things.
Thing one: re-sign Brandon Johnson
Johnson has been a Bengals backup linebacker for three years and has played for both Maualuga and Rivers at either outside linebacker position and done a bang-up job when he did. Last season, Johnson started in only three games but played in all 16. In that time, he racked up 38 tackles, a sack and an interception. If they re-sign Johnson, Maualuga could move to the middle linebacker position, where he belongs and Johnson and Rivers could play outside.
Thing two: re-sign Dhani Jones
Dhani Jones has been pretty amazing as the Bengals middle linebacker. Not only does he seem to just be an awesome guy, he has led the team in tackles since 2008 and he's been an extension of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer out on the field. If they re-sign him, there's no doubt in my mind that he'd be successful. Maualuga would move back to outside linebacker and they could still think about re-signing Johnson as a backup again, though I'm thinking he'd rather go somewhere where he can start.
Personally, I like Thing One, not because I want Jones gone, but because I think it's important for Maualuga to move to the middle where he belongs.
OLB: Keith Rivers MLB: Rey Maualuga OLB: Brandon Johnson
Pass Rush Situation:
OLB: Keith Rivers MLB: Rey Maualuga OLB: Dontay Moch
This is the biggest no brainer area of the defense. We all can agree that the Bengals should re-sign Johnathan Joseph to start opposite of Leon Hall. They can then use Adam Jones when they call in extra defensive backs in the nickel formation.
At safety, it's a different story. Marvin Lewis has said that he fully expects his starting safeties will be Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson at the start of the 2011 season, mainly because of their lack of other options, but it wouldn't surprise me if rookie Robert Sands eventually gives them a run for their money some time in the season. While I think Crocker, Nelson and Sands will be the main guys for the safety position, the Bengals will need to sign another safety if the injury bug starts biting.
CB: Leon Hall SS: Reggie Nelson FS: Chris Crocker CB: Johnathan Joseph
CB: Leon Hall CB: Adam Jones SS: Reggie Nelson FS: Chris Crocker CB: Johnathan Joseph
So, in my humble opinion, here would be the Benglas ideal starting base defense:
SS: Reggie Nelson FS: Chris Crocker
CB: Leon Hall CB: Johnathan Joseph
OLB: Keith Rivers MLB: Rey Maualuga OLB: Brandon Johnson
DE: Michael Johnson DT: Domata Peko DT: Pat Sims DE: Carlos Dunlap
What do you think?