It's been a long time since the Cincinnati Bengals have had anything that might resemble a fearsome defensive front. The last couple of years have been about one thing and one thing only from a defensive point of view: the cornerbacks covering up for a lack of pass rush. In 2006 and 2007 the Bengals spent high draft picks on Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall respectively. Joseph has, in particular been a dominant force on defense. Over the last three years the Bengals 3-10 in games where Joseph did not play and though we can't blame the Bengal's 10 game skid last year solely on his absence, we can be sure that it didn't help. With Leon Hall anchoring the other side of the field, opposing offenses have been forced to go to third options like TEs, RBs and screen plays in order to pick up yards through the air.
However with Free Agency looming over Joseph's head and a battered and oft-inured secondary behind him, there's a good chance that the Bengals secondary won't live up to it's lock-down reputation of the past few seasons.
But don't worry, if the defensive plays up to their potential, they will more than make up for any deficiencies in the secondary. Top to bottom, the Bengals corps of linebackers and D-lineman look about as stout as it has looked in years.
Here are just a couple of reasons why we should be expecting great things from this unit next year:Linebackers
Without a doubt the team has some questions about their linebackers going into next season. Dhani Jones and Brandon Johnson are both free agents. Jones has been the teams leading tackler over the last three years, amassing 237 of them. And Johnson has been a playmaking third down specialist who always seems to be in the right spot in big moments.
Rey Maualuga was never good at covering RBs in the flats, nor did he ever looked completely comfortable as the OLB. However, if Rey Maualuga moves to his old college position as the middle linebacker, he'll be free to roam around and become the big hitter he was born to be. Taking his place as the outside linebacker is the Bengals third round pick Dontay Moch (at least on third down situations) where the team hopes to generate a pass rush that it's never had before from that spot. And ever present and reliable on the weak side is Keith Rivers. Roddrick Muckelroy and Dan Skuta have also proved to be capable backups and special teams players. And if the team signs one or both of their FA linebackers, expect a solid rotation.
The Fisher Price Kids
This is the group that should have Bengals fans licking their chops as these young players get ready to serve us up a juicy portion of quarterback steaks. It starts with Carlos Dunlap who was on fire at the end of last year - piling on 9.5 sacks from weeks 10-17. Give him a full 16 game season and there's no telling what he's capable of.
It doesn't stop with Dunlap however. Geno Atkins proved to be one of the best pass rushing DTs in the league last year, racking up 3 sacks while only playing in only 35% of the teams snaps. Pat Sims, who is perhaps the least talked about player of the group, pulled out 2.5 sacks in only eight starts, and Michael Johnson also came in with 2.5 sacks.
It's not however, the individual stats that impress the most. It's that if you look at the last 5 games of the season - the games where these four guys got the majority of their snaps and actually played together - they compiled 12.5 sacks. To put that into perspective, if you averaged that number out over 16 games, those four guys alone would have compiled 40 sacks - a number that would have tied them for 8th most in the league by any entire team (not just the defensive front line). Add Moch into that mix, and the Bengals could potentially have a lethal pass rush next year.
So are the Bengals going to have a changing of the guard in 2011? It's hard to say until we learn Jonathan Joseph's fate. However, we'll have to watch out for the defensive front seven, 'cause they are coming up fast.