The Bengals are at the halfway point of the 2012 season and they are on the outside of the playoffs looking in with a 3-5 record. They have now lost four games in a row and they still have the toughest part of their schedule to go with teams like the Giants, Steelers, Ravens and Chargers to go and likely tough matchups against the Cowboys and Eagles as well. At this point, it's easy to see how they could finish with a 5-11 or 6-10 record. However, there's still some hope that they can pull themselves up and finish the season in a way that would at least be respectable.
We've already graded the offense through this point of the season, and now it's time of the defense, but before we do, here are some important stats.
Yards Allowed Per Game: 357.4 (20th)
Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 240.4 (19th)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 117 (17th)
Average Points Allowed: 27.2 (25th)
Interceptions: 5 (24th)
Forced Fumbles: 11 (9th)
Sacks: 23 (10th)
The defensive line has been the strength of the Bengals defense for the last couple seasons. However, after last year, the Bengals lost depth when Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker left for larger roles with different teams. The Bengals did bring in talented players in the draft and in free agency, though. Still, the biggest name on the defensive line continues to be Geno Atkins, who leads the team in sacks from the defensive tackle position with seven, and has continued to improve against the run. He is not only too quick for most offensive lineman, but he has also proven to be much too powerful.
Along with Atkins, Michael Johnson is having what some would call a break out year. He has racked up six sacks, which is tied with the most he's had in a single season (2011). He has also been pretty solid against the run and is earning a pretty decent paycheck next year since this is a contract season. The other defensive end, Carlos Dunlap, who was considered the Bengals' best edge rusher coming into this season has only racked up one sack, though, and is just being used in passing situations as Robert Geathers is starting opposite of Michael Johnson.
The defensive line continues to be the strength of the Bengals defense, but not in the way it was in 2011. The unit isn't quite as dominant and have, at times, given up large chunks of yardage to running backs and failed to put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. There are times, though, where they look like they did a year ago.
The Bengals linebackers have struggled this year, mostly in the middle. Rey Maualuga has been a disappointment since replace Dhani Jones at MIKE. He is out of position more often than not, he struggles when it comes to shedding blocks and for every good play he makes, there are two or three where he isn't in the right place or misses a tackle. He has been, by far, the most inconsistent player on the Bengals defense and perhaps on the whole team.
At SAM is Manny Lawson, who was re-signed after playing well last season. He has 22 tackles on the year and a sack. He hasn't been bad but he also hasn't necessarily been good. It isn't always a good thing when you just kind of forget about a player even though he's been on the field for the majority of the time.
The one bright spot when it comes to the linebackers is rookie SAM backer Vontaze Burfict. Burfict has one of the better stories in the NFL, of which I'm assuming all of you know by now. He has not only been good, he's been consistently good. He is constantly in the right place at the right time, he gets fired up, he hasn't made many mistakes, and while there's room for improvement (he struggles at getting off blocks at times), he is also third on the team in tackles with 54 and one sack even though he didn't start in the first two games. His best game came against the Steelers when he totals 15 tackles including a couple for loss. He plays hard, he has a natural nose for the ball and he also hits hard. Perhaps the best thing about his is the fact that if Maualuga doesn't work out in the middle, Burfict might.
Coming into this season, Bengals fans figured it would likely be Leon Hall starting opposite of rookie first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick at cornerback. However, after Kirkpatrick's preseason injury, it has been Hall along side the aging veterans: Nate Clements or Terence Newman. Newman has taken the vast majority of the snaps while there was an experiment of moving Clements to strong safety. Hall has bounced back nicely from his season-ending Achilles injury from last year and Newman hasn't been terrible as he's made some decent plays from time to time, but it's also obvious that he has lost a step or two.
At safety, Reggie Nelson, re-signed after having a great season in 2011, has struggled at times in pass protection and the original starting strong safety, Taylor Mays, was so bad that, in the end, the Bengals were forced to re-sign Chris Crocker to play the position. Strong safety has been a position that the Bengals have neglected in the draft and in free agency for a long time and they are paying for it once again.
The secondary has likely been the weak point of the defense, but it isn't the worst in the league by a long shot. It probably couldn't be considered any more than mediocre, though.
Overall the Bengals defense isn't what it was in 2011 despite upgrades at certain positions. Many believe that Mike Zimmer isn't all he's cracked up to be, but I don't believe that's the case. I think there are a few players at very key positions that need to be replaced and I think the secondary needs an overhaul. If that can happen in the offseason, the Bengals defense should bounce right back.
Overall grade: C