Offenses are always the beautiful story of a Super Bowl-bound team, but the narration always ends with an impacting defense. A Hall of Fame quarterback can't win games if he's constantly under pressure in the pocket. Receivers can't get open if they're jammed at the line of scrimmage because the crucial timing is disrupted. Play-action becomes a pointless exercise if the opposing offensive line struggles to open running lanes for the feature back. These culminates in an impressive display that leads to the collapse of a great offense. Where does Cincinnati's defense stand today and how far are they away from a Super Bowl quality unit.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Cincinnati's defensive line was the best unit with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011. Pressuring the quarterback often led to Cincinnati owning one of the league's highest three-and-out possessions in the NFL. They can rush the passer and they can sustain blockers that allows the linebackers to roam free. That's the level of talent that they do have. The result wasn't evident of that in the second half of the season last year.
In the final eight games of the season, including Cincinnati's playoff loss to the Houston Texans, the Bengals failed to limit opposing offenses to less than 100 yards rushing in all but two games. Whether it's the failure to contain the outside rush, or the gaps opening over the middle, it positively proved that Cincinnati's defensive line struggled against the run -- especially true once you integrate Pat Sims' injury into the discussion.
LINEBACKERS: Acquiring Thomas Howard over the offseason last year proved as the team's best free agent acquisition, leading the team in tackles. Though he had only half the snaps last year, Manny Lawson was as good against the run as any linebacker on the team. Of the three starting linebackers, it's argued that Rey Maualuga had the worst production, despite registering several turnovers that prevented scores or established scoring drives for Cincinnati's offense.
That being said the Bengals linebackers were hardly aggressive in the running game, their lateral movement was limited and at no point did you think to yourself how great Cincinnati's linebackers were during critical games.
Lawson will be a free agent this year. Thomas, Maualuga and Keith Rivers will be free agents next year. This team needs to find that emotional leader on defense, notably at linebacker, to take advantage of a defensive line that's good enough to do their part.
That doesn't mean the team can't improve both parts. They need a defensive lineman that plays the run better and they need a linebacker that instinctively collapses the developing point of attack. Whether those players are buried on the roster or have yet to the join the team yet remains to be seen.
SECONDARY: There's enough hope that Leon Hall will return next year after suffering a season-ending injury midway through the 2011 season. Reggie Nelson, arguably Cincinnati's best player in the secondary, will be a free agent. On the other hand Chris Crocker is aging, slowing down and as some will point out, just isn't that good. Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings didn't offer anything greater than what couldn't be found with a mid-round draft pick.
The secondary is the unit that's generally accepted as the greatest area of need.
There's a hope that guys like Robert Sands and Taylor Mays can take their development seasons in 2011, rewarding the team's patience in 2012. Even if they do generate notice and play well, it won't be enough until Cincinnati infuses the unit with more talent across the board.