This year, the Bengals defensive unit was one of the best we've seen in a few seasons. With defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer signing a three year deal in 2010, several draft picks playing up to their potential (Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins), and significant free agent contributions from Manny Lawson and Nate Clements, the Bengals finished with the 7th ranked defense in the NFL.
One key contributor to that ranking, who was also a free agent acquisition this past off-season, was Outside Linebacker, Thomas Howard. Howard, in a recent interview with Pro Football Weekly, praised the front seven of the Bengals defense along with the "Pro Bowl talent" on the offensive side of the ball.
Howard played in all 16 games this season, with 15 starts, and led the team in tackles with 99 (64 solo). At the Superbowl this past week, Howard lauded the defensive line ("so many great, young, talented guys"), as well as Mike Zimmer and the rest of the Bengals defensive coaches:
"They understand defense. I knew coming here I would become a better player[.]"
Howard's 99 tackles are the most he has recorded in a season since his rookie year (110) and he is coming off of a down year with the Raiders where he played in 12 games, but was not a starter in any of them, and had only 9 tackles on the season.
His positive attitude is warmly welcomed in Cincinnati and Howard goes on to state that not only is the defense getting better but the offense is also, and will be playing at a high level for a long time.
"I definitely want to improve and be better for my team next year, because we're just scratching the surface right now of our potential. We have young Pro Bowl talent on offense — (QB) Andy (Dalton), (TE) Jermaine (Gresham), (WR) A.J. (Green). They're going to be good for a long time, and I'm excited (about) it."
Thomas Howard was drafted in the second round (no. 38 overall) by the Oakland Raiders in 2006. Howard accumulated 320 tackles in 62 games with the Raiders and led all NFL LB's in 2008 with six interceptions (2 TD's) and 11 passes defended. Howard is coming into a contract year with the Bengals and, with another productive year, could put himself in line for an extension from the team, who will need as much help as they can get at the linebacker position because of injuries and several draft picks not panning out.