Through three games, the Cincinnati Bengals' defense has been atrocious, allowing 102 points (30th in the league) and 1,250 yards (29th). The good news is that with these kind of numbers, Bengals fans don't have to worry about losing defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to a head coaching job any time soon. The bad news is that they can also kiss any hope of the playoffs, much less a Super Bowl appearance, goodbye.
Blame for the poor start has been heaped upon the linebackers and secondary, with MLB Rey Maualuga taking especially heavy fire. That criticism is deserved, yet begs the question of why the back seven, basically unchanged versus last year except for the recent loss of LB Thomas Howard, suddenly look like what a bear leaves behind in the woods.
To answer a question with a question: what was the strength of the defense in 2011? The defensive line rotation. More than any of us might have suspected, last year's d-line covered up a multitude of weaknesses behind it. This year, the line isn't doing nearly as thorough a job.
The culprits are the new additions to the line who were signed or drafted to replace losses in free agency. The Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots raided the Bengals' roster for DEs Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene, and DT Pat Sims, who ended last season injured, lingered on the market until being re-signed and PUP'd late.
In their place, the Bengals brought in DE Jamaal Anderson (now replaced by DE Wallace Gilberry after Anderson was lost for the year) and drafted DTs Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. But their production has yet to match the players they replaced.
In the first three games last season, Rucker, Fanene and Sims combined for 19 tackles, 5 assists and 3 sacks. The "core five" -- Michael Johnson, Domato Peko, Robert Geathers, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap -- had 30 tackles, 10 assists and 3 sacks in those contests, for a grand total of 59 tackles, 15 assists and 6 sacks.
The production of the core five has been comparable in 2012: 22 tackles, 12 assists and 8 sacks. But the combination of Anderson, Gilberry, Still and Thompson has managed just 4 tackles and 4 assists. That's a total of 26/16/8.
This isn't to say that the Bengals ought to have tried to top Cleveland's offer for Rucker, or New England's offer to Fanene. And they did re-sign Sims, he's just not healthy. But it is to say that their attempts to fill their holes in the line have not succeeded so far. And that's a big part of why the rest of the defense suddenly looks bad. They were only as good as the d-line in front of them, and with that diminished they're getting exposed.
There are reasons for optimism. Sims can come off PUP after week 6, and the Bengals need him badly. Dontay Moch, who can play both LB and DE, comes back from a league-imposed suspension after the Jaguars game. And Still and Thompson will almost certainly get better. But for now, the best defense remains a good offense.
And it's pretty awesome that we seem to have one, eh? Whodey!