Remember last season's No.7 ranked Bengals defense? With this year's unit performing so poorly, it seems like the distant past. Currently ranked at No.29 overall, Mike Zimmer's once-proud group is a shadow of itself, giving up an average of 416.7 yards per game and 102 total points through three weeks. Yikes.
There's a lot of reasons why this is happening. Our own Dave Wellman talked about the defensive line issues on Wednesday in an outstanding breakdown. This post looks at the bigger picture, namely that the unit isn't getting many turnovers. The result is the hurting of the team's chances to put some of these games away where they've had significant leads. In consecutive weeks, the Bengals have held 14 and 17-point leads through the middle portion of the game and have squandered those generous leads that the offense has provided.
The first and most obvious is injuries. Carlos Dunlap missed the first two games with a sprained knee, Thomas Howard is gone for the year, Pat Sims is on the PUP List, and first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick is looking like he won't be back until after the bye week. We witnessed Dunlap's effect on the defense when he finally returned last Sunday for the game against the Redskins. He had a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery--all on one play--and had multiple pressures. Dunlap also freed up Michael Johnson for Johnson's own three sack performance on the day. We haven't even counted the injuries to Brandon Ghee and Shaun Prater, as well as the suspension to Dontay Moch. If you'll recall, both Moch and Ghee were having impressive camps before they became unavailable.
One could also point to the inability of the team to fill voids left by free agent departures. They lost a Pro Bowl cornerback in Johnathan Joseph and have attempted to replace him with aging former first rounders. Furthermore, the man they decided to keep and pay instead of Joseph, Leon Hall, has had two injuries (one major one and a current minor hamstring issue) and other on-field struggles since Joseph left for Houston. Nate Clements filled in adequately in 2011, but he has been part of a secondary that has been victimized heavily through the first few weeks in 2012. Up front, Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene left for Cleveland and New England, respectively, and took their 10.5 sacks from 2011 with them. The team tried to replace them with Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson, but both didn't stick because of ineffectiveness and/or injury.
While those two factors are the main contributors to the defense's poor start, the symptom of it is an overall lack of turnovers. In 2005, the Bengals rode an amazing offense and an opportunistic defense to a division title. Though they gave up a huge amount of points and yards, they averaged multiple turnovers per game and that's what made life easy for the star-studded offense. In short, they were a "bend but don't break" unit back then. They're just plain breaking so far in 2012.
In case you haven't noticed, the Bengals defense has only forced two turnovers this year. A forced fumble against Browns tight end Alex Smith and Dunlap's sack/strip/recovery were the only two turnovers. The back seven has not had any interceptions, though they've had a number of opportunities--particularly in the first game versus the Ravens. This is uncharacteristic of the Bengals defense, particularly those under Zimmer's watch. Though they weren't a ballhawking unit last season, they made their share of impact plays that helped the team. Where did it start? Up front with the pass rush and the ability to stop the run.
The defense will need to ramp up it's pass rush up front to force some more errant throws from the opposition. Really, the last two victories would not have been anywhere as close as the final result showed had they made more turnovers. The fact that two rookie quarterbacks combined for five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) and no turnovers is downright mind-blowing. If not for the heroic efforts of Andy Dalton and the rest of the offense, this team could be staring at 0-3.
My fear is that the run defense won't improve until Sims returns. As Dave touched on on Wednesday, the team just doesn't have another big body that's built to primarily stop the run on the roster as it currently stands. I'm not sure how much better the team will be in this aspect until we see the big guy return to the lineup. They'll have to hope that the two rookie defensive tackles grow up fast and that the linebacker corps re-learns how to tackle, otherwise we'll continue to see backs running wild.
Zimmer is a master of changing schemes and creating matchup problems for offenses. Unfortunately, be it because of the above-mentioned issues of injuries and/or a poor free agent strategy by the club, he hasn't been able to come up with the right combination yet this season. Really, this unit can only improve at this point, but they'll need to get these issues cleaned up before the gauntlet of the second half of the season hits them. Otherwise, this promising start could begin to look grim by November.