Exit Interviews: Defensive Line

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals defensive line once again proved to be the strength of the team and, for the second year in a row, paved a road to the playoffs.

The 2012 Bengals were, for the second year in a row, led to the playoffs by their tenacious defense. That defense, also for the second year in a row, was anchored by the best and deepest defensive line in all of professional football. They not only were able to consistently stop the run, but they excelled in rushing the passer, both from the edge and up the middle.

The Bengals will look to rely on their defensive line once again in 2013 as their offense and secondary continue to build around talented and young players. Let's take a look back at the defensive line in 2012.

Michael Johnson

Johnson picked the right season to have a breakout year as 2012 was a contract year. Johnson racked up a career high 11.5 sacks from the defensive end position and 52 tackles. He also batted down two passes and intercepted one pass. Johnson was also good against the run, racking up a run defense score of 11.1, according to Pro Football Focus. The guys at PFF somehow gave him a pass rushing grade of -4.9. All in all, his overall grade was 10.4.

Johnson is set to enter free agency and is one of the most important players for the Bengals to re-sign. Based on his performance in the 2012 season, he has likely earned himself a nice pay raise.

Geno Atkins

Atkins is the only defensive player to make it to the pro bowl for the Bengals. He also showed the nation that he's one of the best interior defensive linemen in the entire league. Not only is he great at stopping the run, but he is an excellent pass rusher with an amazingly quick first step and great strength to move even the best offensive linemen where he wants them to go.

Atkins finished the season with 12.5 sacks, which led the team, and 53 tackles. He finished with a run defense score of 28.3 and a pass rushing score of 54.6, all for a final grade of 85.3. This score was the highest of any defensive tackle or nose tackle in the league in 2012 (by more than 50 points).

Atkins is not a free agent, but the Bengals will need to extend him before he's allowed to enter free agency after the 2013 season to ensure they don't lose one of the most talented players in the NFL.

Domata Peko

Peko has been a part of the Bengals defensive line since 2006, making him the second longest tenured player on the line and one of the longest on the defense. He started all 16 games this season but was outplayed by those around him. Peko has been solid against the run in the past, but he slipped a little in 2012. He finished with 53 tackles and two sacks with a run defense grade of -9.4 and a pass rushing grade of -0.3 for an overall score of -6.4.

Peko is signed through the 2014 season and will at least provide a healthy body to rotate in and out even if he loses his starting job in the future.

Robert Geathers

Geathers has been with the Bengals since 2004, making him the oldest and longest tenured player on the line. Like Peko, he started every game in 2012, but didn't play in the majority of the defensive snaps as Carlos Dunlap came in to take his place. Geathers finished the season with 30 tackles and three sacks. He had a run defense score of -0.2 and a pass rushing score of -16.7 for an overall grade of -13.3.

Geathers has been good against the run but isn't the pass rushing defensive end that Dunlap and Johnson are. Dunlap is clearly the future of the position as Geathers, like Johnson is entering free agency. Unlike Johnson, though, the Bengals may not be nearly as interested in bringing Geathers back to the team. If they do, it will likely be as a backup role.

Carlos Dunlap

Dunlap lit the league on fire in his rookie season when he sacked the opposing quarterback 9.5 times after only playing in 12 games. He has yet to reach that rookie total yet just as he has yet to play in every game of a season. Dunlap has struggled with injuries, especially early in the season.

Dunlap finished with 40 tackles and six sacks as well as an interception returned for a touchdown in 2012, which was good for a run defense score of 5.0 and a pass rush score of 7.7 for an overall grade of 18.1. If the Bengals choose not to re-sign Geathers, Dunlap will likely start at defensive end opposite of Johnson (if they re-sign Johnson), that is if he's healthy.

Wallace Gilberry

Gilberry was one of the surprise players of 2012. He was signed as a free agent after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cut him at the end of the preseason and he ended up playing in 15 games, including the team's playoff game in Houston. As time went on in the season, his playing time increased as well.

Gilberry finished the year with 24 tackles and 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries, including one he returned for a touchdown agains the Eagles. Gilberry finished with a run defense score of 2.8 and a pass rush score of -1.0 for a final grade of 3.5. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent and the Bengals may want to bring him back in 2013 to keep the depth on the defensive line.

Pat Sims

Sims only played in eight games this season after he started the season on the PUP list. This was the third season in a row that he didn't play in all 16 regular-season games and often his presence is missed on the line as he's known for his ability to stop the run. Sims finished the season with 17 tackles and an interception. His play earned him a run defense score of 2.0 and a pass rush score of -2.0 for a total score of -0.1. Sims is set to be an unrestricted free agent once the season comes to an end. The Benglas may choose to re-sign him depending on his health and how they feel he helps the team. Personally, I wouldn't mind the added depth, especially if Sims is healthy.

Devon Still

Still was selected by the Bengals in the second round out of Penn State to provide even more depth on the line. Many were surprised that he wasn't selected early and even more were happy with the Bengals' pick. He played in eight games, racking up 14 tackles and 0.5 sacks. Still is extremely talented and his role on the team will likely increase as he gets more experience at the NFL level. He finished with a run defense score of 0.6 and a pass rush score of -0.8 for an overall grade of 0.6.

Jamaal Anderson

Anderson was signed before the season and played in the team's first two games before tearing a quad tendon in Week 2, ending his season. Anderson finished with three tackles, a run defense score of -1.1 and a pass rush score of -2.0 for an overall grade of -2.8. He is signed for the 2013 season and is undoubtedly looking for a larger role. If he's healthy and if the Bengals plan to keep him, it could be an excuse to let Geathers walk.

Brandon Thompson

Thompson was selected by the Bengals in the third round of the draft out of Clemson. Like Still, many were happy with the signing as more depth on the line is never a bad thing, especially when it strengthens the biggest strength of the team. He only played in Weeks 1, 2 and 4 in 2012. He finished with one tackle, a run defense grade of 0.7, a pass rush score of 0.0 and a total overall grade of 1.1.

Thompson, like Still, will likely work his way into the lineup more as he gains more experience.

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The Bengals defensive line was the strength of the team in 2012 and considering the youth that has yet to even break into the lineup. However, the Bengals must re-sign some of their free agents, especially Michael Johnson. If they make the right moves, the defensive line will continue to be the strength of the team in the future.

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