Michael Johnson, Robert Geathers, and Wallace Gilberry are all free agents. Should the Bengals re-sign them? And just how good are Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins?
First of all, this report wouldn't have been possible without the numbers provided by Pro Football Focus. PFF records snap counts and pass rush productivity beyond just the sack numbers, allowing for this analysis.
The Bengals used ten defensive linemen in the regular season of 2012. In reality, it was always a rotation of seven players on gameday, with usually three defensive tackles and four defensive ends. While the Bengals let some of their linebackers and defensive backs play every snap, the Bengals never let their defensive linemen play more than 80% of the defense's total snaps in a game. This rotation is what gives the Bengals defense that extra edge late in games, and it has become a trademark of Mike Zimmer's defense.
With this rotation, the production of the backups is more crucial than it is on other teams. Players like Jamaal Anderson and Wallace Gilberry get the opportunity to step up and play significant snaps. Jamaal Anderson, however, suffered a season-ending injury in week two. His snaps (mostly at left end) were filled when Carlos Dunlap returned from injury in week three. Wallace Gilberry was signed just before week three, and his snaps steadily increased from only 15% of team snaps in the first half of the season to 46% in the playoff game. Rookie defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson each got playing time early in the season, but Thompson's last snap was in week four, and Still was completely replaced by Pat Sims when Sims came back healthy in week ten. The rest, Michael Johnson, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins, and Robert Geathers all contributed regularly throughout the season.
Now, onto the productivity numbers. I created three new metrics - sack rate, QB hit rate, and QB hurry rate.
|Player Name||Pass Rush Snaps||Total Snaps||Pass Rush %||PFF Pass Rush Rating||Sacks/PRSnap*||Hits/PRSnap*||Hur/PRSnap*|
*These metrics refer to QB sacks, hits, and hurries respectively. Each number is divided by total pass rushing snaps, then multiplied by 100. This gives the average number of sacks/hit/hurries per 100 pass rush snaps. For some perspective, J.J. Watt led the league this year with 20.5 sacks, and he averaged 3.35 sacks per 100 rush snaps.
+ How They Were Used: Firstly, you can see that the Bengals essentially used only six players as pass rushers all year. Pat Sims and Devon Still also got their feet wet, while Jamaal Anderson and Brandon Thompson barely even have enough snaps to qualify.
Though Robert Geathers 'started' every game this season at left end, Carlos Dunlap played far more in the last half of the season. In the wildcard game, Dunlap played 67% of the total defensive snaps, while Geathers played only 38%. Domata Peko (72%), Geno Atkins (77%), and Michael Johnson (65%) were the other significant players in the wildcard game. Wallace Gilberry (46%) and Pat Sims (30%) rounded out the rotation. These percentage numbers should be viewed as the current benchmark for how Coach Zimmer likes to use his linemen.
When the Bengals want to put their best four pass rushers on the field, they put Carlos Dunlap at left end, Michael Johnson at right end, Geno Atkins inside, and either Domata Peko or Robert Geathers at the other inside spot. The team will also use Geathers to give Dunlap a break, but this occurred less and less as the year went on. Similarly, they use Wallace Gilberry to give Johnson a break, and this occurred more and more as the year went on.
At defensive tackle, Domata Peko, Devon Still, and Pat Sims each spent more time in run defense than they did getting after the quarterback. Geno Atkins, on the other hand, was rushing the quarterback on 65% of his snaps. Devon Still was viewed as a pass rusher while he played at Penn State, and he'll get that chance to rush the quarterback more next year if the team chooses not to re-sign Pat Sims. Peko, the veteran and locker room leader, is usually great in run defense and very good at sniffing out screens. His pass rush presence, though, is almost non-existent. Peko can't get push against the constant double teams he faces, so he stays back and keeps the quarterback in front of him. This strategy has value against quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger, who often evades pressure and steps up in the pocket.
+ The Productivity Numbers: Geno Atkins' pass rush numbers jump off the page. He averaged 2.85 sacks per 100 pass rush snaps, which is absurd for an inside player. His PFF pass rush rating (+54.7) is best in the league for defensive tackles, and second place (Ndomakong Suh, +29.6) isn't even close. He tied for sixth in the league in sacks (12.5) and finished third in the league in total QB hurries, behind only Denver's Von Miller and St. Louis' Chris Long.
The perfection from Geno Atkins helps put some of these other metrics in perspective. For example, you start to realize the impact that Wallace Gilberry had when you see that he finished the season averaging more sacks per snap (3.35) than Geno Atkins (2.88). In fact, Gilberry even tied the sack rate of J.J. Watt. Gilberry's 6.5 sacks in only 209 pass rush snaps were very, very impressive and show that he finishes and hustles hard.
Michael Johnson finished with 11.5 sacks this season, a career high by far. His 2.30 sacks per 100 snaps is very solid and just below some of the best pass rushers in the league.
Domata Peko (.89) and Robert Geathers (1.00) have low numbers here, as expected.
Perhaps the most alarming number in the chart is Carlos Dunlap's sack rate. Only a 1.18, which came from a measly five sacks in 424 pass rush attempts. Dunlap simply isn't finishing. His QB hit rate (3.30), though, was the best on the team (and that means better than Geno Atkins). Dunlap's QB hurry rate (8.02) places him in elite company, only slightly behind Geno Atkins and better than some of the league's best pass rushers. Thirty three players in the league have more than 30 QB hurries, and the Bengals have three of them - Atkins (53), Johnson (34), and Dunlap (34).
So, what's up with Dunlap? He needs to finish better. Dunlap has reached the quarterback too many times to only have 5 sacks to show for it. Only three other players in the league also have more than thirty hurries and less than six sacks.
+ Free Agency Perspective: Overall, the table points to the importance of fixing the defensive end position through either the draft or free agency. With Michael Johnson, Wallace Gilberry, and Robert Geathers all entering free agency, the team is left with only two proven pass rushers under contract - Atkins and Dunlap. The rest are either run stuffers (Peko, Anderson) or young, inexperienced players (Still, Thompson).
If the Bengals choose not to re-sign Michael Johnson, they lose 70% of the the team's pass rush snaps at right end. Additionally, Johnson became extremely stout in run defense this year. His PFF run defense rating of +11.1 was second on the team only to Geno Atkins. The Bengals certainly can't afford to let Johnson go.
Robert Geathers accounted for 40 percent of the team's pass rush snaps at left end this year, and he also kicked over to defensive tackle and and right defensive end. If the team moves on from Geathers, they will need to find someone who can match his versatility, and his strength and leverage in run defense. But, Geathers didn't provide much of anything in pass rush, and he lost playing time as the year went on.
Wallace Gilberry was one of the most underrated players on the team last year. Signed as an backup plan when Anderson went down for the year, Gilberry absolutely exceeded expectations. He got after the quarterback, held his own in run defense, and wasn't called for any penalties. His play on the field should definitely earn a new contract with the team this year.
The team could choose not to re-sign Robert Geathers, therefore allowing Carlos Dunlap to slip into the starting lineup. Then, the perfect spot opens up for a young, talented defensive end to step in and take 10 to 40 percent of the snaps on the left side in his rookie year.
Whatever happens, it is clear that the Bengals have a gaping hole at their defensive end position at this current time.