In recent years, the Bengals defensive line has become one of the better units in the entire NFL. You already know most of the names responsible: there's Geno Atkins, the unstoppable block of granite; Carlos Dunlap, the quarterback-eating sequoia; Michael Johnson, the newly-minted sack artist with freeway on-ramps for arms. And behind the big three there are even more names. Domata Peko, Wallace Gilberry, and Robert Geathers have all played a major part in the line's success, and youngsters like Devon Still and Brandon Thompson waiting in the wings to add their own talent to the mix as well. But there is also one other person who is equally responsible for the unit's resurgence.
Former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton.
When Thornton arrived as one of Marvin Lewis' first free agent signings back in 2003, the Bengals were last in the league in points surrendered and the defense lacked leadership. They were a unit in chaos, largely held together by baling twine. While Thornton was never a true stand-out player for Cincinnati, his solid, unrelenting style of play and his veteran leadership helped to turn the tide in the locker room, changing the culture into a close-knit, team-first atmosphere that is still around today.
Speaking to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, Geathers concurred, saying this about Thornton.
"He was instrumental in my career," Geathers says. "J.T. was always there for the young guys. Open to anyone that wanted to be helped. In each room there are guys that have done it the right way and know how to do it and be able to bring a guy along that has respect for the game, that’s our way of giving back to the game. Helping these young guys like a Geno Atkins, who could possibly be a Hall of Famer. I'll do what I can to help him. Guys like me and Peko … and then it gets passed on."
During his time in Cincinnati, Thornton was essentially an extension of the coaching staff. He took young players under his wing and instilled in them the lessons that allowed him to enjoy a fruitful, decade-long career. And now, even though he's been out of the locker room for almost five years, his lessons still live on.
"One of the things John instilled in our guys was getting in on tackles down the field, running to the ball and getting a tackle downfield past the line of scrimmage," Hayes says. "You also want to get TFLs and sacks and stuff like that, but he really started the hustle plays in the room. When you see Domata running to the ball and (Geathers) running to the ball, it's because John used to have a spot on the board. He used to keep track of who got on a tackle down the field. He would keep track of it on the board in the room and that is something that permeated through the room. Eleven years later that is still here. Now it's like second nature. It's expected."
Expected, and now passed on to the next generation.
Atkins, Dunlap, and Johnson might be responsible for the high level of play that has catapulted the Bengals to back-to-back playoff appearances, but it was John Thornton who set them on the path to success almost ten years ago. He might not be the most high-profile player of the Marvin Lewis era, but his presence is still being felt.