The Cincinnati Bengals braintrust made the wise and obvious decision to put a big amount of money in the strength of their team this offseason--the defensive line. With long-term extensions to two of their core players (Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap), as well as a franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson, the Bengals put roughly $28 million of 2013 salary on those three. Throw in a couple more new contracts for Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry and they are sniffing the mid-$30 million range.
In the Mike Zimmer era, especially the past few years, the Bengals defense has relied on an excellent pass rush. The apex of that ability was shown last year, led by double-digit sack totals from Atkins and Johnson. Fresh off of new deals and the excitement of the core remaining intact, many believed that the 2013 season would surpass even last year's fearsome front.
In Week One, the group was extremely disappointing, to say the least. If Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers was MIA, then the entire Bengals front went AWOL. The entire group was unable to come up with any sacks against a rebuilding Bears offensive line and Jay Cutler was able to pick apart the defense on multiple occasions. The Bengals' "Big Three" (Atkins, Dunlap and Johnson) combined for only four quarterback hits, one pass defensed and zero tackles for loss.
Rewind back to December 23rd, 2013 when the Bengals defeated the Steelers 13-10 at Heinz Field to secure a playoff spot. While Cincinnati's offense was inept on the day, it was the defensive front that gave the team the opportunity to win. They were responsible for six of the eight total tackles for loss, all four sacks and six of the seven other quarterback hits. It was these numbers that forced two Ben Roethlisberger interceptions, including the late game-changer.
If the Bengals plan to rebound on Monday night in a huge primetime game, one of the places to start will be on their defensive front. Not only will they need to clean up the turnover mistakes that they made on offense in week one, but they will need to apply pressure to Roethlisberger and create opportunities for the secondary. The time for the "Big Three" to strike is now, especially with center Markice Pouncey out for the year with a knee injury.
As it has been said numerous times throughout the annals of NFL matchups, the key to a Bengals victory on Monday night will start in the trenches. Hopefully the defensive line feels the same way.