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Bengals' defensive ends remain an opinion with two schools of thought

Cincinnati's situation at defensive end could come be surmised in two schools of thought that's encapsulated within one question. While there's good players who have made impressive plays, is there enough at the position to really make a difference on a consistent basis? Frostee Rucker, Robert Geathers, Antwan Odom and Jonathan Fanene have each shown signs of brilliance. They've also shown the frightening habit of disappearing at times. Mike Zimmer made note of that:

“We’ve been good against the run the last two years. We don’t want to lose that but I think we have to take a fine line now,” Zimmer said. “With the trends in the league being more throwing I don’t see that changing. We’ve got to be more effective in the passing game and turnovers.”

Joe Reedy observed that "the pass rush struggled over the last four games They had five sacks but all of those came in blitz situations."

While Zimmer would like to see an improvement in sacks, he would also like to see more consistent disruption of the quarterback from hitting him while he’s throwing to making passes in spots where he is not anticipating coverage or making him hold on to the ball too long.

So we addressed that the team has said that they need to improve on their pass rushing, as well as the overall ability to pick up more turnovers. So where are we at?

Robert Geathers, a player that's rated as one of the game's better defensive ends against the rush, is victim of having a monster contract. After recording a career-high 10.5 quarterback sacks in 2006, Geathers was awarded a six-year $33.75 million contract. He followed that impressive campaign with 9.5 quarterbacks sacks in the 42 games since signing that deal. If you take away his 10.5 quarterback sacks in 2006, his career best is 3.5 sacks in 2009, 2007 and 2004. Granted, playing defensive end is more than just quarterback sacks. And we acknowledge that Geathers is strong defending against the run. Pro Football Focus ranks Geathers inside the top ten when ranking defensive ends against the run. However, his contributions against the run is often overlooked because defensive ends with pricey contracts are expected to sack the quarterback.

Antwan Odom is another defensive end richly rewarded by the Bengals after one good season. After recording eight sacks with the Tennessee Titans in 2007, the Bengals signed Odom to a five-year deal worth $29.5 million. His first year with the Bengals, Odom recorded three quarterback sacks. Then last year, Odom went ballistic, recording seven sacks in the Bengals first two games of the season, including five against Green Bay. Alright. Alright. Most of his sacks came against a backup playing left tackle after Chad Clifton went down to injury. But you know what? A sack is a sack and five sacks is damn impressive. He was go on to finish the season recording one sack in his final four games before sustaining a season-ending injury against the Houston Texans. And yes, durability is a question with Odom.

While mostly a backup utility defensive lineman, playing at tackle and on the end, Jonathan Fanene turned out to be a quality pass rusher and a good run defender. After Odom was injured, Fanene stepped up in his role, finishing the season as the team's starting right defensive end. Combined Fanene and Odom finished the season with 14 quarterback sacks. Not a bad combination, I would say. Against the Steelers on September 27, Fanene and Roy Williams jammed Willie Parker at the line of scrimmage on third-and-one, forcing the Steelers into a field goal. The second time Fanene played the Steelers, he recorded a quarterback sack on third-and-five from the Bengals eight-yard line forcing the Steelers to kick a field goal. Oh, and Fanene did return an interception for a touchdown. Not bad, son. Not bad at all.

And while Frostee Rucker's pedigree isn't too shabby, his sample size is dramatically reduced. Even though he played in 12 games in 2009, Rucker, the winner of a two-year contract extension earlier in the week, recorded an interception on a pass deflection against the Steelers. He led the entire defensive line against the Ravens on November eight with four tackles and is credited with several third down stops throughout the season. He's the type of defensive end that can step in and still be somewhat effective.

Then there's Michael Johnson, last year's third-round pick, playing in all 16 games on the season recording three quarterback sacks. He led all defensive linemen with five pass deflections at the line of scrimmage, including the defection that was intercepted by Fanene against the Detroit Lions leading to a touchdown. His late quarterback sack alongside Fanene, against the Baltimore Ravens in early November, sealed the Bengals win and his late fourth quarter quarterback pressure on Ben Roethlisberger forced an errant pass and also sealed another win. If there's such a thing as upside, I believe Johnson's is limitless. He could be the team's best defensive end, if not overall talent, as soon as this year.

Quarterback sacks in 2009
Game the Bengals recorded one quarterback sack or less: 6
Games the Bengals recorded three quarterback sacks or more: 10
Quarterback sacks through the first eight games: 21
Quarterback sacks through the last eight games: 13

With all of that said, you can see why I'm sitting on the fence of this argument. Yes, the talent they have right now is sufficient enough to maintain what they did last year. Yes, they could always improve with talented defensive ends in the NFL Draft, or even a guy like Alex Brown who was recently released by the Chicago Bears. Either way, both arguments work.