To those who think that last year's Bengals defense was an anomaly that will suffer a letdown this season, think again. In Mike Zimmer's third year with Cincinnati, this group is ready to reach new heights as they collectively enter their prime. That said, it will nonetheless be a new defense in many ways, as the wisest men in football know that to remain static is to be left behind. So then, the question becomes, in what ways will it be different?The most logical place to start would be the new guys on defense; the best part being that there aren’t many. Even though scheme and style should always evolve, keeping the same personnel is vital to group dynamics and trust amongst the team. Looking from the outside in, one could tell that not only had the players bought into Zimmer, they bought into each other. A good example of that is how well the backups played last season. We hear Marvin Lewis tell his players to "do your job", and that is easier done when they trust that their teammates will do the same.
Yet, like every year, there are some new rookies. The first and most exciting prospect on defense is, of course, Carlos Dunlap. This is a player who once had first-round pick written all over him. Then questions arose concerning his work ethic and enthusiasm for the game and his stock dropped. This formula typically equates to landing with the Bengals since they are always on the hunt for a bargain. So here is Dunlap; a long defensive end who is expected to arrive to camp weighing upwards of 290 pounds. Unless he amazes his coaches this July and August, he isn't likely to start over Antwan Odom or Robert Geathers ,but if his pass-rushing potential shows itself even a little, we should see plenty of Dunlap on passing downs.
Then there is Geno Atkins—a squat defensive tackle who is said to have an explosive first step and is often disruptive in the backfield. Atkins joins an already quality tackle rotation, and the more fat guys a defensive line has, the better.
Lastly are the two new corners, Brandon Ghee and Adam Jones. Both men will be involved in an interesting nickel-back competition that also should include Morgan Trent. Ghee is a bigger corner and the idea of someday moving him to free safety has been bantered around. But like most rookies, he has much to learn before he can be relied upon. Jones, while not a rookie, is something close to it; crawling back to the game, relegated to the cheap contract of a nomadic and out-of-work player. He too needs to prove to the world, but more importantly to the team, that he can be trusted on the field and off.
Aside from the new acquisitions, the most interesting fresh develop of note is Zimmer's decision to move former defensive end, Michael Johnson, to outside linebacker. To the casual fan, this seems vaguely interesting at best, but to the keen observer, this is a move that could transform this defense into a 3-4, but I don't see it happening in the short-term.
If you look around the league, you might notice how rare the 4-3 defense has become. Every year there seems to be more and more converts to the 3-4, as teams try and imitate the Pittsburghs and Baltimores of the world. Zimmer and the Bengals have rejected the trend, sticking with the old-fashioned four linemen and three linebacker defensive set, but Johnson is the quintessential outside linebacker for the 3-4, so why not take the thought further and build that kind of defense for the Bengals?
If MJ is pushed to the outside, that moves Rey Maualuga to the middle where many fans—including myself—would like to see him end up anyway. That leaves Dhani Jones as the other middle linebacker and Keith Rivers as the weakside linebacker. Johnson can rush the passer and running back on the strong side, Rey and Dhani can shoot gaps and stuff the run up the middle, and Rivers can clean up on the weak-side once plays are forced into that direction. That all sounds pretty exciting to me.
Still, if you're going to run a 3-4, you need more than the right linebackers, you need the right linemen too, and this is where the theory breaks down in my opinion.
A 3-4 line should be composed of three men close to, or over, 300 pounds, whose primary objective is to stop the run and free up rushing lanes for the linebackers. They should also have pass-rush ability themselves, but their girth is more important than their moves to the quarterback.
The middle man of these three should be the largest and anything below, say, 320 pounds, probably won't do. The optimal nose-tackle should be of silver-back gorilla stature and athleticism—though tree-climbing isn't necessary. While Domata Peko certainly appears as something enormous and wild, Pat Sims, Geno Atkins and Tank Johnson are more standard 4-3 tackles, and it takes more than one gorilla to make a band.
As for the ends, the girth doesn't seem there either. Odom added weight last year and listed at 280, but that isn't big enough to take on interior linemen on a regular basis, nor is the similarly weighted Geathers. Dunlap may become big enough to pull it off, and Jonathan Fanene seems like a good fit in a 3-4, but the starters make too much money to not play to their strengths.
Perhaps Zimmer could mix in some 3-4 looks on passing downs to utilize Johnson more effectively and to see if the other guys can hold up in that formation, but I wouldn't expect any radical change.
I do think the Bengals will blitz more in 2010 though. Accumulating more sacks was mentioned by both Zimmer and Marvin a number of times this offseason. Employing many pass-rushers and rotating them in as the game progresses can be a relentless weapon against fatigued offensive lines; Steve Spagnulo's front four with the New York Giants a few years back comes to mind as an example of how devastating a deep line can be. Cincinnati certainly has the corners to leave alone in space which allows safety and linebacker blitzes to unfold more easily.
They also have players who have demonstrated an ability to rack up sacks. If Odom can return to last year's form after coming back from an Achilles injury, Geathers would benefit from the attention Odom would then command. If Rey doesn't have to cover as often, he can blow up quarterbacks like we saw early last season.
If the pass-rush gets stouter, the secondary should get more picks. If the team generates more turnovers, they should win more games. It's one big equation that is undoubtedly scribbled within Zimmer's office somewhere.
Yet the biggest factor in the equation, once more, is trust. Blitzing is risky business, and everyone has to trust it will work or the whole thing is doomed from the start. The Bengals return every single starter on defense, plus every worthwhile backup from last year's impressive squad. They proved to themselves they could dominate, and they shocked many people in the process (I'm looking at you AFC North).
So while the defense will at times "feel" different and, in all likelihood, will be even better this season, it's still the same guys doing what they do: buying into the system.
Mojokong—save the polar bears.