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[Bengals Training Camp Preview] Defensive Tackles

Somewhat lost in the hype which surrounds the Bengals defense is the play of the tackles. Writers love to chit-chat about the super cornerback tandem and the flashy-named linebackers, or, when criticized, it's usually about the aged safeties and the perceived lackluster defensive ends that are brought to the conversation. Yet the run-plugging, trench-eating defensive tackle rotation is literally a huge part of Mike Zimmer's success, and is quietly one of the more interesting training camp battles to take place this week.

When we say "training camp battle", it becomes a bit misleading when referring to the defensive tackle position. More than perhaps any other spot on the field, tackles are rotated because they are big and they get winded easily. Therefore, just because two men line up with the other starters on the game's first play, does not mean that they will end up with more snaps than the other defensive tackles on the sideline. Also, all three contributing tackles for the Bengals last year missed some time with injuries, so depth at the position appears more valuable than two clear-cut starters. Luckily, the Bengals have exactly that.

Domata Peko
Height: 6-3
Weight: 320
Age: 25
Exp: 5
College: Michigan State
2009
Games Total Tackles Solo Ast Sacks P Def
11 31 12 11 0 1

The most high profile of the tackles is the giant American Samoan who resembles a wooly mammoth in pads: Domata Peko. It impossible to dislike this guy. Not only does he display maximum effort on every play—clearly evidenced by his fluffy main flopping around all the time—but he is always smiling. During the offseason, Peko, Rey Maualuga, and Johnathan Fanene, returned to American Samoa to donate football gear to the youngsters there, and, he gave my brother his game jersey and four tickets to the game, just for being nice to him. How can you not like this guy?

Aside from being a cool person, the behemoth can play too. His forte is getting low and clogging running lanes on first and second-downs. Last season, he was often subbed out on passing downs to allow a better pass-rusher to get after the quarterback, and recorded zero sacks last season in the process, but many times, simply being large caused running backs to bounce to the outside for minimal gains. While only getting credited with 23 tackles, Peko played a major role in stopping the run for the Bengals defense with his size and aggression up the middle.

The concern with Peko, however, is that he missed five games last season with a knee injury. He underwent surgery but returned after the operation and he is presumably expected to be fine coming into camp. Nonetheless, 300-pounders with knee problems is not a good equation for long and productive careers, but for now he is still a beast against the run and I don't expect anything different this year.

Tank Johnson
Height: 6-3
Weight: 315
Age: 28
Exp: 7
College: Washington
2009
Games Total Tackles Solo Ast Sacks P Def
14 29 16 13 2 1

For more of a pass-rushing tackle, I give you the indefatigable Tank Johnson. Tough, gritty and impervious to rust, Tank trudged along and produced well last season despite dealing with the nagging plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Tank only recorded two sack , but he was the best on the team at jumping the snap and flushing quarterbacks out of the pocket (and occasionally being called for offsides as a result). He is still very strong, doesn't complain and is another one of "Zimmer's Boys" brought in from the outside to rejoin his old coordinator. He has earned his veteran status in the league and is another gruff character opposing offensive lines grow tired of dealing with by the fourth quarter. As long as Tank rolls along on two good wheels, he can be a disruptive pass-rusher on throwing downs.

Pat Sims
Height: 6-2
Weight: 325
Age: 24
Exp: 3
College: Auburn

2009
Games Total Tackles Solo Ast Sacks P Def
14 29 16 13 2 1

The most stealthy of the herd, yet still extremely large, is Pat Sims. Many Bengal fans may not realize that Sims finished with more tackles than Peko or Tank last season with 34. He broke his forearm during the Week 17 blowout loss to the Jets and missed the wild-card game, but broken bones are easier to heal than problematic knee ligaments or plantar fasciitis. Sims, in my opinion, was the best player in last year's preseason, and I allowed my expectations of him to swell a bit because of the excellent showing, but just because he wasn't a pro-bowler doesn't mean he wasn't an effective player. With his forearm mended, he should jump back into the rotation at full-force and improve both individually and the group as a whole.

 

Geno Atkins
Height: 6-1
Weight: 290
Age: 22
Exp: R
College: Georgia

Then there is the new beef, rookie Geno Atkins. I admittedly haven't seen Big Geno in action much, but his scouting report lists that he has an explosive first step and that he plays with low-pad level—an attribute that Marvin Lewis holds close to his heart. Assuming these reports are even somewhat accurate, the squat and round Atkins can be a fourth set of trunk-like legs to mix in once the others begin to tire. Employing handfuls of defensive linemen and working each one into the game is a trend the Bengals seem to follow with the addition of Atkins and others. I'm excited to see Geno go to work.

Orien Harris
Height: 6-3
Weight: 308
Age: 37
Exp: 3
College: Miami (Fla.)

2009
Games Total Tackles Solo Ast Sacks P Def
4 7 5 2 0 0

Finally, the last name listed in the defensive tackle spot is Orien Harris. I will always remember Orien as the man we traded away to obtain Brian Leonard, only to pick him up again later in the season. Say what you will about the Bengal front-office deals, but the one involving Harris and Leonard was a stroke of brilliance. Harris simply adds more fresh meat to the position should a crop of injuries spring up there again this season. He has never really done anything all that noteworthy on the field, but he does have some game experience and isn't bad for a scrap-heap pick up.

As you can see, the defensive tackle position's strength is its quantity. Four out of the five listed here are likely to make the final cut and each should certainly see action on Sundays, while the fifth seems destined for the practice squad. An improved pass rush from this position is what both Zimmer and Lewis would like to see unfold beginning this camp, but even if they match last year's production, the entire defense will continue to be a force.

Mojokong—when feeding the defensive tackles, always maintain a safe distance away from them.