While the defense played well enough to finish the season with a top-10 ranking and the defensive line was the strength of the team, the secondary was the team's Achilles heel. The Bengals struggled to stop teams from passing on them at times and once Leon Hall went down with a season-ending Achilles injury and players like Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings were thrust into the spotlight, they secondary struggled even more, especially against top receivers.
Below are the grades for each of the team's cornerbacks and the unit as a whole.
Nate Clements: Clements started and played in every game this season except for one. He started opposite of Hall early in the season and then, after hall went to IR, he started opposite of Adam Jones. Clements, despite his age, played fairly well in 2011. He was especially good in run support, earning a score of 4.7, but was a liability in coverage at times, earning a pass coverage score of -5.7. Clements had an overall grade of -0.2 in 2011, which was decent but fell far short from what Johnathan Joseph could have scored (Joseph had a grade of 11.8 with a pass coverage score of 10.8 by the way).
Leon Hall: Hall played in the team's first nine games before he was placed on IR with an ankle injury. He was pretty much the exact opposite from Clements when he was on the field. Hall struggled in run support, earning a score of -1.8, but was better in pass protection with a grade of 2.0. His overall score was 1.4 and it was clear that the team missed him badly once he was gone.
Adam Jones: Jones missed the first half of the season recovering from the neck injury he suffered in 2010 but once Hall was placed on IR, Jones was made the starting cornerback opposite from Clements. This was the first time that Jones was asked to start at cornerback week in and week out since the 2008 season and through the rest of the season he struggled at times. Jones had a run support grade of -1.7 and a pass coverage grade of 0.3 for an overall grade of -2.4. Plays such as Andre Johnson's touchdown in the playoff game stand out as a testament to Jones' struggles covering good receivers.
Kelly Jennings: The Bengals traded for Jennings, a former first-round pick, before the season and hoped to use him as the team's third cornerback in passing situations. Unfortunately for the Bengals, Jennings struggled throughout the season, especially in pass coverage, which left them high and dry when Hall was injured. He had a run support score of -0.4 and a pass coverage score of -6.6 for an overall grade of -5.2.
Brandon Ghee: Ghee only played two defensive plays in Week 15 and didn't accumulate any stats. He did earn a -0.5 special teams score.
Rico Murray: Murray only played in one game this season, which was against the Browns in Week 1 and made one special teams tackle.
Jennings, Jones and Murray are all three free agents and there are no guarantees that Hall will be ready to go when the 2012 season starts and on top of all that, Clements can be a liability in coverage. There is no question that the Bengals need to address the cornerback position in the draft. If they don't, they would be really hurting themselves defensively. It's a passing league and the Bengals need a way to defend the pass. I expect them to use one of their first-round picks to grab a cornerback.
For their play in 2011, the Bengals cornerbacks earn a grade of D.
What grade would you give them?