It was a depressing evening for the Cincinnati Bengals pass rush... once considered the dominating impact for this team. From '11 through '13, Cincinnati's defense generated 139 quarterback sacks -- that's 2.9 quarterback sacks/game -- and ranked in the top-ten in each of those seasons; 45 in 2011 (5th), 51 in 2012 (3rd), 43 in 2013 (10th). It was a rodeo of sacks. Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap often collapsed the edges while Geno Atkins, and sometimes a blitzer or two, pressured the quarterbacks' field of vision.
This season, with Johnson long-gone and Atkins recovering from injury, Cincinnati has compiled 13 sacks in nine games, bringing their average to 1.4 sacks/game -- or a 1.5 sack/game drip from the three-year span between '11 and '13. There are 24 NFL teams with more quarterback sacks and the Bengals are 17 shy from the league-leading Minnesota Vikings.
Those Vikings, headed by Cincinnati's former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer?
Even the pass rushes and deflections at the line of scrimmage have dipped compared to last season. Combining pressures, hits and sacks, the Bengals have 167 through nine games in '13. That number has dipped to 147 through Thursday night's loss to the Cleveland Browns. Even the amount of batted passes at the line of scrimmage has fallen from ten last season (through this time last season) to five this year.
It's not entirely surprising to see Cincinnati's defense nose-dive after Zimmer left for Minnesota. Along with Zimmer forcing his players to play up to his standard (aka, fearful of disappointing a father-figure), the team has lost pieces that haven't been replaced yet. The loss of Johnson forced Wallace Gilberry, who is strongest as a situational inside rusher, to play more. In the mean time, younger players like Margus Hunt and Will Clarke, selected in the second and third round of the 2013 and 2014 NFL draft respectively, haven't rewarded Cincinnati for their investment.
Granted, it took time for Zimmer's defense to take hold in Cincinnati -- the Bengals ranked 20th overall after nine games in 2008 with only nine sacks... NINE.. which ranked 31st. Additionally, he didn't have a particularly confident foundation -- save for guys like Leon Hall, Johnathan Joseph, and Dhani Jones. Over time, Zimmer developed names like Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, George Iloka, and helped redefine Reggie Nelson's career, which was collapsing prior to this trade to Cincinnati in 2010.
This isn't an indictment on defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who has been dealing with injuries to his core players. Burfict, the team's leading tackler and last year's Pro Bowler on defense, has had multiple concussions, a neck injury and is now rehabilitating from a knee injury that required surgery. As much as we've charted Geno Atkins' recovery and rise, he's STILL not the familiar Geno who inked a $55 million deal in September '13. And now he's dealing with a "minor" injury that's impacting his surgically repaired knee. Leon Hall is dealing with a concussion and a strained back before that.
Obviously the argument there is: Zimmer didn't have Hall and Atkins for the second half of the season, and the defense was the third-best in the NFL.
During Thursday's game against the Browns, the Bengals generated three pressures all evening and no sacks... the second time this year that Cincinnati has failed to generate a sack (the other being the five-quarter tie against the Carolina Panthers). George Iloka, with 11:34 remaining in the second quarter, blitzed off the edge to force Brian Hoyer into a poor throw that was nearly picked off by Reggie Nelson. Nelson would later blitz on third-and-seven with 1:16 remaining in the second, causing Brian Hoyer to overthrow Gary Barnidge. Both situations forced a punt. Robert Geathers was the third pressure.
But this defense doesn't.
Not now... not as it is.
Cincinnati's defense has allowed 170 yards rushing or more in three of the last six games -- which were losses to the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. Contemplate this long enough and you're thinking... significant deficits early in the game and an incapable Bengals passing game leads to a troublesome reality... an exhausted defense and a dominating time of possession from the opposition, equals, a lot of yards rushing allowed.
Yet, they also allowed 149 yards rushing to the Tennessee Titans -- who averaged 5.3 yard/rush in a game that Cincinnati won 33-7. Carolina rushed for 147 yards with a 4.3 yard/rush average. These games don't qualify the excuse that a terrible Bengals offense directly leads to a poor production on defense.
We're on the edge of calling this season a draw, a push, a playoff-less year in which the gods are tired of Cincinnati's one-and-done routine. And maybe that's what this year is pushing towards. We'd like to believe that something positive will hatch from this. We'd like not to have a defeated voice in early November, but that's what losses to the Patriots, Colts and Browns have done to us. They weren't just losses either. They were moments that should have humbled all of us, as well as the players and coaches at Paul Brown Stadium. If those lessons weren't learned, if progress isn't defined within a few weeks, then we'll be initiating discussion about the draft sooner rather than later.