Robert Geathers at right DE. Devon Still at 3-tech DT. Domata Peko at NT. Will Clarke at left DE. This was just one of the many defensive line combinations that the Bengals trotted out against the Steelers on Sunday.
The only play of the game during which these four were on the D-line together was on the first snap of the fourth quarter. On this lone play, Le'Veon Bell had a 53-yard run.
@JoeGoodberry DL on big run on opening play of 4th was Clarke-Peko-Still-Geathers, how is that possible?— DanK (@ERPTCommish) December 7, 2014
In complete seriousness, can you think of a single worse four-man defensive front that has played a down in the entire NFL this season? For any team? I'm still searching for an answer other than "no."
The Bengals D-line was thoroughly dominated by a fairly mediocre Steelers O-line and surrendered 235 all-purpose yards to Le'Veon Bell. According to Pro Football Focus, the team has a -21.9 run defense grade in 2014, sixth-worst in the league. In addition, the pass rush generated only 1 QB hit and 0 sacks on Ben Roethlisberger. Over the last 5 games combined, the Bengals have recorded just two sacks, 1.5 by Carlos Dunlap and 0.5 by Geno Atkins. According to PFF, the Bengals have a -50.3 pass-rush grade in 2014, worst in the NFL and the second-worst of any team since the start of the 2008 season...and there are still three games left to "achieve" the worst.
Robert Geathers is literally the worst-graded defensive end in the NFL, according to PFF. He provided some help against the run in the past, but at this point in his career he is a negative player in that game. In the pass rush, he provides virtually no pressure. It is cringe-worthy to watch his use at right DE (or hilariously, outside LB - what is Paul Guenther thinking?) and his lumbering attempts to rush the passer, before getting stonewalled by the offensive tackle with no trouble.
Domata Peko is literally the worst-graded defensive tackle in the NFL, according to PFF. Among all DT's, not just NT's. He provides virtually no pass-rush, and is remarkably bad in the run game. Since the beginning of 2013, Peko has seen a steady decline. This seemed to culminate in the Wild Card playoff game against San Diego, in which a backup C (Rich Ohrnberger) totally manhandled him. Peko was a key reason why the Bengals gave up 196 rushing yards in that game. But that wasn't the end of it - his poor play has continued into this season. Le'Veon Bell is arguably the best back in the NFL. However, the Steelers' current O-line is generally rated as mediocre, and much of Bell's success has come in spite of the O-line in front of him. That makes Bell all the more impressive. But it's no excuse for Peko to get dominated by a mediocre O-line and allow anyone to gain 235 all-purpose yards. Beyond that, it was not a pretty sight to watch the results of Guenther attempting to use the plodding Peko in pass-rushing schemes.
Devon Still has been an inspiration at times for the team. However, his subpar play, especially for a second-round pick, leaves much to be desired. Like Peko, he is consistently beaten like a drum at the line of scrimmage and provides overall negative play in both the run game and the pass-rush. Remember, had the Bengals not mismanaged Christo Bilukidi and Kevin Vickerson, then Still would not have been on the 53-man roster in the first place.
Will Clarke is only a third-round rookie, so not too much can be expected of him. However, it doesn't help his case that he had literally the worst PFF grade among all 4-3 DE's in the NFL in the preseason. Other than a nice stop in his debut, at New Orleans, he has been a ghost on the field despite receiving fairly significant playing time.
After a preseason in which he feasted on third- and fourth-string offensive tackles who didn't make NFL rosters, Margus Hunt came crashing back to earth. In hindsight, his preseason was utter fool's gold. This season, he has rarely seen the field, and when he has, he has played poorly with negative contribution. Currently, he has an injured ankle. As each week passes, Hunt moves closer to being a major bust for being a second-round pick, if he is not one already. Both Hunt and Clarke are typical developmental D-line picks by the Bengals who have not yet come close to panning out.
Beyond that, things get a little brighter. Brandon Thompson is an okay run-stuffing DT and NT who is a relatively decent return for a third-round pick. It would make sense to re-sign him on a modest deal. Wallace Gilberry's sack totals are down, but he is still a solid interior and outside pass-rusher who is in the top-two on the team in both QB hurries and QB hits. Like Thompson, Gilberry is best suited in a backup rotational role. Geno Atkins is a clearly above-average DT who is inching closer to his former elite status as he continues to shake off the rust from last season's gruesome injury. Carlos Dunlap is the team's best pass-rusher (at least until Atkins is 100%), and a fixture at DE.
That leaves a very good starting left DE, a very good starting 3-tech DT, one solid rotational pass-rusher, and one average rotational run-stuffer. Everyone else is frankly a downright bad defensive lineman at this point. So how should the Bengals go about improving this?
First: Look for decently productive free agent D-linemen in the period between the end of the 2014 season and the 2015 draft. The Bengals struck gold with Wallace Gilberry in 2012, but we shouldn't expect that to happen again. However, players similar to Bilukidi and Vickerson will be realistically available on the market at a low-risk price. These players aren't world-beaters by any means, but they are likely upgrades to a handful of the D-linemen the Bengals currently have. The Bengals have a long list of players at many positions they will want to re-sign (not all, but quite a few) who'll be free agents in 2015 or 2016, so they will certainly not be targeting any high-profile free agents. Not that they likely would anyway.
Second: Cut their losses with Geathers and Peko. These two players are awfully ineffective on the field. They supposedly provide leadership, but it certainly doesn't show in the defense's play throughout this season. That is to say, either it is overrated or it doesn't even exist. Even if they do provide strong leadership, does that make up for the fact that they are respectively PFF's worst DE and DT in the entire league? Their current contracts hang around their necks like albatrosses, such that their combined salaries are worth more than Justin Smith's with the 49ers. For any Bengals fan, it hurts to read that sentence. Letting them go early would free up some extra cap space. The team was willing to cut veteran presence BenJarvus Green-Ellis before the final year of his deal, to give way to a couple of young high-round picks. Might they be willing to do the same for Geathers and/or Peko at the end of 2015 preseason or before? First, we'll have to see what happens in the draft. Speaking of...
Third: Draft a DT and a DE in rounds 1-4, and at least one of them in rounds 1-2, if not both. The Bengals will have little excuse to avoid doing this, because they will likely have two extra picks in rounds 3-4 for the free agency losses of Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins. If the Bengals do this, then the chances of Geathers and/or Peko being released go up. If they are not willing to, then Geathers and Peko will certainly be Bengals at least through 2015. They should try to avoid raw developmental players a la Hunt, because they have a poor recent history of developing them. Certainly, the later rounds should be looked at as well, because the team shouldn't be afraid to triple- or quadruple-dip at D-line. And the Bengals should gobble up as many undrafted D-linemen as they can for the 90-man roster, in case someone pans out.
Fourth: Put Still, Hunt, and Clarke on the edge of the 53-man roster bubble for 2015. By fulfilling steps one and three above, the team will have good competition for roster spots. Hunt and Clarke have "practice squad" written all over them. It is fine that the team is being patient with those two, but not to the point that they are undeservedly taking up valuable roster spots that ought to go to better, immediately-ready D-linemen who could be effective on the field. There's a reason the practice squad exists. As for Still, he will be a free agent after 2014 and not PS-eligible. Even if he is re-signed to a non-guaranteed deal, it will be make-or-break for the 53. For all of these three, just because they were fairly high draft picks doesn't mean they should have a leg up on anything.
The team has many needs heading into the 2015 offseason, including OT, WR, TE, CB, and LB. OT is a fairly high-priority need, but Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith are under contract for at least another year, and are among the best at their position (the polar opposite of Geathers and Peko) and do not really require depth behind them (unlike D-linemen). Yes, the team should look to draft an OT fairly high to groom for the future. But at D-line, the team needs to immediately replace the two worst players at that position in the league, as well as acquire depth that would certainly be put to use. So to me, the top overall need is at D-line.