The Bengals defense in 2014 is going to have a little different look than the past couple of years, which isn't all bad, but I think the areas of strength are moving around a bit. Just a few things in my opinion on what to look for.
Reasons to be excited:
1. New look in the LB core
Vontaze Burflict is back and will be coming into prime years. Not sure I would trade him for any other backer in the NFL... but I am excited to see Lamur back on the field, since there was so much excitement about him coming into last year, and also more of Vinny Rey. I was very impressed with him last year when he replaced Rey.
With Lamur and Rey on the field, along with Burflict, our coverage skills and versatility at LB should be as good as any Bengal defense ever.. Rey will see snaps primarily in run downs... and hopefully someone else like a Dimanche, Joiner, or Porter can surprise and contribute as well.... but with the new DC Guenther being a linebacker coach, hopefully he can best use the rotation and put them in best positions to succeed.
I am really excited to see this unit, might wind up the best on the entire Defense.
2. A healthier secondary with a new face than at end of last year
In the playoff loss to San Diego, we were minus our two best CB's (Hall and Newman). Also, in the 2011 playoff loss to Houston, we were without Hall, and lined up with Clements and Jones as starting CB's.... if Hall can progress through the season like he did in 2012 as he recovered from Achilles, and either Newman stays healthy, Dre steps up, or Dennard is the real deal, then the Bengals on paper, will have a much better CB core coming down the stretch than any recent season.
Also, I was impressed with Mays coming along last year. Another year of development from Ileoka. Don't know much about Manning coming over from Houston.... health of the CB's is always the most fragile on Bengals year in and year out it seems, but given average health, the depth is greater than in years past.
3. A more efficient offense will help the defense
The Bengals turned the ball over 30 times in the regular season, and 4 more in the playoff game. That is way too high, and with Hue Jackson in charge, he's already stated his main goal is to better take care of the ball, whether it is through running more, or just more efficient play calling.
Fewer turnovers will put the defense in better spots to succeed... if you look at the losses last year (3 turnovers at Chicago), (4 turnovers at Miami), (3 turnovers at Baltimore ), (minus-2 turnovers at Cleveland), and of course, the playoff against San Diego (minus 4 turnovers).
That was minus-11 turnovers in the six losses. No way the Bengals will turn the ball over 34 times in 17 games like last year, at least in my opinion.
Reasons for concern
1. What is going to be the end game for the Defensive Line
This could wind up being an area of strength, but right now, there is a lot of unknown. Is Geno Atkins going to be the same player in 2014? Or is it going to take him a year to get his explosion back.... No more MJ, so is Magnus Hunt ready for a bigger load? Does Geathers have anything left? Is Peko on the serious decline? Will Devon Still ever be healthy and productive? Will Dunlap have to play too many snaps to compensate and get worn down?
I was very concerned late in the year against Pitt and San Diego losses, when those teams ran the ball so effectively on 1st downs, the Bengals were unable to get a push at the QB, and unable to force 3rd and longs (turnover downs). They've got to be able to stop the run, they couldn't in those two losses, and as a result, only forced 1 turnover combined in the 2 games. I am very concerned about the Bengals not having enough at DT if Atkins can not go, or is a shell of previous self.
2. No more Zimmer
I honestly don't know how much of a factor this is going to be, but it is an unknown.... the players loved and responded to Zimmer (at least by most accounts). Will Guenther be able to have the same voice and respect? It will be his first time in the big chair on Sundays.
3. Injuries, injuries, injuries--- odds and ends.
This could go for any team in the NFL, and every team will have them... but certain key guys can not be replaced.... of course Geno Atkins being the main one, but also Hall.
Newman is another year older, and last time he didn't have Zimmer in his ear, he fell apart in Dallas when Zim left.... obviously can not afford to lose Burflict or Dunlap either. Dre will probably get carried off a few times this year, but I'm not as worried about that this year if Dennard is the real deal.