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Quarter season grades for Bengals' defense

The Bengals defense has been giving up a lot of yards, but they've also been keeping teams out of the end zone.

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They say defense wins championships, and even though the Bengals don't rank high in a lot of defensive categories, they're playing at a championship level.

That said, there are still improvements to be made with this unit. They've given up an average of over 400 total yards in their past three games. A lot of those yards have come in the final quarter as opponents tried to rally, but it's still something that keeps this unit from grading out better in our quarter-season grades.

Defensive Line: A

The return of Geno Atkins has once again put this unit among the NFL's best defensive lines. Atkins has been a force up the middle and made life miserable for opposing offenses. He alone gives this unit a good grade, but the support he's gotten from defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap makes it even better. Dunlap and Atkins have combined for 6.5 sacks this year, and Johnson just picked up his first last week in the Bengals' win over the Chiefs.

That was part of a five-sack performance the Bengals had against the Chiefs with all five coming from the defensive linemen. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of that was two of them came from defensive tackle Domata Peko. He's having a great year thus far after often being a liability at times in the past.

Overall, this unit has produced all 11 of the Bengals' sacks this year, which is the sixth most of any team. The defensive line is also a big reason why Cincinnati ranks No. 7 in run defense going into Week 5.

Linebacker: B-

While the defensive line has played great, the linebacker position has been more steady. With Vontaze Burfict out, Vinny Rey is once again stepping up and taking over the weakside linebacker spot. He'll miss some tackles here and there, but he's making the play more often than not when it's his to make. That's why he leads the team in tackles (36). His game-clinching interception against the Chargers is the only turnover a Bengals linebacker has forced this year.

This unit has also produced just two tackles for loss this year, both of which came from Rey. The other Rey (though by first name, not last), Rey Maualuga is playing well in the middle and laying some big hits while not allowing as many big plays as he has in the past. Emmanuel Lamur is decent in coverage and A.J. Hawk has been reliable in limited snaps this season.

Overall, the linebackers aren't making many big plays, but they're not allowing them either.

Cornerback: C+

While the defensive line and linebackers have been more reliable, the cornerback position has been far more erratic over the first four weeks. They had a good showing in Week 1 primarily against  backup quarterback Matt McGloin, but have struggled against Phillip Rivers, Joe Flacco and Alex Smith's receivers. Those three have combined for 84-of-121 (69%) for 989 yards (329.7 yards per game) and four touchdowns vs two interceptions.

That's a good example of bending but not breaking. The problem is Cincinnati corners have just one interception this year to go with Adam Jones' one forced fumble. Speaking of Jones, he's been playing great as he's limited whoever he's been tasked with covering while also being as a good in run support as you'll see from any corner.

Leon Hall has also been very good in the slot, but Dre Kirkpatrick, and Darqueze Dennard in limited snaps are giving up too many big plays for this team to keep winning if they keep allowing QBs to throw for 300-plus yards. You also can blame this on Cincinnati's opponents playing from behind. The Ravens played the entire fourth quarter within one score. The Chargers were within one score in all but 4:29 of the second half against Cincinnati.

Simply put, this unit has played decently, but it needs to do better against better teams like the Seahawks.

Safety: B-

While the corners have been giving up yards, the play of the safeties has kept that yardage from being too big. They've helped limit opponents to 14 20-plus yard plays and four 40-plus yard plays. That could be better, but considering how many yards are being given up, it could be worse. George Iloka being in and out of the lineup has hurt this unit, but Shawn Williams has done well stepping in for him.

Reggie Nelson looks as good as usual and has one interception this year to go with last week's critical fumble recovery that helped set up what was effectively the game-clinching touchdown against the Chiefs. Overall, the entire secondary needs to play better, but the safeties have been fairly reliable to this point.

Final report card: B

As a whole, the defense has played exactly how it's needed to play for the Bengals to stay undefeated. In fact, they're playing in a similar manner as the 2005 team did, in that they're giving up a lot of yards, but are also being very opportunistic and making big plays when they're needed most to keep opponents from scoring.

Through four games, this unit has allowed only two combined touchdowns in the first three quarters of every game. That allowed the Bengals' offense to put up enough points to take leads into the fourth quarter before putting the game away and giving Cincinnati a 4-0 start. The defense definitely needs to get better, but it's also better at this point than they were a year ago.