After the Bengals finished last in quarterback sacks last year, a major part of their offseason plan was to fortify their defensive line. Obviously, getting an even more healthy Geno Atkins in 2015 was going to help immensely, but adding old friends Michael Johnson and Pat Sims really rounded out the group. To make sure they covered all bases, versatile fourth round pick Marcus Hardison was added to the stable this year.
What has ensued is a major turnaround in multiple facets in 2015. The team is No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed, 13th against the run and ranks seventh in quarterback sacks. Carlos Dunlap has been the biggest beneficiary of the re-build up front, ranking fourth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks in 12 games played.
Dunlap actually had two sacks against Cleveland in Week 13, but one was wiped out by his grasping of Austin Davis' facemask. His counterparts, Domata Peko and Johnson had a sack apiece, with Davis under pressure most of the afternoon. In grabbing his fourth sack of the season, Peko has a new career-high in the category, while the group helped lead a defensive attack that allowed just 68 net rushing yards.
"We made sure we stopped the run. That was a big key in the game because we wanted them to be one-dimensional," Peko said after the game. "If you look at the back of his (Davis') jersey, he's going to need some wash or some bleach because it's stained. We did a good job at getting to the quarterback today."
The back seven did their job in taking advantage of the pressure applied up front, keeping most pass plays in front of them to the tune of the allowance of just 207 passing yards. Reggie Nelson secured his league-leading seventh interception and noted the importance of the plays up front. "It’s our defensive line. The front seven have been doing a good job stopping the run which makes the secondary’s job a lot easier. When they stop the run, it gives us the chance to make plays out there."
Reggie Nelson with another interception (his seventh on the season). Shesh. https://t.co/DIubnbdFM8— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 6, 2015
The two most noticeably consistent presences on Sunday were Dunlap and Atkins, though. Dunlap had a sack, numerous pressures, three tackles, a forced fumble and blocked a field goal. When others weren't frequently in Davis' lap up the middle, it was Dunlap and Johnson forcing Davis to move and make throws that bordered on miraculous, even if for short completions. On Johnson's sack, you can see both ends flying in off the edge to force a Cleveland turnover on downs.
Michael Johnson with a QB sack on fourth down. Turnover on downs!! https://t.co/GkaUu808Zx— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 6, 2015
Atkins was incredibly disruptive, though it didn't show up on the stat sheet. If assists (and we don't mean assisted tackles) were a stat in football, Atkins would be an All-Star point guard on the defensive line. Though he has eight sacks on the year, good for 6th best in the NFL and tied for first among defensive tackles, his amazing effort mostly translates to big plays for his line-mates. Atkins was dominating the Browns' interior line so much, they made three changes at guard--two because of ineffectiveness, one from injury.
A total team effort led to Cincinnati defeating the Browns, 37-3 on Sunday, but perhaps the most complete and dominant effort came from the Bengals' defensive line.