The Bengals scored big by re-signing defensive end Michael Johnson last weekend.
While Johnson's one-year hiatus in Tampa was one to forget, his impact in Cincinnati cannot be forgotten. He was part of a defensive line that dominated the rest of the NFL, and the Bengals brought him back in hopes that they could reclaim that dominance.
By no means was Johnson the only reason why Cincinnati's defense was so good though. Coley Harvey did a nice breakdown on how Johnson's impact was ultimately a piece to the puzzle that was the Bengals' defensive line, which few teams could solve in 2012:
If they double-teamed Atkins, they ran the risk of allowing Johnson or Dunlap to be blocked by a tackle. The same could be said if it was Johnson or Dunlap getting doubled. Some other lineman would come free as a result. Timely blitzes also freed up the linemen, helping them regularly get into the backfield.
The Bengals are banking on the same results now that Johnson is back. They took a little gamble signing him, since he hasn't been as productive the past two seasons as he was in 2012. Part of his issue last season was injuries, including a high-ankle sprain at the start of the year that limited his ability to explode off the line and turn the corner toward the quarterback.
2012 was the year Cincinnati racked up 51 sacks, 38.5 of which came from the defensive line. Not only was that Johnson's best year as a pro, but Geno Atkins' as well. He notched 12.5 sacks that year before tearing his ACL in 2013. He frequently commanded double teams that left Johnson on an island with one lineman who could barely block him.
When teams tried to focus on both Atkins and Johnson, that often left the other with an easy path to the quarterback. As Geoff Hobson notes, it was Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers who ultimately were the ones exposed without having a guy like Johnson to take attention off them.
With Johnson gone last season, Geathers and end/tackle Wallace Gilberry played more than they have in the past. In ’12 and ’13, Gilberry had a combined 14 sacks on 836 snaps. Last year he had 1.5 sacks in 840 plays, so this should be a huge lift for him.
In the end, no one player is going to make the Bengals defensive line dominant again. It's going to take a combined effort from everyone, including Atkins reclaiming his pre-ACL tear form and Johnson adding the extra pass-rushing threat that was lacking last year.
In the end, Johnson himself may not be what makes the Bengals' pass-rush dominant again, but combined with Atkins being healthy and the continued development of Will Clarke and Margus Hunt, there's reason to be optimistic heading into 2015.