It shouldn't be any surprise the Bengals' defense needs work after the 2014 season. Last season, the Bengals' defense gave up the sixth most rushing touchdowns, the ninth most first downs, and tied for the league's worst pass rush. Many fans and analysts alike tend to blame the defensive issues on the gutted defensive line, but many forget the team's lack of true starters and depth at the linebacker position played a major role in the defensive woes.
In 2014, the Bengals didn't see a single sack from a linebacker at all, despite 10 of the team's 43 total sacks in 2013 coming from linebackers. You can talk about Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap not playing up to their expectations all you want, but when there is entirely no pressure coming from your linebackers, things will be much harder on the defensive line. Furthermore, Bengals linebackers combined for 197 tackles in 2014, down from 238 in 2013. The poor tackling might explain why it looked so easy to beat the Bengals in short yardage situations on the ground last year.
2015 Free Agency:
One of the Bengals' biggest problems in 2014 was the lack of depth at linebacker. You could make the argument that Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga's injuries played a more significant role, but competitive teams are expected to account for and be able to absorb injuries to key players. Vincent Rey and Nico Johnson didn't cut it last season. Rey played well as a backup/rotational player in 2013, but was unable to translate that to his 2014 season, during which he was presented with much more responsibility.
Luckily, the team addressed the depth issue in free agency. The Bengals aren't known for going after many well-known free agents from other teams, but the price tag on former OSU/Packers star A.J. Hawk was too good to pass up. Hawk is somewhat of a hometown hero, so his presence on the roster has been well received by fans, but how much can a 31-year-old former first round pick actually help? Why don't you ask Ben Roethlisberger?
As long as he remains a backup, Hawk should contribute extremely well. As previously mentioned, the Bengals just don't have much in terms of reliable starting-caliber players behind their two established starters. Let's also not forget that Hawk should bring veteran leadership to a young LB corps that hasn't been seen in Cincinnati since 2013 from James Harrison.
The Bengals did not put as much emphasis on the linebacker position in the draft as some expected, but the selection of Paul Dawson with 99th overall pick in the draft was heralded as potentially the team's best pick of the entire draft. Initially projected as a first or second round pick, character concerns and an abysmal combine performance caused Dawson to drop all the way to the final pick of the third round.
However, in terms of fit and need, the Bengals could not have done better than to draft Dawson. One of the Bengals' biggest problems at linebacker is not having a plan at the pass defending WLB position. That's where Dawson excels. He's also well known as a very hard worker, suggesting that he's just the kind of player to break the Bengals' normal rookie mold and fill the WLB position, which the Bengals have struggled with for years.
Suggested Depth Chart:
Starter: Paul Dawson
Rotational/Backup: Emmanuel Lamur, Jayson Dimanche
Cuts: Chris Carter, Trevor Roach,
Starter: Rey Maualuga
Rotational/Backup: A.J. Hawk, Vincent Rey
Cuts: Nico Johnson
Starter: Vontaze Burfict
Rotational/Backup: Marquis Flowers, Sean Porter
Cuts: Sam Montgomery
Before training camp really kicks off and displays the talent available to the team, it seems this depth chart would make the most sense. Rey, Flowers, Lamur, Dimanche, and Porter all bring an element of potential that the team seems to really like. None of these players have proven they deserve to start for the team, but each seem to be well-liked and highly thought of by virtually every coach on the defense. Throw in the veteran leadership of Hawk to that backup corps, and you've got well molded depth that could very well absorb the injuries that are all but guaranteed to happen at some point this season.
In terms of the starters, this makeup leaves no holes in the linebacker corps. Burfict should bring his normal fire and power to the blitz, terrorizing opposing quarterbacks in the process and forcing them to throw quickly. Fans might be split on the merits of Maualuga, but his ability to stop the run helps to force opposing offenses to become one dimensional. It is a quality the team cannot afford to lose. With Paul Dawson guarding the middle of the field, opposing offenses should scarcely have an opportunity to move the ball. This is all assuming all three starters are both healthy and playing their best, but on paper it is a frightening prospect to go against for the Bengals' opponents.
With all the turmoil, it didn't help that the man who built the Bengals' LB corps, Paul Guenther, was pulled away for defensive coordinator duties last season. This year, things should calm down. That said, where does the team go from here?
- First and foremost, Bengals LB coach Matt Burke needs to instill better fundamentals in his players. Last season's injuries had a lot to do with poor tackling techniques, and likely poor warm up techniques too. Sloppy practice and play cannot continue next season if the linebackers want to make an impact.
- Paul Dawson needs to make an impact. It just cannot be overstated how important it is for the team to find a linebacker that can cover.
- R-E-L-A-X. The Bengals have the players they need to have a great LB corps in 2015. As long as the coaches do their jobs and Burfict and Dawson's character concerns don't haunt them this season, there isn't much to be worried about. Personnel wise, the team improved the secondary and defensive line significantly, so at the very least the linebackers will have some help this year.