2014 (opening day): Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Wallace Gilberry, Domata Peko, Robert Geathers, Margus Hunt, Brandon Thompson, Will Clarke, Christo Bilukidi
2015 (current): Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Wallace Gilberry, Will Clarke, Margus Hunt, Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Brandon Thompson, Pat Sims, Devon Still, Marcus Hardison, Kwame Geathers, Sam Montgomery, DeShawn Williams, Kalafitoni Pole.
Let's ditch the irrelevant niceties and get to the point: Cincinnati's defensive line was a source of significant disappointment in 2014. Quarterback hits, hurries, rushes, pressures and sacks exponentially declined from the previous season (and in some cases, during the course of several seasons).
The Bengals' effort against the run was better, but only slightly. In addition to allowing 116.3 yards rushing/game, which ranked 20th in the NFL, Football Outsiders struggled to compliment any component of the defensive line against the run. After being generically viewed as one of the league's best defensive lines in 2012 and 2013, it barrelled over the waterfall in a state of rapid decline.
There were reasons:
- Cincinnati failed to replicate Michael Johnson's production, after the defensive end departed for Tampa Bay, using two second-day draft picks in Margus Hunt and Will Clarke -- there is hope for Hunt but you get the feeling Clarke is taking on a greater role as a primary backup.
- Wallace Gilberry went from rotational pass rusher to three-down player, cutting into his role as a situation interior rusher, often with a fresh pair of legs.
- Geno Atkins was clearly not himself, spending the entire offseason rehabilitating from a torn ACL, suffered in October 2013.
If your favorite sports channel reproduced a "Behind the Sports" segment, similar to VH1's "Behind the Music", the Bengals defensive line might be a feature. Instead of cocaine, hookers, and bottles of Jack Daniels, Cincinnati's story examined rehabilitation hurdles, failure to plug vacant production, and suffocating loyalty to older veterans who personify character, even if it threatens liabilities.
Indeed, change has come.
Michael Johnson is back, hopefully capturing the stability Cincinnati had on the defensive line. Atkins spent the offseason training, as opposed to rehabilitating. Carlos Dunlap figures to keep improving. Gilberry resumes his rotational role. Robert Geathers is gone, giving younger players opportunities to prove themselves. Pat Sims, a serviceable run defender prior to leaving for Oakland, is back. There's an aura of excitement to see what second-year defensive end Will Clarke can do, especially after he reportedly gained 20 pounds of mass during the last year. Marcus Hardison could prove to be serviceable, especially as a pass rusher.
Whether or not Cincinnati's defensive line will be the same crew that dominated in 2012 and early in 2013, remains to be seen. Despite minimal changes and transactions, growth is favorable, at least compared to last season.