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Debate: Will the Bengals' defense be more dominant than ever?

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The Bengals' defense saw a significant decline last year, in part due to injuries and the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Now, with key players getting healthy and new additions (including some familiar faces), can Cincinnati bounce back and be a force to be reckoned with on defense?

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

After a rough 2014 campaign in which injuries ravaged the Bengals' roster, Vontaze Burfict and the defense look to return to their 2013 form. That year, the Bengals totaled 43 sacks and ranked third in yards allowed. Last year, they dropped to the 22nd overall defense and only recorded 20 sacks. Now, second-year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther looks to have a fully-rehabbed Geno Atkins to go along with an eventually healthy Burfict. Cincinnati also welcomes home defensive end Michael Johnson. But will the return of these key players and other new additions mean the Bengals will be back to dominating the opposition? This is the topic of the latest episode of "Sorry If I Spit When I Speak":

It is also the topic of the following debate between myself and my co-host, Dr. Hodgie "the Electric" Smodgie:

Who dey think gonna’ score on these Bengals?

Things won’t be much different in 2015

Dadio W. McDuck

Dr. Hodgie E. Smodgie

The Cincinnati defense is about to surprise a lot of people by returning to its 2013 form. In fact, I think the Bengals will be even better than they were in 2013.

Last year was a tough one for Cincinnati’s defense. The Bengals lost defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, as well as a number of key players due to injuries and free agency.

Michael Johnson left for Tampa Bay and Geno Atkins was still rehabbing an ACL injury. Predictably, the team struggled. The Bengals went from third in overall defense in 2013 to 20th last year. And their sack total dropped from 43 to 20.

Why should 2015 be any different?

Paul Guenther, the second year defensive coordinator, will have a lot more talent to work with this year. The defensive line, a weak point last year, will be a strength in 2015 with the return of Johnson and a now fully-rehabbed Atkins. Johnson’s contributions cannot be measured in mere sack totals. In 2013, he defended nine passes, tops for defensive linemen, including J.J. Watt. He is also strong against the run. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of +16.3 in 2013, his last year with the Bengals.

And the sacks will come for Atkins. He actually had 33 quarterback hurries last year, fourth most of any defensive tackle. And he’s reportedly looked like his old self this offseason. I expect more of those hurries to translate to sacks this year.

It should also be mentioned Pat Sims’ return could mean Domata Peko, who has struggled the last two years, may see the field less. And, Marcus Hardison, the rookie from Arizona State, is fast, talented and provides quality depth.

As for our linebackers, Vontaze Burfict should be back at some point. His impact cannot be understated. Burfict is a tackling machine and the Bengals' best linebacker in coverage. If he is to miss any time, A.J. Hawk should be able to hold down the fort. And P.J. Dawson, the rookie out of TCU, may even be NFL-ready enough to see some action and wreak havoc Vontaze-style.

Now here’s where I want to make a bold statement: I think Cincinnati’s defense in 2015 could be stronger than it ever was in the Zimmer era. This is because the Bengals now boast an unrivaled blend of youthful talent and solid veterans. Above I mentioned our defensive line and linebackers. But it is in the secondary that I think we will see a big difference this year.

The 36-year-old Terence Newman played admirably for the Bengals. But his lack of speed and athleticism were becoming an issue. Turning the keys over to Dre Kirkpatrick and, hopefully, Darqueze Dennard is exactly what this team needs for the defensive backfield to go from opportunistic unit that feeds off the pass rush (as was the case in 2013) to ball-hawking playmakers in 2015. But the best part is that those young guys will also have Adam Jones and Leon Hall to lean on if they occasionally experience growing pains.

The Bengals were already the best against short passes last year, according to Football Outsiders, and also the best against teams’ No. 1 option. However, they were ranked 10th against deep passes. You can expect that ranking to go up with the youth movement going on in Cincinnati.

The return of the pass rush combined with an athletic and talented secondary should translate to a lot of big plays for the Bengals’ defense in 2015. Expect 40-50 sacks again and another 20-plus interceptions.

So yes, I expect Cincinnati’s defense to be one of the very best and to dominate opponents.

Let me just begin by saying, I love reunions. High school reunions, family reunions, or even when I get back together with my old Omnivores Anonymous pals. But in sports, reunions don’t usually go as planned.

Remember last year how the Dallas Mavericks brought back Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea from their 2011 championship team? Well, they lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs. And the Oakland Raiders brought back Charles Woodson. They proceeded to go 3-13. In auto-racing, there’s of course Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005), starring Lindsay Lohan. Need I say more?

In sports, reunions usually happen when players get older or get cut. So they’re not exactly the star players they were when they originally left. And the Bengals’ defensive reunion is no different.

Defensive end Michael Johnson got cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a reason. He struggled with injuries and production last year, so much so a 2-14 team was ready to take a $7 million cap hit just to be rid of him.

Pat Sims is not going to put us over the top. A.J. Hawk, I get it, he’s from Ohio. Great... for him. But,I don’t think any other team would have given him the chance to play.

And let’s not forget, the Bengals love to re-sign their own players and refuse to cut them even when they stop producing. Rey Maualuga got a three-year $15 million deal for being the second worst linebacker in the NFL against the pass, and the sixth worst against the run. And Domata Peko will make $3.7 million this year, despite being the 80th best defensive tackle overall, according to Pro Football Focus. What other team would keep these guys around? Peko is like that lazy cousin your mom feels obliged to invite to Thanksgiving who never helps with the dishes but wants the biggest piece of pumpkin pie.

But who cares about production, right? We need to make our reunion complete! I’m sorry, but is this a family or a football team?

Football needs to be cold, serious business. In movies, the lady who owns her own bakery and goes against big business wins the day. Despite the odds. In real life, however, the devil wears Prada--not Tyler and Jenn’s homemade accessories. You get it?

The Bengals seem to be living in a 1980’s sports movie. In real life, NFL players don’t belong to "families" of football teams. They belong to one of two groups: Winners or losers.

If the Bengals want to be in the former category, they need to seek out players who produce on the field, not ones who will make their teammates feel all warm and cuddly. You know who gets this concept? Oh, the 2014 Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots.

In 2013, the Patriots let Wes Welker walk, even though he is the franchise’s leader in career receptions and second in receiving yards. Then, in 2014, they traded six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. This past offseason, they declined an option on Vince Wilfork,  who went to five Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls with the Patriots. They also declined an option on Darrelle Revis, who was arguably the best cornerback in the game last year and a big reason they won it all.

But you know what? New England fans aren’t worried. They know their dark-hearted, cutthroat head coach, Bill Belichick will put together an even better team and they'll be in title contention until he resigns.

And when the Patriots win another Super Bowl, they’ll look over to the Bengals, and see them holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" as they drive home in a big orange-and-black bus, having long been eliminated from the playoffs.