Attrition of qualified staff on the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive line showed its wear as the 2014 season progressed to the finish line. Not having the ability to rotate players in and out of the lineup with regularity hindered the group's performance, which was often classified as dominant since 2009.
An abysmal pass rush in 2014, last in quarterback sacks, to be exact, and inconsistency against the run forced the defensive unit to morph into a group that relied heavily on a savvy secondary. Even without some of the consistency in pressuring the quarterback, the secondary was a top-five squad in interceptions last season.
Imagine that type of back end defensive performance with a bolstered line, which, not coincidentally, was a focus this offseason by the club. A couple of those additions occurred at defensive tackle to implement a multi-faceted attack. Will 2015 be the year of the Bengals' defensive resurgence? If so, will it be because of the improvements at defensive tackle?
Comings And Goings:
Additions: Pat Sims (free agency), Marcus Hardison (fourth round 2015 draft), DeShawn Williams (underrated free agent).
Though the Bengals finally parted ways with Robert Geathers who was listed as a defensive end, he did kick inside often (more on that issue later). But, the fact remains, no true defensive tackles have hit the bricks to this point, making an interesting dichotomy clear: they like who they had going into this offseason, but didn't love them. It's said that a sign of a good team and coaching staff is the willingness to always improve and the Bengals have attempted to do that at defensive tackle this offseason.
Sims is the big run-stopper in the middle of the defense, who was always an effective player for the Bengals. He had one solid year in Oakland, followed by one disappointing campaign, which marked his exodus back to the Queen City. Some believe he's a roster lock, while others think he might just be competition and little more than a camp body.
Hardison is an interesting guy, as he played an edge position at Arizona State last season, racking up ten quarterback sacks while playing at nearly 300 pounds. He's a little above that this year, and the team apparently plans to make him one of those guys who can get to the quarterback from the middle of the line--especially in obvious passing situations. Williams might not make the final roster, but could be a good guy to have on the Practice Squad for development. He turned our heads at times when we were in attendance at the NFLPA Bowl in January.
Starters, Geno Atkins, Domata Peko: Should we have put Atkins in the "additions" column above? Maybe. After admirably rushing back from a knee injury he sustained on Halloween of 2013, Atkins didn't appear to be the same dominant player we saw in 2011, 2012 and the first half of 2013. His slight fall from grace last season was a major contributor in the entire line struggling. Early reports are glowing for Atkins this year, with the most recent coming from defensive coordinator Paul Guenther on the progress the star lineman has made this offseason.
Some fans are sour on Peko because of a perceived decline in production, but he's a valuable locker room guy who very well could have also been negatively affected by the thin depth on the line last season. The term "starter" is used loosely here, as he'll likely be rotated in and out for somewhat-reguarlly.
The Rotators Fighting For A Spot, Marcus Hardison, Pat Sims, Devon Still, Brandon Thompson: As has been the unfortunate case for the Bengals while they have build a solid roster over the past few seasons, a good player will likely be shown the door. As mentioned earlier, some believe it could be Sims, but one can sense that they specifically targeted him because of his fit in the system. Thompson gained increased time last season, which came with mixed reviews. He was one of the players that the team hoped to lean on with Sims' departure, so what does it say when Sims returned?
Hardison seems versatile and athletic for his size, but he'll need refinement. Do they want to wait around for the blossoming and keep a roster spot open for a project player after some of those have disappointed recently? You don't want to see them give up so early on a guy with high potential like Hardison, but this team is in win-now mode and needs as many able contributors as possible. Then, there's Still. The guy everyone wants to see do well because of what he's been through, but hasn't found his NFL niche. Still has undergone an intensive training program this offseason during which he shed a stunning 27 pounds. Will he be a difference-maker now that he's in the best shape of his life and the news on his daughter continues to gain positive momentum?
The Grinders Who Could Surprise, Kwame Geathers, Kalafitoni Pole, DeShawn Williams: Geathers is absolutely massive at 6'6", 350 pounds and last played for the Chargers in 2013. He was injured all last season, so he's one to keep an eye on, which should prove easy with his stature. As mentioned above, Williams showed some quickness and ability to get into the backfield at the NFLPA Bowl. He's smaller at 6'1" 295 pounds, but played for a big-time program at Clemson. Pole was also at the NFLPA Bowl, but didn't turn as many heads. Josh Kirkendall had a nice breakdown of him earlier this offseason, which also gives insight as he enters his first Training Camp.
The good news is this group which was perceived to be thin last season will be bolstered and improved upon. As mentioned earlier, the bad news is some quality players will be out of a job. How many do they keep? Do they go short here with maybe four or five? Are the even able to keep an unheard of six? Probably not. Say five, as most agree, and who are the top guys?
A domino effect revolving around a chicken-or-the-egg type of thing is occurring. The secondary, defensive tackle and defensive end groups are all stacked with players, making each player's performance a cause-and-effect thing. How many ends can also kick inside and play tackle on passing downs? Which player's skill set is most valuable--Still, Sims, or Margus Hunt? Some of the major roster decisions will be revolving around those three players.
Another unfortunate truth lies in injuries paving the way for the team to hang on to as many of these guys as possible. Still, there is no doubt Atkins is the key to everything they do up front on defense, and if the rumors of his return are accurate, the sky is the limit for the line and the rest of the unit.