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Ranking the Bengals' defensive positions

Which Bengals defensive position group is the most impressive? We rank them all from top to bottom to see what we can expect from the Bengals' defense this season.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

For the majority of Andy Dalton's tenure in Cincinnati, the Bengals have been known as a team with an up and down offense, but a consistently suffocating defense. The team ranked 9th in points allowed per game in 2011 (20.2), 8th in 2012 (20.0). and 5th in 2013 (19.1). However, the departures of defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, and defensive end, Michael Johnson, knocked the team off-kilter enough to post the league's worst pass rush, worst playoff defense, and their worst season in years in terms of points allowed per game (21.5).

Over the course of the offseason, the team has put forth quite a lot of effort toward fixing the unit's issues, but certain positions still look better than others. From top to bottom, we rank each defensive position on the Bengals.

1) Safety

In 2014, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka combined for 35 percent of the team's interceptions, 10 percent of the team's tackles, one of the team's 6 fumble recoveries, and 1.5 of the team's league-worst 20 sacks. The pair also started all sixteen games for the Bengals, making them one of two units on the team in 2014, (the other was defensive end), that can make that claim.

Heading into 2015, the safety position will serve as the mark of consistency for the rest of the defense. As a tandem, only Detroit's Glover Quinn and James Inhedigbo were more effective intercepting passes.

Part of what makes the Bengals' safety position so strong is the quality talent backing up the starters. Shiloh Keo and Shawn Williams might not be the most recognizable names in the NFL, but both bring a certain element that you really want in a backup. Keo formerly battled with none other than Ed Reed for the starting free safety position with the Houston Texans, eventually winning the job in 2013; posting 52 tackles and an interception in 11 games. Those kind of numbers aren't going to be winning any awards, but the presence of a veteran with consistent starting experience behind the established starters is encouraging.

Shawn Williams is quite different from Shiloh Keo, and brings a different kind of security at the backup safety position. Drafted in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft, Williams was expected to come in and provide a highly physical presence for the team at the safety position. He hasn't had much of a chance to play in games, but a third year, ultra-physical development project sitting behind Iloka and Nelson is enough to encourage confidence in case of an injury to the starters.

2) Cornerback

It's no secret the Bengals' secondary carried the defense last season. Despite finishing dead last in sacks (20), the defensive unit as a whole turned in an above average performance on the year, largely due to the secondary's ability to knock down passes, grabbing 20 interception during the course of the season (third in the NFL).

Going into 2015, the unit looks even better. Despite taking a couple of years to make a significant impact, the Bengals' 17th overall selection in 2012, Dre Kirkpatrick, made a name for himself on the field toward the end of the season. If Kirkpatrick can turn in more performances like he had against Denver on Monday Night Football (2 interceptions, 1 touchdown), he will be one of the most feared cornerbacks in the NFL.

If that's not enough, the team will still be employing the services of Leon Hall, Adam Jones, and Darqueze Dennard; all former first round picks. Dennard has not gotten a chance to prove himself yet, like Kirkpatrick, but the two recent first round picks have the potential to become the Bengals' best CB tandem since Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph in 2009. Throw in a potentially exciting prospect in 2015 fourth round pick, Josh Shaw, and the team could be looking at one of their most exciting corner units in years.

3) Linebacker

2014 wasn't a great year for the Bengals' LB corps, and that's putting it nicely. All together, the linebacker corps only contributed 18 percent of the team's total tackles (199 out of 1,103), and forced only four turnovers during the entire season. Granted, injuries to Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict provided significant problems to the unit's production over the course of 2014, and to say the least, it was a disappointing year for the linebackers. If contributions to the team in 2014 were the entire criteria for these rankings, there would be a strong argument for this unit ranking at the bottom of the list.

Luckily, the Bengals made a strong effort in the offseason to bring in talent and depth at the linebacker corps, signing former Packers' standout, A.J. Hawk and drafting former TCU standout, P.J. Dawson.

If Maualuga and Burfict can stay healthy this season, it is likely they will play very well. Maualuga has a reputation for playing below expectations, and Burfict has a reputation for reckless play and aggressive play to the point of injuring himself. But, there is a significant and noticeable difference in the effectiveness of the defense when one or both of the players are on the field. However, if one of the two struggle or are injured this season, Hawk is expected to be a viable replacement.

The weak link, of the three starters, is Emanuel Lamur. Lamur contributed last season with the second most tackles of the unit (59), and two interceptions, but was very spotty in his coverage and pass rush. The Bengals seem to have addressed this issue by drafting a coverage-focused linebacker in Dawson, but fans can expect to most likely see Lamur starting for at least the first half of the season.

4) Defensive End

After registering a league-worst 20 sacks in 2014, the Bengals' defensive line is clearly the weakest point on the team, going into 2015. As far as the defensive ends themselves, the Bengals are mostly stocked with players who should be very good in theory, but haven't always lived up to those expectations on the field.

Luckily, this offseason, the Bengals went out and re-signed Michael Johnson after a year in Tampa Bay. Although his final year with the Bengals was pretty lackluster, he registered 11.5 sacks in 2012; more than half the total sacks from the Bengals' entire team last season. Johnson's presence on the line will act like a domino effect, opening up pass rushing lanes for Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, even if he isn't able to put up the same sack numbers as he did in 2012.

Unfortunately, there are still more questions than answers for the Bengals' defensive ends in 2014. Will Margus Hunt ever breakout like he was expected to last season? Is Will Clarke in the team's long term plans now that Michael Johnson is back? Will reuniting Johnson and Dunlap restore the spark in the pass rush that the team so severely lacked last season? We'll find out soon enough, but until we do it's hard to rank this unit much higher.

5) Defensive Tackle

Quick, name a defensive tackle on the Bengals' roster who you trust! Geno Atkins was probably the first name that came to mind, but in 2014 his ACL injury was still on the mend and he noticeably wasn't trusting himself like he would have in 2012 and 2013. Atkins has been practicing hard this offseason, and early reports from training camp say he looks like the best player on the field.

Devon Still was a second round pick, but in 2014 he was rightfully distracted by his daughter's cancer that it's been extremely difficult to gauge his value on the field. Brandon Thompson has proven his usefulness against the run, but has been virtually a non-factor when rushing the pass (2.5 sacks in his entire career). Domata Peko isn't getting any younger, and does not posses the physical attributes to play as many snaps as he does. Pat Sims could potentially not even make the final roster,

To top it all off, the team did virtually nothing in terms of drafting talent to help at the position. Former DE and Bengals' 2015 fifth round pick, Marcus Hardison, has been listed as a defensive tackle on the official roster, and is being projected as a defensive tackle by Marvin Lewis. However, there's not a guarantee that Hardison will make the roster, much less make an immediate impact at a position that he isn't used to playing. Until we see some improvement in the position's depth, it's hard to find much to be excited about outside of Atkins.