Domata Peko's name always seems to come up in conversation whenever fans of the Cincinnati Bengals are discussing their frustration with the team. Some of Peko's criticism is justified; he's not a perfect football player. However, most Bengals fans (myself included, before reviewing the tape) don't realize that Peko is very important to this Bengals team--and not just as a locker room presence.
Peko, an eight-year NFL veteran now playing in his ninth season, is Cincinnati's primary run-stopping defensive tackle in its 4-3 defense. He primarily plays on first and second downs, and he's the Bengals' go-to guy to stop the run.
The Bengals are lucky enough to have jack-of-all-trades defensive tackle Geno Atkins in the lineup, but the reality is Atkins' dominance in both the passing game and running game has unreasonably raised Bengals fans' expectations for Peko. The primary role of a defensive tackle, especially a nose tackle in a 4-3 defense is to stop the run. Peko's job isn't to rush the passer, his paychecks come from his ability to stop opposing ball carriers.
I'm not trying to say that Peko is a generational talent and that Cincinnati fans are crazy for not liking him; I'm just saying Peko does a lot more than fans give him credit for. So with that, let's get to the film, starting with Peko's play in the passing game.
Peko isn't by any means a great pass-rusher. He may actually be the NFL's worst pass-rusher. Luckily for him, Peko's paychecks aren't coming from his pass-rushing numbers.
While Peko is tremendously strong, he's not quick enough off the snap to effectively rush the passer. This is the primary reason why he only plays on first and second down. But because opponents occasionally pass on first and second down, Peko is stuck on the field looking silly.
Let's not forget, however, Peko's three teammates on the defensive line are all great players who have all recorded more than 30 sacks in their respective careers.
Peko simply isn't a pass-rusher; although it would be nice to see him make an impact on these plays, he's the best run-stopping defensive tackle behind Atkins. Coaches can't take Peko out on second down unless they're confident that opponents will pass on those plays. However, in the Bengals' win in Oakland, Pat Sims took a few of Peko's snaps on second down. Wallace Gilberry is usually the guy to kick it inside on passing downs.
Here's a great example of what Bengals fans overlook: Domata Peko frequently draws double-teams, freeing up the other three defensive linemen to make plays in the passing game.
On this play, Peko draws a double-team, allowing Will Clarke and Geno Atkins to sack Philip Rivers. Peko doesn't get any statistical credit for drawing the double team, yet he was able to free up the play for his teammates. And that's what great nose tackles do.
Peko can occasionally make some plays in the passing game. He's recorded 13.5 sacks in his career, and he's still making some plays in 2015 like the nice pass deflection he made in Baltimore, which you can see below.
Peko doesn't make these plays often, but it's nice to see him make them when they happen. Plus, he routinely is the most hyped-up person on the field when they do.
Peko doesn't have great stats, which leads Bengals fans to think that he's a bad defensive linemen, but stats aren't what is truly important for nose tackles. If you don't believe me, take a look at some of the great nose tackles' stats from the 21st century. Two-time All Pro Jamal Williams of the San Diego Chargers only recorded 13 sacks in 13 seasons. Steelers great nose Casey Hampton only sacked nine quarterbacks in his 12-year career and Vince Wilfork has 16 sacks in 11 seasons. Sacks aren't everything; stopping the run is just as--if not more--important.
Now let's take a look at Peko's impact in the run game; this is where his impact can truly be measured.
Peko made a great tackle for loss on this play, but you won't find it on the stat sheet due to a holding penalty on the offense. Peko is actually a pretty decent run-stopper, he's made three or four impact plays in the run game this season.
Peko does a great job in containment on this run and pounces on the ball carrier to make the tackle.
Here's another classic Peko play. The big guy never seems to give up on a play until there's absolutely no chance he can make it. When ball-carriers are anywhere in his vicinity, Peko leaps on top of them to make the tackle, even if his teammates are already in the process of tackling the ball-carrier. Peko's effort level and vision for opposing running backs justifies Cincinnati's decision to keep him in the starting lineup. He brings energy and excitement and is a pretty decent football player.
That being said, Peko still isn't a fantastic run-stopper. Here are a few negative plays he's had in the run game.
Peko got out-muscled on this play and completely lost sight of where the ball was going. But to be fair, this was a pretty tricky play by the Ravens.
Peko did a great job disrupting the offensive line on this play, but he simply couldn't capitalize on the opportunity to make a play.
All of that being said, Peko is still a below-average NFL starter at his position. Despite this, he brings an energy that can't be seen in the box score and he creates opportunities for his teammates. Peko is the rightful starting nose tackle in Cincinnati, and it's not just because he's the longest-tenured defensive lineman on the Bengals. He's a competitor; he works his butt off on every play and is a key contributor to the Bengals' stout defensive line. And again, Peko only plays on first and second downs. He's a great run-stopper who knows his role and can occasionally make a play or two.
When asked about the defense's performance on Sunday, Peko had this to say, "I thought we did really well against the run – we stuffed the hell out of the run. They’ve got one of the better [running] backs in the league, a Pro Bowl back there."
Peko's right. The Bengals held Ravens running backs to 36 rushing yards on 18 carries--that's 2.0 yards per carry! The Bengals currently rank fifth in the NFL, allowing only 76.7 rushing yards per game, and a lot of that has to do with Peko. While Atkins, Dunlap and Johnson are out after opposing quarterbacks, Peko does a great job containing the run and making plays against opposing backs.
And if for no other reason, Peko's hair and celebrations alone warrant a spot on the starting lineup!
I wasn't a huge Peko fan before doing this film study, but after watching every snap he's played this season, I can confidently say that I'm a huge fan of the big guy. He has a great attitude, he's a hard worker and he's actually a pretty good football player.