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Rey Maualuga, Michael Johnson struggling mightily on Bengals’ defense

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The Bengals defense is struggling in part because two seasoned veterans aren’t doing much of anything to help the team win games.

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Cincinnati Bengals v Denver Broncos Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

For much of the past seven years, Michael Johnson and Rey Maualuga have been integral parts of the Bengals’ defense.

Through five games this season, the two veterans have been more of a liability than an asset to this team. That was painfully evident in Sunday’s debacle in Dallas, a game in which those two combined for just seven tackles, six of which came from Johnson.

For the season, they’ve combined for 27 tackles, 0.5 sacks, two pass deflections, and no turnovers forced. More often than not, they’ve been ghosts on the field who’ve done little to stand out and impact the game.

That was about all they did as the Cowboys rung up 8.9 yards per pass and 6.2 yards per rush en route to a 28-14 win. The team as a whole struggled, but those two really failed to do much of anything, which has been a theme far too common with each of them this season.

That’s why Pro Football Focus has those two among the worst players at their respective positions. Maualuga is now ranked as the 79th-best linebacker among 83 qualified players (includes 3-4 and 4-3 linebackers).

As for Johnson, PFF now ranks him as the 82nd-best edge defender out of 91 qualified players (includes 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers).

Maualuga was PFF's lowest rated linebacker and lowest rated defensive player of Week 5 with a 29.0 rating.

Rey Maualuga didn’t miss any tackles against the Cowboys, but that’s only because he was rarely in a position to make one. He had just one tackle in the entire game, despite playing 46 snaps. Maualuga also allowed a touchdown in the passing game.

It’s surprising to see them both struggling to do much of anything through the first five weeks of the season. They both were, more or less, solid defenders in 2015 who didn’t stuff the stat sheet, but didn’t exactly hurt the defense either.

Maybe with the entire defense struggling this year, we’re just seeing their weaknesses exposed at a much higher rate. Johnson looks like he’s giving this team nothing as a pass-rusher, especially in comparison to Will Clarke (3 sacks this year). Johnson isn’t even setting the edge well anymore, something he’s been very reliable at during his Bengals tenure.

Maualuga is just being caught out of position and not in position to make more tackles, as evidenced by him having just 14 in five games. That translates to about 45 tackles over a 16-game season, which would be the lowest mark of his career. His lowest mark was 59 tackles in 12 games during the 2014 season, which he was hurt for some of, so seeing him possibly get just 45 in 16 games is very alarming.

On Sunday, Maualuga was on the field for 46 snaps (81%), the highest total of any linebacker. That means Dallas did the brunt of their damage with the 29-year-old backer out there. Why is he getting so much play when he’s getting burned so frequently?

The same is true with Johnson, who played 39 snaps (68%), which was tied with Geno Atkins for the most of any defensive lineman.

If Johnson and/or Maualuga don’t get their seasons turned around, this could be their final one in Bengals stripes. Both are under contract through 2017, but Maualuga can be cut with no dead cap and Johnson can be cut with a little over $3 million in dead cap over the ensuing two years.

The Bengals typically let players finish their contracts, so I can’t see them cutting two veteran starters in one offseason, but if they continue playing like they are right now, that might happen.

Let’s hope the play of both Maualuga and Johnson changes for the better starting this week in New England.