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Bengals midseason report card: Defense

With the Bengals reaching the midway point of their 2016 season, we assess the performance of the team’s defensive unit.

NFL: International Series-Washington Redskins at Cincinnati Bengals Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2009 and under the coaching of two defensive coordinators, the Cincinnati Bengals could always depend on their stout defensive unit. There were occasional hiccups, particularly in postseason games, but in recent years, Cincinnati’s defense has largely been among the top of rankings.

Unfortunately, aging of critical players, free agency attrition and coaching turnover have hit the unit particularly hard this year. Heading into the second half of the season, we’re going to assess multiple aspects of the unit through the first eight games of the season.

Coaching: C-

When it comes to coaching, for those of us on the outside looking in, a chicken-or-the-egg type of argument ensues. Is it a group of aging veterans simply underachieving this year? Or are the players not responding to the messages and schemes the coaches are giving them? Maybe it’s both?

Though the Bengals’ defense was one of the best in the league last year, the unit just hasn’t been the same since Paul Guenther took the reins from Mike Zimmer back in 2014. Injuries have occurred and it hasn’t helped that star linebacker Vontaze Burfict has missed 21 total games (including the postseason) over the past two and a half years.

Cincinnati’s unit is currently ranked at No. 25 in total yards allowed per game, they are a pedestrian No. 21 with 16 sacks as a team, but are in a tie for 11th with seven interceptions this year. They are also No. 21 against the pass and 23rd against the run, bringing criticism to the trio of new position coaches Kevin Coyle (secondary), Jacob Burney (defensive line) and Jim Haslett (linebackers).

Reasonable questions about the staff are beginning to arise with Coyle filling in for the well-liked Vance Joseph. We’ll see if they can use the bye week to remedy the issues, but it’s a pretty steep hill to climb for the defense to get back to its recognizable dominance at this point in the season.

Defensive Line: C

As with many aspects on the Bengals’ defense this year, the play by the once-dominant front has been, for a lack of better words, “meh”. Aside from their lower-end rankings in the three above-mentioned areas, general consistency has been a major issue.

Geno Atkins has had a strong season, but it hasn’t been like the truly dominant ones we saw in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Normally that would be fine if others on the line were stepping up, but they aren’t. Carlos Dunlap is having a solid season, but not the franchise record-breaking one of last year, while his bookend, Michael Johnson, is probably the worst performing starter on the line.

It was great to see Margus Hunt and Will Clarke shoot out to hot starts this year, but they have cooled down greatly of late. Cincinnati did work this week in the form of bringing in multiple veterans for workouts, but only signed one in Wallace Gilberry. The hope is that his fit and familiarity in the Bengals’ defense can bring a missing dimension.

Still, we have to look at the Bengals’ questionable approach this offseason. After such a disappointing finish to 2015, they preferred to look inward in free agency and didn’t sign any outside pass-rushing help. And though they added bulk at defensive tackle in Andrew Billings, they didn’t get any true pass-rushers in the NFL Draft either. What’s worse is that Billings is out for the year and his absence has hurt up front.

Linebackers: D+

The low rankings against the run and the pass aren’t just the fault of the front four. Cincinnati’s linebackers have been shaky at best this season, even with Burfict back in the lineup.

Karlos Dansby was one of the prized free agent acquisitions by the Bengals this season, but I’m sure the feeling is that they would have loved to got the deal done when they originally courted him back in the 2014 offseason. He has been a primary culprit in the allowing of some massive games to opposing tight ends the past few games, but he isn’t alone.

Vincent Rey always seems to be chasing after players instead of stopping them, and that’s when he’s not dropping possible interceptions. In today’s pass-happy NFL, Rey Maualuga is lucky to be considered a two-down linebacker at this point and he hasn’t forced a turnover, nor has he gotten to the quarterback in 2016.

Burfict has been the best of the bunch, but he looks like he’s still trying to get into “football shape” after missing a lot of time this preseason, as well as the first three games of the season. Still, those trademark impact plays he has made so often haven’t occurred yet.

Secondary: D

What’s been frustrating about this group is the amount of offseason pay allocated to various players in the secondary, but what they have netted has been totally disparate to the new contracts. After allowing Reggie Nelson to walk in free agency, the Bengals made sure they signed George Iloka and Shawn Williams to long-term deals.

Iloka has been relatively decent through eight games, while Williams has looked inconsistent, at best. Iloka isn’t immune to criticism though, as he is partially responsible for the recent big games from Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis. Meanwhile, Williams has dropped interceptions and when he finally corralled one in, he fumbled it back on the return.

Adam Jones was the other member of the secondary to sign a big offseason deal. After finally making the Pro Bowl last year as a corner, it seemed like Pacman was getting better with age. But, his play has dipped this year. More concerning is his recent penchant of getting into teammates faces when he feels they aren’t pulling their weight. While it’s nice to see him try and be a team leader, one has to wonder if internal eye-rolls are occurring because of what transpired in last year’s Wild Card game.

Dre Kirkpatrick is having a decent season, but has been far from perfect. The best note on this year’s resume is his combined effort with Jones against Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who had the worst game of his season against the Bengals.

Beyond that, it’s basically a bunch of young guys struggling. Josh Shaw, Darqueze Dennard and Derron Smith have all been on the wrong end of highlight reel plays by the opposition. Shaw did have the game-clinching interception in Week 1 against the Jets, but after a quality opener, he has struggled in pass coverage.