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Bengals' biggest need in NFL Draft should be defensive tackle

The Bengals have been gashed up the middle when games mattered most far too often. It's time that changes by the team spending a high draft pick on an interior tackle in the 2016 NFL Draft.

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

With the offseason here, it's time to begin looking at some of the areas the Bengals need to address this offseason.

While Cincinnati had one of the league's better defenses this past season, there were still several areas that were weak enough for opponents to exploit. The Bengals were deceivingly good against the run in 2015, finishing seventh in rushing defense.

However, that came in large part because teams were often playing from behind against Cincinnati. In fact, no NFL team had fewer runs attempted again them than the Bengals this past season (344 attempts).

On the other side, teams attempted the second most passes against Cincinnati (646) in 2015. That actually played into the Bengals' hands as they ranked fourth in passing yards allowed per pass attempt (6.6), fifth in opponent passer rating (78.9) and allowed the second-fewest touchdown passes (18).

But against the run, the Bengals were tied for the 10th-highest rushing yards per attempt allowed (4.3). They also allowed an average of 113 rushing yards per game over their final three games, two of which were losses. Making that stat even more painful was that those losses came by a combined five points, and one of the losses was to the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

That was a game Cincinnati dominated in the first half, but their run defense crippled in the second half and allowed Denver to rally from a 14-0 deficit to a 20-17 win in overtime.

Then in the Wild Card round, the Pittsburgh offense gashed the Bengals for 167 yards on the ground, with their third and fourth string running backs and had complete control of the game until Ben Roethlisberger went down with an injury. If Cincinnati did a better job defending the run, that game probably wouldn't have come down to the where the Bengals made several dumb penalties before losing the game.

When Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint are gashing you, you've got problems.

Cincinnati's run-stopping woes revolve around the same player who's constantly been getting far too many snapsDomata Peko, an annual cap casualty candidate, once again got the bulk of the snaps at the second defensive tackle spot next to All-Pro Geno Atkins last year.

But Peko more often than not was someone who got pushed around on the ground and made most of his plays when offensive lines were focusing their scheme on Atkins and Pro Bowl defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

In fact, Peko was Pro Football Focus' 96th-ranked interior defender in 2015. Wallace Gilberry, who got snaps at both end and tackle, was their 86th-best interior defender.

As for backup tackles Pat Sims and Brandon Thompson, they did good in limited snaps, but not enough so to even been ranked by PFF. That's probably symbolic of what they are in guys who can give a team 10-15 good snaps per game, but aren't starting caliber.

Adding to all of this, Thompson is coming off a torn ACL in Week 17 and probably shouldn't be counted on to do much in 2016 if he's re-signed. Atkins' 2014 post-ACL tear form showed that it's a lot harder for bigger guys like defensive lineman to come back from that kind of injury.

Then there's the age of Peko (31), Sims (30) and even Gilberry (31). Sims and Gilberry are already free agents who may not be re-signed, which could mean Peko is the only proven tackle on the roster next year.

All of this is why the Bengals need to get another defensive tackle in this year's NFL draftAs Cody Tewmey writes, this is a draft loaded with defensive tackle prospects, and there should be a good one on the board at pick No. 24.

Some of the defensive tackles who could be on the board at this point (but may move up the rankings as the draft approaches) are Alabama's Jarran Reed, Louisville's Sheldon Rankins and Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson (played tackle and end). Getting any of them at pick 24 would be great.

Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche is an interesting prospect who could be on the board for the Bengals. He should go off the board much sooner than pick No. 24, but off-the-field issues could lead to him slipping in the draft. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has Nkemdiche falling to the second round in his most recent mock.

Other guys who should be on the board at 24 are Baylor's Andrew Billings, Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler and Florida's Jonathan Bullard. As much as I like Bullard, he's an attacking one-gapper who is more like Atkins than what the Bengals need at the second tackle spot, someone who can occupy gaps and stuff the run while keeping blockers off the linebackers.

Those are all traits that Butler and Billings displayed well this past season, though I (and the Bengals in most cases) am hesitant to spend a first-round pick on a guy like Butler who played in Conference USA. I think Billings would and should get the edge here, but if he and the earlier mentioned tackles are off the board by pick No. 24, the Bengals could just go with the best player available, regardless of position.