In 2015, the Bengals had one of the best defenses in football. In 2016, Cincinnati's defensive personnel will remain mostly intact. The team parted ways with Reggie Nelson, Wallace Gilberry, Emmanuel Lamur and A.J. Hawk during the offseason, and from the looks of it, Leon Hall seems more unlikely than likely to return. To compensate for their offseason losses, the Bengals added Taylor Mays and Karlos Dansby, as well as rookies William Jackson III, Nick Vigil, Andrew Billings and Clayton Fejedelem.
With promising young players like Shawn Williams, Darqueze Dennard and P.J. Dawson expected to see more time on the field, there's plenty of reason to believe the 2016 Bengals defense could be just as good as, if not better than, last year's group. However, the team's offseason acquisitions actually haven't addressed the root of the defense's key problem. It's worth noting that per Football Outsiders, the Bengals had the best defensive variance, meaning they were the most consistent defense in football. Their pass and rush defenses ranked 10th and 8th, respectively, and the team's defense ranked ninth overall. With that being said, here are two areas of weakness the team can improve upon in 2016.
For the most part, Cincinnati's defensive line was pretty good at stopping the run. Last season, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins thrived against the run, while Michael Johnson and Domata Peko were both about average. However, as Football Outsiders points out, opponents thrived when running behind their left tackle. Runs toward the left tackle, or between Johnson and Peko, averaged 4.58 yards per carry against the Bengals defense, which ranked 30th in the league last season. Though Peko and Johnson aren't the only players who should be held responsible, that's a pretty clear indication that the Bengals really don't know how to stop runs aimed at penetrating the gap between Johnson and Peko.
Open Field Tackling
Another aspect the Bengals struggled in was open field tackling. This was a fault of the entire team, not just a particular individual, as the team gave up plenty of notable big plays last season and missed plenty of easy tackles. The Bengals conceded 1.11 second level yards per carry, which ranked below the league average, and they gave up 0.94 open field yards per carry, which just goes to show how often opponents were able to break off long runs against Cincinnati.
Cincinnati's 2015 defense was interesting, because opponents succeeded in running the ball for the most part, but most opponents preferred testing the team through the air. The Bengals were the only team in the NFL to allow more than 4.1 yards per carry and less than 100 rushing yards per game. Only nine teams in the league allowed more yards per carry than the Bengals, yet only six teams gave up fewer rushing yards per game. Ultimately, this just seems to indicate that the Bengals lucked out, as opponents should've tested the team on the ground more often than they did last season. But, as the Bengals were winning much more often than not in 2015, teams offer were throwing the ball to try to catch up with the Bengals in scoring.
Things That Could Change in 2016
Interior Defensive Line Rotation: The Bengals are loaded at defensive tackle. Geno Atkins and Domata Peko will likely see the majority of the snaps, but with Marcus Hardison, Andrew Billings and DeShawn Williams eager to make an impact, as well as recently-re-signed veterans Pat Sims, Brandon Thompson, defensive tackle depth may no longer be the issue it once was. The Bengals should utilize this rotation as often as possible, in order to ensure there are fresh legs on the field at all times. Thompson will likely start the season on the PUP list as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in Week 17 of the 2015 season, but, it could be nice to get a fresh and rested body back mid-way through the season.
Young Replacements in the Secondary: This could be an improvement or regression, but Cincinnati's secondary is no longer an old unit. George Iloka, Dre Kirkpatrick, Shawn Williams and Darqueze Dennard are all in or entering their prime, which is good news for a unit which was once one of the oldest in football in recent years.
Position Coach Turnover: Again, this could be an improvement or regression, but the Bengals have new coaches at every defensive position. Perhaps an infusion of new coaching philosophies in different position groups could help certain players maximize their potential. That being said, there's also a possibility for regression if certain players are given responsibilities they haven't previously had or if the players don't mesh with the new coaching additions.
Margus Hunt and Will Clarke: These two guys have been buried on the depth chart for quite some time, which is a testament to the durability of Johnson and Dunlap at defensive end and to Wallace Gilberry's impact as a rotational end. But with Gilberry out of the equation, things will change. Marcus Hardison is expected to play Gilberry's snaps at nickel defensive tackle, but that still leaves the rotational defensive end position open for the taking. If the two players can tally five combined sacks, 2016 could be an improvement for the defensive end rotation.
Unpredictable Factors: Things like field position, strength of schedule and only seven true home games in 2016 could potentially turn the tides in Cincinnati, for better or for worse. It's very doubtful the Bengals will be able to dominate the battle of field position in 2016 like they did last season, so this could potentially have a negative impact on the defense. Additionally, a lack of home-field advantage could change things, unless London fans bleed orange and black or Cincinnati fans flock to London for the matchup (which they reportedly are expected to do at an above-average rate). There are plenty of factors, like injury, that will change the Bengals' defense and are out of the team's control. But, the Bengals defense will look to improve in 2016 and there's plenty of reason to expect it will.