The Bengals' defense made big plays in the passing game in 2015, picking off 21 passes (3rd in the NFL), and only allowing 18 touchdown passes (2nd). Of course, they also gave up big chunks of yards, allowing 249 passing yards per game (20th). But both rankings could change dramatically next year.
In addition to retaining starters Adam Jones and George Iloka, the team made two moves that could could pan out in different ways. They let Reggie Nelson (8 interceptions last year) sign with the Oakland Raiders, and gave Shawn Williams a promotion and a new $20 million contract. They also brought in Cleveland Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby, who should help in defending the pass. Meanwhile, there is talk that the team would like to re-sign Dre Kirkpatrick, and questions remain as to exactly where Darqueze Dennard, Josh Shaw and William Jackson III fit in.
The following video should help us sort out what's going on with the Bengals' secondary.
In the video, John Sheeran uses game film to show us why he thinks Dre Kirkpatrick needs to demonstrate substantial progress before being given a new contract, whether Shawn Williams showed coaches enough despite starting only four games in his career, and how Karlos Dansby will help in covering athletic tight ends, like new Steelers TE Ladarius Green.
To answer the second question, let's take a look at a savvy play by Williams from Week 14 against the Steelers:
1. Here we see Williams lined up as the deep safety in the Bengals' nickel formation. Williams' responsibility here is to take away anything deep right on the play.
2. As the play progresses, Steelers reciever Markus Wheaton finds a soft spot in the Bengals' coverage. Luckily, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't see this as quick as Williams does.
3. Showcasing great range, Williams makes his way across the middle of the field and breaks up the potential touchdown pass.
The Bengals ask their safeties to be able to play roles of both free safety and strong safety, and plays like this are testaments to Williams' ability to thrive as either one.
Overall, the Bengals should be more athletic and perhaps even more consistent in their pass defense next year, though Nelson's penchant for picking off Roethlisberger will be dearly missed. We'd predict the Bengals will finish with slightly fewer interceptions (15-20), but will allow fewer yards through the air (around 230 yards per game). Meanwhile, if Kirkpatrick is not given an extension before the season starts and Marvin Lewis and Paul Guenther are satisfied with the progress of William Jackson III and Darqueze Dennard, there is a good chance they will save that cap space for more pressing needs and allow Kirkpatrick to walk.