One of the Bengals' biggest strengths of the during the past half-decade has been the mammoths on their defensive line. Geno Atkins is one of the best defensive tackles in football, while the giant duo of Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson on the edges have been harassing opposing quarterbacks since their respective entrances in the NFL.
While the team has mixed in some other effective rotators over the years in the form of Pat Sims, Brandon Thompson and Wallace Gilberry, it's been the play of the starting four that has largely carried the defense and the entire team in their run of five straight postseason appearances. The team did experience major coaching turnover this offseason though, including along the defensive line with Jacob Burney replacing long-time defensive line coach Jay Hayes. With the coaching change comes a change in philosophy, as Burney recently told Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson that he wants to utilize more rotations than we have seen in past years.
"In today’s game, to stick four out there for 85 plays and play NFL-winning football, that’s not happening," Burney said. "You have to get seven ready to play and you can’t be afraid to put them in there . . . It’s not tough (to sub) for me. (The starter) may be out there, but he’s taking his rest on that one play you need him because he’s been out there for a while."
Before heading to Cincinnati this year, Burney spent five seasons with the Redskins from 2010-2014. And, though Washington utilized more of a 3-4 defensive look in the time, rotations along the line and with their edge rushers was prevalent. Players like Ryan Kerrigan, Brian Orakpo, Chris Baker and Jason Hatcher all saw quality seasons while Burney was working with their line, and he's hoping to bring that semblance of success to Cincinnati.
Burney made it clear he isn't looking to blow up the whole makeup of the group, as evidenced by some of his statements with Atkins, saying he wasn't going to "re-build Geno", but using seven players on the defensive front in games is what he's aiming for.
But, is it smart, given the talent and frequent high production from the starters? We assess both sides of the argument.
Why it's wise:
Giving Talented Players a Breather: The Bengals run the risk of injury and low productivity when players take the supposed 85 plays in a game. While it's scary to not have your best players on the field at a given time, these guys are human after all, and their bodies fatigue with excessive playing time.
Increased Talent Behind the Starters: Sure, Margus Hunt and Will Clarke have been disappointments, but with Thompson and Sims back as free agents and Andrew Billings being added in the draft, defensive tackle is stacked. Marcus Hardison is stepping into a Gilberry-like role, so there shouldn't be as big of a hesitancy to pull the starters out for a little bit of time.
The "Fisher-Price Package" Gaining Years: Though Atkins, Dunlap and Johnson have yet to reach 30 years of age, all three have six or seven past accrued seasons. Domata Peko is the exception, entering his 11th season. So while the line still largely has significant football ahead of them, they aren't kids anymore and might need a little more time on the sidelines than in past years.
The 2015 Denver Broncos: Though they had a number of stars on all levels of their defense, the Super Bowl 50 Champions used a rotation and multiple looks up front to plow their way through the conference playoffs and over the Carolina Panthers. The NFL is known as a copycat league, so there definitely is logic with Burney's proclamation of using more of a rotation--perhaps in the mold of the Mile High Monsters?
Why it isn't wise:
Why Fix What Isn't Broken?: Since 2011, the Bengals have finished in the top-10 in quarterback sacks four times--with two finishes in the top-five. In the span, Atkins has 40 sacks, Dunlap has 39.5, Johnson has 26, and Peko has 13.5. The starters have been uber-effective and the catalysts of the defense, so why not keep your best players out there as long as they continue to produce?
Unproven Backups: As mentioned earlier, Hunt and Clarke have disappointed, while Hardison is among those who haven't shown the ability to be long-term contributors yet. If Burney wants to implement more of a rotation, he'll also need to spend extra time coaching up the backups so they're ready to contribute when their number is called.
Quality Starters Against Run and Pass: Though many fans have soured on Peko late in his career, all four starters contribute in both rushing the passer and stopping the run. While Burney is obviously wise enough to know what situations call for a substitute, the potential rotators haven't shown the all-around contributions the starters have with great -- or in some cases any -- frequency.