The Bengals' front seven has been one of the most productive in the NFL over the last few years. In fact, since 2011 the unit has only had one season in which it did not rank top 10 in total sacks. Granted, that year was 2014 and they ranked dead last due to multiple injuries and losses in free agency. Still, it's been a very productive pass rushing unit since the team hit the reset button after a generally awful 2010 season.
In fairness, the run defense has generally ranked pretty poorly during that time period. Since 2011, they have only ranked in the top half of the league once in terms of run defense (2014, 13th). But, due to a composition of high-end starters like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, and Vontaze Burfict as well as solid starters like Domata Peko and Rey Maualuga, it seems weird when generally agreeable websites like our friends at Pro Football Focus, put out articles ranking the Bengals' front seven near the middle of all NFL units.
14. Cincinnati Bengals
Projected starters: DT Geno Atkins, DT Domata Peko; DE Carlos Dunlap, DE Michael Johnson; LB Vontaze Burfict, MLB Rey Maualuga, LB Vincent Rey
Other names to know: DT Pat Sims, DT Andrew Billings, DT Brandon Thompson; DE Margus Hunt, DE Will Clarke; LB Karlos Dansby
Key stat: The Bengals stopped 27.2 percent of runs for no gain or a loss in sub-packages last season, the highest-rate in the NFL.
Geno Atkins' return to his best form boosted the entire Bengals' defense last year, but a lack of quality depth not only limits this defensive front, it also increases the risk of a fallback season if Atkins can't replicate his top-tier play. On the defensive line, the likes of Michael Johnson and Domata Peko need to be pushed to improve—or pushed out of the lineup. Johnson was at least strong in run defense, but a lack of production as a pass-rusher put the pressure on Carlos Dunlap and Atkins to shoulder the load. At linebacker, the acquisition of Karlos Dansby (Browns) could improve the Bengals' coverage in sub-packages, an area Cincinnati struggled with a year ago.
To an extent, I can understand the argument that the unit's depth isn't exactly something to celebrate. They are generally relying on unproven talent like Sims, Billings, Clarke, and Hunt to step in if something should go wrong with one of the starters.
As I noted before, one of the Bengals' biggest struggles since 2011 has been their run defense. But, Pro Football Focus noted that the Bengals had the best run stopping percentage in sub-packages last year. That's an area that they also noted the Bengals generally have struggled with in the past.
I can also see a pretty significant hole at the strongside linebacker spot. It's been an issue for years. Right now, it appears that Karlos Dansby, a very talented but but aging free agent acquisition, will be expected to come in and fill the role. He very well could be exactly what the Bengals need to hold down the last major hole on the front seven, but until he proves it, the position has to be considered a weakness.
Calling Johnson a weakness on the Bengals' defense seems to be a bit excessive. Yes, he struggled to produce as a pass rusher in 2015, but he was very productive as a run stopper (29 tackles, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery), showing that he can hold down one aspect of the defense while Dunlap holds down the other aspect (pass defense). Furthermore, Peko might be aging, but he is also coming off his most productive pass rushing season as a pro (5.0 sacks). His 17 tackles in 2015 aren't exactly anything to get excited about, but Peko being the biggest weakness of all the starters shows there's not much weakness there at all.
Also worth noting, Pro Football Focus ranked the Lions, Giants, and Patriots all ahead of the Bengals' front seven. None of those teams really have the kind of starting talent that the Bengals bring to the table. The Lions and Giants, in particular might have better depth than the Bengals, but, their starters, otherwise known as the ones who will be on the field most of the time, don't really stack up.
Obviously, the Bengals' depth issues as well as the few questionable spots in the starting rotation mean that they probably don't have much of an argument to be ranked as the No. 1 front seven in the NFL, but, they're almost definitely better than No. 14.