The Bengals’ defense had a rough start in 2016, giving up 345 or more yards in all of their first eight games and at least 17 points in all but one of those games. But, something clicked after the bye week. The Bengals only gave up more than 345 yards of total offense twice in the final eight games and allowed more than 17 points three times.
The rushing defense went from giving up 100+ yard performances five times in the first eight games to only three times in the final eight games. They even held one team to less than 100 passing yards at one point in the second half of the season, which they didn’t even come close to doing in the first half. Sure, it was in Cleveland, Week 14, but they gave up 172 passing yards to the Browns when they hosted them in Week 7. It was the kind of turnaround from out of nowhere that makes you think the Bengals’ defense was a solid unit all along and just couldn’t figure things out early on, for whatever reason.
“I think we cleaned some things up for the players,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “The players, the new coaching staff got on the same page. We played more together. We just got better every week. We didn’t have as many mental errors, which showed up early in the season.”
That said, the Bengals still have plenty of work to do to ensure that the upward trend seen on defense in the last eight weeks continues in 2017. Starters who didn’t pull their weight in 2016 like Michael Johnson and Rey Maualuga may need to watch their backs, lest one of the young players at their respective positions proves to the team they would be a smarter choice to start in Week 1 of 2017. Maualuga played so sparingly in 2016 that he could even be a cap casualty this offseason.
One player who flashed plenty of potential in 2016 was Nick Vigil, who by season’s end displaced Maualuga on the depth chart. He could also very well be the next in line at the SAM linebacker spot, replacing the aging Karlos Dansby, who is set to become a free agent. There is no question that Vigil impressed the coaching staff in his few opportunities this season.
“I think he’s a real smart kid,” Guenther said of his rookie linebacker. “I think we did it the right way. We didn’t throw him to the lions right away. He got his taste on special teams and limited work through the middle of the season. He got more snaps as it went. We felt like it’s not too big for him and he can get in there and play as an every down linebacker.”
Domata Peko is set to become a free agent and with DeShawn Williams and Andrew Billings, who is set to make his debut in 2017, there isn’t a real need to re-sign the 11-year veteran. Billings spent all of 2016 on injured reserve due to a badly torn meniscus, which required surgery. That said, Billings was the talk of the offseason and training camp before going down and missing his entire rookie season. Given Peko’s extremely underwhelming 2016 season, the coaching staff might be ready to move forward with the fourth round draft pick who has already impressed.
“I think he would have played a lot of for us this year. Absolutely,” Guenther said. “When he gets back healthy and in shape I think he’ll be a good player in this league from the amount of snaps I’ve seen in pads. The nose guard isn’t going to show in the spring. The spring is more for the receivers and the corners. The linemen aren’t in pads so it’s hard to get a feel for what kind of knock-back they’re going to have. How they’re going to knock the line back. It’s more about keeping on your feet. But when he got into the pads in training camp, it was ‘Whoa…this guy…’”
As far as Johnson’s spot goes, there isn’t currently a lot of competition. He has certainly underperformed, but it is hard to say that guys like Will Clarke or Margus Hunt, despite improving in 2016, are ready to take over starting duties. Wallace Gilberry has performed well at reserve defensive end for the Bengals, but fizzled out as a potential starter with the Lions early in 2016. At 32-years-old, it is unlikely the Bengals will want to use him as anything more than an interim starter if Johnson were to collapse further, requiring an emergency switch. Gilberry is also a free agent and isn’t a certainty to be back with the team in 2017. Luckily, the Bengals have great draft positioning in 2017 and can find someone to not only bolster the depth, but possibly challenge Johnson for the starting spot. Guenther is rightly confident that the Bengals can find someone to produce regardless of round or hype.
“Regardless of rounds. I really believe where you make your team better is rounds 4-6,” Guenther said. “Everyone knows the guys at the top. Some guys will be overly scouted. Some guys will make it. Some guys won’t make it. If you can get a gem in the sixth, seventh rounds or a free agent that makes special teams while you can develop him as a starter, you’ve won. That’s what makes your roster special.”
Successful players the Bengals have recently found in the later rounds of the draft and undrafted free agency, include Vontaze Burfict (undrafted), Vincent Rey (undrafted), George Iloka (fifth round), Josh Shaw (fourth round) and Geno Atkins (fourth round).
Due to the number of players who left during the 2016 offseason, the Bengals should have 11 draft picks to play with in the 2017 NFL Draft. If there was any doubt that the defense had enough talent to continue playing well in 2017, you can rest assured that they will take advantage of not only a top 10 draft pick, but a large number of total picks to make the 2017 defensive product much more impressive.