The Bengals’ defense wasn’t as big of a problem in 2016 as the offense, but they still finished as the 16th ranked defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed per game (350.8). That was primarily due to heavy struggles in the first half of the season, which were somewhat mended by an improvement in the second half. That was due to the return or emergence of certain players who were less productive in the first half of the season, for whatever reason. The Bengals are certainly going to have some tough decisions to make about the direction of the defense heading into 2017, but after the unit’s late resurgence, fixing what went wrong might not be all too difficult.
“I think there’s a big difference between age and production,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “If age and production are both high, then you’re still looking at production. But if age is high and production is withering, you’re certainly looking to get young there. I’m OK having some veteran players. I think it’s good to have some veteran players on your teams because guys have been through it. They understand what it’s like. But the production has to be there.”
Guys like Domata Peko, Michael Johnson, and Rey Maualuga severely underperformed this season and could be in danger of losing their spot on the team in 2017. Peko is a free agent, so the Bengals will need to sign him to a new deal if they want to bring him back. But, the Bengals have plenty of reason to be optimistic about 2017 given how well players like Vontaze Burfict played in spite of little help from their peers.
“I think he played at a high enough level where teams stopped talking about the other things he was doing and started talking about how good of a player he is,” Guenther said of Burfict. “And that’s what he does because he’s one of the best players on the defensive side of the ball in the league. If he continues to play like that, people will start recognizing him for the kind of guy and player he is rather than all the B.S.”
Burfict’s numbers in only 11 games this year were exceedingly impressive. His 127 tackles (73 solo), two sacks, eight passes defensed, and one forced fumble created a statline that exceeds many players who played and started in all 16 games. Without a doubt, he had a Without a doubt, he had a Pro Bowl caliber season when he was on the field and likely only missed receiving the honor because he missed five games (and because of his reputation around the league).
“After sitting out three games, he started playing at a high level once he got into playing shape,” Guenther said. “He was playing really good. I’ve got to have him in the lineup. He’s a major factor for us.”
Guenther is looking forward to having Burfict for a full 16 game season, which hasn’t happened since 2013 when he appeared in the Pro Bowl. But, there are also other players Guenther is ready to have back who weren’t available in 2016, like William Jackson III. Jackson missed his entire rookie season with a torn pectoral that required surgery, but the Bengals will need him soon at a struggling cornerback position.
“He’ll be a good player,” Guenther said. “He had a chance to sit back this year and observe and see the rigors and the commitment it takes to play in the NFL. Maybe it was good for him to see that from a 10,000-foot view.”
Part of the reason the cornerback position has struggled is the fact that one of the Bengals’ high draft picks, Darqueze Dennard, has struggled to find playing time on the field due to multiple injuries and struggles in the slot. However, Guenther has had the opportunity to see his development first-hand, despite limited opportunities during the season. He seems confident that the Bengals’ 24th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft will finally pan out once he gets a consistent opportunity.
“Quezzy was more that he was dinged,” Guenther said. “Every time he had an opportunity, something happened. I still think he’ll be a good player in this league. I still think he can play and he can be a starting corner. I don’t feel any different about him than I did last year at this time.”
That said, ultimately Dennard needs to go ahead and get on the field so the team can see what he is capable of. Jackson needs to as well, although he has a bit more time to get going than Dennard, whose contract will be up at the end of 2017. Both players have a limited window for proving they can fix the Bengals’ problems in the secondary. Dennard actually could get a year added onto his deal as the Bengals will decide this offseason if they want to pick up his fifth year option. It’s hard to say he deserves it right now, but it seems like his coach still believes he’ll develop into the player the Bengals hoped he would be.
Like Jackson, Andrew Billings who was heralded as the steal of the draft, injured his knee in training camp and never played a down in 2016. Getting him back next season will essentially be like having an extra draft pick for the year.
“That’s another thing people don’t realize. We haven’t had a chance to play those guys,” Guenther said of Jackson and Billings. “In this day in the NFL, you can’t sit on a guy for too long. You can’t. They have to go play. Because all of a sudden the contract is up and you have to make a decision. It’s a shame we couldn’t get those guys on the field because I think both of them would have contributed this year. I really do.”
The Bengals rarely let rookies play significantly, especially on defense. But, Guenther claims that wouldn’t have been the case for Billings had he been healthy in 2016. Maybe that means the Bengals didn’t want to be playing Peko as much as they were forced to.
“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…’”
Things might have been pretty bad for the Bengals in 2016. But, they have two Pro Bowlers in Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, strong players like Burfict, and a plethora of talent that either didn’t get a chance to produce in 2016 or looked great in limited chances. There is plenty of reason for optimism with the Bengals going forward... And just think, the team will have 11 draft picks in 2017, with which they’ll hopefully find some great new talent to add to the roster.