Despite a poor start salvaged by two consecutive wins against Cleveland and Buffalo, the Cincinnati Bengals can still make a run and get to the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years. Their defense has played a big role so far, and they’ll have to keep playing well the rest of the way. Darqueze Dennard, a former number one pick that failed to crack the starting unit until his fourth season in the NFL, has been one of its biggest surprises in 2017.
The Jim Thorpe Award winner in 2013 didn’t play much as a rookie, as it is customary in Cincinnati, but he didn’t see the field much either the next two years. Injuries, and the presence of other highly-regarded cornerbacks on the roster,stood in his way to become a three-down back for the Bengals. Last year, when Leon Hall left, it appeared Dennard would finally get his chance, but he missed the season opener, and Josh Shaw took advantage to show he could handle the slot.
Not only that, but the addition of another cornerback in the first round of the 2016 draft wasn’t great news for Dennard’s future at Paul Brown Stadium. Dre Kirkpatrick got a new contract and Adam Jones another chance, and KeiVarae Russell was also in the mix.
That is why everybody was surprised to see Dennard beating William Jackson II for the starting spot in their Week 1 matchup against the Ravens, replacing the suspended Jones. Both had been battling during the preseason, and although none dominated, Jackson has a bigger upside, and he’ll eventually replace Jones for good in the future. The coaching staff made a different decision though, and Dennard took over Hall’s old role and never looked back.
To be fair, it’s not like any of the opposing offenses the Bengals have faced in the first five weeks of the season were extremely challenging, other than the Packers in Week 3.
On the other hand, Dennard looked bad last season coming off an injury and seeing him holding his own at least, is great. The Bengals have a very good rotation in the secondary now, and they can go five deep, as they showed against the Bills when both Kirkpatrick and Jones had to leave the game.
This is key for a defense that is allowing the least amount of yards per play in the NFL, is tied for first in a number of net yards per pass allowed and ranks in the top five of completion percentage, touchdown percentage and sixth in expected points contributed by all defense - all data per ProFootballReference.com.
Dennard has played both outside and inside, effectively inheriting Hall’s job. He hasn’t allowed much his way, although the Bengals are a zone-heavy defense and that suits the former Michigan State Spartan well. He’s got trouble a few times covering receivers one-on-one inside, especially against quick breaking routes.
It’s not surprising considering hip stiffness was something scouts were aware of before the draft, but Dennard can be quite effective when he gets his hands on the receiver instead of the clean release. Luckily, in both of these examples, the pass was incomplete.
Overall he’s been tasked with different assignments, and he’s handled them well. Playing inside in cover 2 or cover 3 schemes you let the opponent get a short pass and then tackle them for a short gain. Dennard’s physicality and secure tackling have helped a lot here. In fact, his tackling has been his biggest contribution so far. I was quite impressed with how strong his hands looked in every play I rewatched.
While far from facing some of the toughest receivers in the NFL, Dennard has looked solid outside. You can live with him giving up a six-yard defensive interference penalty to DeAndre Hopkins every day. He’s got the speed to survive outside, and I was one of the advocates of a move there in the summer. The first five games, though, have proved that, while he can play there, he’s found his spot inside, where he can diagnose the play and attack rather than just trail a receiver and try to make a play on the ball - although he almost had an interception against the Ravens in the end zone.
The only big passes he’s allowed so far have been unfortunate if you can say so. First, the touchdown against the Ravens, was a great adjustment by Joe Flacco when he realized the Bengals were going all out and playing cover 0. Then, in their Week 3 clash in Green Bay, the Packers showed again why they’re the maestros of man coverage beaters.
Dennard has even added a couple of sacks to his 24 tackles and two passes defended in 2017, proving he’s more than just an inside cover guy. With 283 snaps played, he only trails George Iloka and Nick Vigil in playing time.
With Jackson still entrenched as their near-future second outside cornerback behind Kirkpatrick, Dennard will probably stick as their slot guy until at least 2018, as the Bengals exercised his fifth-year option.
Shaw, meanwhile, has played even more snaps at the safety position to keep him involved, but against the Bills, he was their nickelback, and Dennard stayed outside for the most part.
If the Bengals want to keep their playoff hopes alive, they need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday, and their defense will be crucial to doing so. With the Steelers playing a lot of three-wide receivers sets, Dennard will again have to play well for Cincinnati to get a win. This is his time now.