Talent won’t be an issue with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017. At least, that’s what Paul Guenther seems to think.
Now entering his fourth season as defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Guenther is making it no secret he loves the defensive talent he’s got now.
“Probably so. I would think so,” Guenther told Bengals.com when asked if this is the most talented group he’s had since 2014. “We’ve got fast guys that can play multiple spots and that’s kind of an offshoot of how we install the defense. I can tell a guy to go to the spot as a linebacker or defensive back and he knows what to do. Right, we really couldn’t do that last year. I’d have to say this is the most talent we’ve had since I’ve been doing it.”
This defense already had its fair share of immensely talented players before making any offseason additions. Geno Atkins is easily one of the best defensive linemen the NFL has, not to mention arguably the league's best three-technique tackle since 2010.
Carlos Dunlap has developed into one of the better defensive ends you'll find. He's not just a quality pass-rusher anymore, as Dunlap has improved significantly as a run defender to become the kind of complete defensive end every franchise longs for.
You certainly know about the cornerbacks, a group that features four former first-round picks, including a Pro Bowl corner and returner in Adam Jones. And while the safeties don't get much fanfare, George Iloka and Shawn Williams have become one of the best tandems at their position in football.
Saying all of this, you’d think the Bengals had an elite defense in 2016, but that wasn’t the case. Even with so much talent, one area of weakness can derail any great defense and make it average. That was exactly what played out last season, as the lack of pass-rushing depth crippled the defense far too often. There was also the issue of new position coaches at every defensive position: defensive back, linebacker and defensive line.
The Bengals still managed to finish eighth in scoring defense, but they also finished 17th in total defense and 19th in sacks. That was the Achilles’ heel of this defense, so the Bengals made sure to upgrade it this offseason.
That mainly came in the NFL Draft when Cincinnati landed not one, but two impact pass-rushers in Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson. You can bet that one, if not both will make a significant impact as rookies while upgrading the biggest weakness of the defense.
Even Kevin Minter at middle linebacker will be a slight upgrade in the pass rush, considering he had 3.5 last year vs Rey Maualuga’s four career sacks in nine seasons.
Speaking of, simply subtracting Maualuga and Domata Peko from this defense, should make the group better. Those two were consistently below-average starters throughout their careers, even when the Bengals had an elite defense. Replacing them with even average players will be an upgrade to this defense. The plan is for Minter and Andrew Billings to replace them as starters, respectively.
Oh, and lest we forget, Vontaze Burfict has become an elite linebacker who is primed for a big 2017 season. He too is very high on what this defense can accomplish.
The best linebacker in the AFC North? pic.twitter.com/LU1z5uLYmZ— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 13, 2017
“I kind of feel like we’re ahead of the game a little bit this year,” Burfict said. “This is probably the year I feel like we advanced and a lot of guys are getting it and understanding the playbook. I don’t feel like there have been a lot of mental errors. We’re able to come into this minicamp and put other things in because they succeeded in the first OTAs. So coming into training camp we should probably have a full playbook in and just come in and execute it.”
One of the biggest improvements Burfict feels this defense has made is with communication. Rather than try to make a lot of quick pre-snap adjustments, Burfict says the Bengals are focusing more on calls that allow the defense to attack more than think.
“The defensive line didn’t know what the linebackers had to do or the safeties had to do and I feel like this year we’re on the same page,” Burfict said of the difference from last year to this year. “We eliminated some things to communicate pre-snap, just allowing us to play fast rather than communication. Just go out and play fast.”
We saw this play out as the season wore on in 2016. Far too often in the early part of the season the defense gave up big plays and touchdowns because of busted coverage. That decreased as the year wore on, so hopefully it’s an issue that doesn’t rear its ugly head at any point this year. It sounds like Guenther and Burfict are both confident in the direction the defense is headed as the season draws closer.