Let’s cut to the chase. Carlos Dunlap is not mailing it in. I don’t think any player for the Bengals is doing such a thing, but we can say this with the most conviction for Dunlap. The reason why? He’s playing with his hair on fire... more than usual, that is.
The Bengals’ defense didn’t just get better over the past month by accident. Slowly but surely, players from all three levels of the unit began playing up to their potential, despite minimal help from their offense. After Lamar Jackson and Ravens destroyed the Bengals back in Week 10, Dunlap has been the true catalyst of this mini-resurgence and has been one of the best defensive lineman in all of football.
Carlos Dunlap continued his hot streak vs. NE, totaling 4 pressures, 1 sack and 5 stops.— PFF CIN Bengals (@PFF_Bengals) December 17, 2019
Since Week 11, the #Bengals DE is @PFF's highest-graded edge defender
His stats and rank in that span:
-90.2 grade (1st)
-92.0 run-defense grade (1st)
-20 stops (1st)
-6 sacks (T-1st) pic.twitter.com/AQnNLWGW9w
Before this past Sunday, his best game since came versus the lowly Jets, whose offensive line features the bare definition of NFL talent. A three-sack performance featuring 11 total pressures against the likes of Brandon Shell and Tom Compton is still a banner day, but perhaps a bit inflated due to level of competition.
Putting together a complete game as a pass rusher and run defender against the Patriots’ offensive line is another story.
The secret behind Tom Brady’s near immortality has been New England’s offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. For the vast majority of Brady’s career, the now 71-year old Scarnecchia has been developing offensive lineman better than just about anyone else in the NFL. Can you name a great offensive lineman from the Patriots’ dynasty? Logan Mankins comes to mind, sure, but seriously, why do we never hear about individual linemen for a franchise that is always successful?
Scarnecchia is the best in the business for a reason, he gets everyone to play well. His eye for talent combined with Bill Belichick’s own sense for it always keeps Brady’s protection sound and solid. He’s even gotten solid play from Marshall Newhouse this year. Yes, that Marshall Newhouse.
Belichick himself is his own enigma at the podium but he’ll never shy away from being honest about the competition. When game-planning for this game, he knew Dunlap was on a hot streak and the Patriots made a noticeable effort to contain him while also having to deal with Geno Atkins and Carl Lawson.
Dunlap left on top even though the scoreboard didn’t reflect such a thing.
We easily get lost in superlatives when describing players. No one definition of the term “great” is the same for two people, just like no two players of the same position succeed in the same style of play. It’s all dependent on what they’re good at and how they maximize that ability. There’s an argument to be made that players who can win consistently with technique as they do with raw talent are at the very least borderline elite-level players.
This seems to be where Dunlap falls under when he’s playing his best.
You can’t hope to teach most edge defenders some of the things Dunlap did in this game. He’s nearly 6’7” and 285 pounds with 35” arms and somehow plays with more balance than edge rushers much smaller than him. Balance is such an underrated trait for a defensive lineman to have because you can’t produce and weaponize force without being in a position to do so through contact. It’s one of the main building blocks for winning at the line of scrimmage.
So often do NFL evaluators see athletes with Dunlap’s dimensions and become enamored with their potential but fail to recognize their inability to use their size. A lack of balance is usually a reason why.
When Dunlap was knifing his way through the gaps so often during this game, he was putting on a balance clinic. His quickness and length were assets in getting him in position to make plays, and his balance and instincts were able to manifest those plays. I can’t say enough good things about that forced fumble.
As one of the true veterans on this team, Dunlap playing his heart out deep into another losing season shows that this team hasn’t quit, and that’s important. The continued losing does help the Bengals get a shot at LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, but it also could damage the culture head coach Zac Taylor is trying to build. Performances like these help instill Taylor’s message towards the young players that will be here long after Dunlap is gone.
It also presents a decent case as to how little an edge rusher can impact the result of a game, but that’s an argument for the comments section.