Throughout training camp and the preseason, the question of how many defensive lineman should the Cincinnati Bengals keep became a more and more difficult to answer. Conventional wisdom had the debate going between keep nine or 10, so when the final roster revealed 11 trench players on the defensive side of the ball, it was a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one.
Hoarding a surplus of defensive lineman was a prelude to the schematic changes that the position group would undergo from the very beginning of the season. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo recognized that in order to best help (or conceal) his linebackers, fielding a base defense with five down lineman was the way to go. The Bengals—for the first time in who knows how long—were an odd-front defense, and the shift seemed to benefit the team’s best players up front.
Which one performed the best for the entire season? The answer is entirely up to you. The nominees for best defensive lineman are:
Carlos Dunlap, edge defender: The list of edge defenders who had a better all-around second half of 2019 than Dunlap is extremely small; small enough where you could make the argument that such a list doesn’t even exist.
Dunlap had an incredible midseason revival, and the eye test is backed up by the numbers. In the final eight games, he was Pro Football Focus’ highest graded edge defender and run defender at that position. Eight of his nine sacks and 37 of his 50 pressures came from Week 10 on.
In a way, 2019 was Dunlap’s 10-year career summed up perfectly. His dominance always came in spurts instead of week-to-week consistency, but the final numbers at seasons’ end match pretty well from year-to-year. Going forward in this new scheme where he can operate in with and without his hand in the turf equally, maybe we see this level of play for the remainder of his contract.
Geno Atkins, defensive tackle: Boring is not the nicest adjective when describing Atkins at this point in his career, but it’s hard to see things differently. Atkins’ game hasn’t changed since his peak days in the mid-2010s, he wreaks havoc with his lightning-fast bull rush and while the quarterback hurry tallies are still high, the hits and sacks aren’t what they used to be.
2019 was no different. Atkins finished 10th in PFF’s pass rushing productivity metric for starting interior defensive lineman and was 15th in total defense grading. Sack totals skew our perception about pass rushers, and in Atkins’ case, the fact that four of his five sacks came in two games created a narrative that he was disappearing in consecutive weeks.
Atkins is still playing at a high level and removing him from the Bengals’ defensive line would do far more bad than good. We just have to realize his best years aren’t going to replicated at this stage in his career.
Sam Hubbard, edge defender: Hubbard was essentially everyone’s breakout candidate for Cincinnati, and overall, he lived up to those expectations. His Week 1 performance against the Seattle Seahawks, where he had two sacks and seven run stops, created high standards that he ultimately didn’t meet, but he proved his value as a starter.
Like Dunlap, Hubbard saw an increase in snaps as an outside linebacker in Anarumo’s 5-2 front, and his work as a run defender greatly improved in those situations. He led all defensive lineman in run stops for Cincinnati with 42, as well as edge defenders with three years of experience or less.
There’s still a jump that Hubbard needs to make as a pass rusher for him to truly be the cornerstone piece fans already think of him as, but the steps he made in year two bode well for that to happen in 2020.
Who gets your vote for the 2019 Bengals Defensive Lineman of the Year?
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