From 2011-2013, and maybe even before then, the Cincinnati Bengals' greatest team strength was their defensive line. While there were three-down staple players, a big reason for the success was the rotation they employed. Keeping guys fresh and putting offensive lines on their heels with a bunch of players with different strengths was the name of the game.
On Halloween of 2013, things changed in an instant. All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins tore a knee ligament on a Thursday Night game against the Miami Dolphins and was done for the year. While he miraculously came back for opening week of 2014, he wasn't the same player because of fatigue and missing most of Training Camp as well as offseason conditioning.
Adding to the issues was the departure of Michael Johnson in free agency in the spring of 2014. While he wasn't a statistical monster for the team, he was an integral part of what they liked to do up front. Cincinnati had hoped Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry would fill his huge shoes, but they both proved to be stronger as rotational players.
What ensued was the club placing last in quarterback sacks with just 20 the whole year, a pedestrian-like 20th ranking against the run and a 22nd overall ranked defense. It was a stark contrast to the Mike Zimmer-led units who perennially seemed to finish in the top 10.
Fast forward to 2015 and the gang's back together again. Marvin Lewis and the Bengals' front office successfully pursued familiar faces in Johnson and Pat Sims to bolster the line and re-employ the aforementioned rotation. Both stats and nerdy metrics show the plan seems to be working. Have a look at some Pro Football Focus stats on a couple of Bengals defensive linemen, via Dan Hoard of Bengals.com:
According to @PFF, Geno Atkins (@GenoSacks) has a combined total of 26 sacks/hits/hurries. Next best DT has 18 pic.twitter.com/Hd4drPYLnb— Dan Hoard (@Dan_Hoard) October 20, 2015
According to @PFF, @Carlos_Dunlap has a combined total of 29 sacks/hits/hurries. Next best 4-3 DE in NFL has 27 pic.twitter.com/b15FWi8U2P— Dan Hoard (@Dan_Hoard) October 20, 2015
Aside from the rotation, improved health and proper conditioning for Atkins as been a major key to the success of the entire defense. Here are a couple of other figures to keep in mind when noting the improvement of the team:
- Geno Atkins has four sacks on the season, already surpassing his 2014 total of three. Gerald McCoy is the only defensive tackle with more sacks than Atkins (4.5).
- Carlos Dunlap currently leads the NFL in sacks with 6.5.
- The Bengals had 20 sacks last season. Heading into their bye week after six games, they already have 17 and rank sixth in the league in the category.
- In a reserve role this season, Wallace Gilberry is already just a half-sack shy of his 1.5 in 2014.
While their overall ranking as a unit and against the run are in the low-20s, you should keep in mind that Sims hasn't been healthy every week and Vontaze Burfict, a critical playmaker for the defense in multiple aspects, hasn't seen the field yet in 2015. The return of Burfict and a healthier Sims should fortify the run defense at a minimum.
You could make the argument that Dunlap is playing the best football of the group in 2015. Atkins has been tremendous, no doubt, but No. 96 has been a force in multiple facets. Our own Jason Marcum recently wrote up an excellent piece noting Dunlap's progress this year.
In Marcum's film review of Dunlap's performance against the Buffalo Bills, you can see his ability to pressure the quarterback, sack him and knock down a pass. It's a formula for success, which he and Johnson have used for as long ss they have been teammates.
Players who were relied on heavily in 2014 are refreshed with the rotation and you can see it at the other defensive tackle position opposite of Atkins. Domata Peko has been playing some of the better football of his career this season--likely a by-product of him not needing to be on the field more than two downs at a time. Brandon Thompson has shown flashes of improvement as well in spells of Peko, with the two combining for 2.5 sacks on the year.
While the greatly improved play of Andy Dalton and the health of the offensive unit have been huge for the Bengals, the defensive line must also be heavily credited for the team's 6-0 start. Health will continue to be key for the group going forward, but the impressive increase in ability to get to the passer will undoubtedly pay dividends late in the season and into January.