When the Cincinnati Bengals put their finishing touches on a depressing conclusion to the 2014 season, it was evident (and shocking) how horrible their once fearsome pass rush had become. Let me qualify that a bit more artistically -- their pass rusher wasn't necessarily horrible, but the amount of times they sacked quarterbacks was staggering. Last season, Cincinnati generated a league-low 20 quarterback sacks after averaging 46.3 sacks between 2011-2013, which ranks second-least during Marvin Lewis' tenure (17 in 2008).
"The pass rush is overrated by what people are saying," Lewis said at the end of last season, clearly trying to deflect an narrative that Cincinnati needs help. "If you look at the number of pressures, completion percentage is down, interceptions are up. Those are things that are important. Sacks don't win games. You can have 50 sacks every year, it has never equated to championship teams. Not once."
Cincinnati spent $20 million to bring Michael Johnson back earlier this year, watched Geno Atkins train (rather than rehabilitate) and grinned as Carlos Dunlap continued showing improvement. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who had relied entirely too much on a depleted defensive line last season, is creating more stunts, mismatches and gaining a feel as a play-caller -- this is only his second season calling plays.
Everything is clearly better than last season.
Four games into the regular season, the Bengals have already generated 11 quarterback sacks, all of which have come from the defensive line -- Carlos Dunlap (3.5), Geno Atkins (3.0), Domata Peko (2.0), Michael Johnson (1.0), Wallace Gilberry (1.0), Will Clarke (0.5).
"We've had a good start to the season, the first four football games," said Lewis following Cincinnati's 36-21 win over the Chiefs. "We've gotten pressure in each game, whether it be with pressures or four-man, three-man, five-man, six-man, we did a good job today. We've just got to keep it up. Everybody has to work together — rush and coverage has to work together all the time."
With 9:03 remaining in the first quarter, Michael Johnson was initially targeted by left tackle Donald Stephenson and left guard Ben Grubbs. Because Peko looped around Johnson's inside slant, Stephenson shifted outside to address Peko's stunt. Grubbs, on the other hand, and for some reason, left -- he sprinted to the other side of the offensive line. Thanks to the miscommunication/confusion, Johnson broke free to drop quarterback Alex Smith for a nine-yard loss.
Despite the nine-yard loss, Kansas City picked up another first down two plays later, converting a third and eight scenario with a well-placed completion to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, finding a gap in Cincinnati's zone coverage between Dre Kirkpatrick and Reggie Nelson -- Johnson nearly sacked Smith again due to Stephenson's attention inside.
Johnson finished with four tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, three hits on the quarterback, a batted pass and a forced fumble. Not bad.
Peko recorded the first of his two sacks (which we believe is in dispute) when an unexpected snap forced Smith to improvise on the busted play. Kansas City, unable to acquire another first down, kicked a field goal two plays later. On Kansas City's ensuing possession, Peko recorded his second sack of the afternoon with 7:43 remaining in the second quarter, successfully beating Mitch Morse's block.
More impressively, Peko gave popularity to this custom-made belly dance.
Domata Peko loves to eat your QB pic.twitter.com/puubvrFI0q— SB Nation GIF (@SBNationGIF) October 4, 2015
Get in my belly, QB pic.twitter.com/vvnP5tMz0M— SB Nation GIF (@SBNationGIF) October 4, 2015
What does he have to say about the dance?
"I'm like Fat Boy. I'm a fat guy, 300 pounds, 325 pounds," Peko said via Bengals.com. "I'm hungry. I'm just telling them I'm eating and my stomach is getting full making plays. Big 300-pounder moving around."
I love this guy.
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap finally got into the act with 12:40 remaining in the third quarter. Dunlap and defensive tackle Geno Atkins ran an "X" stunt, meaning Atkins cut outside (taking the offensive guard with him) while Dunlap looped around inside -- this play worked because of Dunlap's hesitation and the Chiefs not exchanging defenders. Once Smith avoided Atkins, Dunlap, whose inside move easily defeated Eric Fisher, had a clear shot on Kansas City's quarterback.
Kansas City lost eight yards on the third down play, pushing them back to their own 12-yard line and forced them to punt for the first time.
With 1:22 remaining in the third quarter, Smith, called for intentional grounding with Pat Sims leveling the quarterback, added an unscheduled pitstop into Kansas City's drive, forcing them into a second-and-20 scenario from their own 27-yard line. It was time for Cincinnati's best pass rusher Geno Atkins, jealously watching his teammates making plays, to make his own.
And this was a very Atkins-like play.
Using his leverage and deceptive strength, Atkins muscled Mitch Morse into the backfield before securing a two-point takedown (amateur wrestling term), launching himself toward Smith for the sack and 10-yard loss.
At this point, Kansas City was facing a third-and-30 situation with 33 seconds remaining in the third -- had the Chiefs picked up yardage, it would mean a manageable third down scenario. Instead, Kansas City called a tight end screen to Travis Kelce; Michael Johnson knocked the football free and it was recovered by Reggie Nelson.
"That was a great play by him. I didn't know how it came out and someone said MJ punched it out," Nelson said via Bengals.com. "We're always teaching about our D-line running to the ball and that's what they did. That's what I love about our defense. They just keep playing and they'll yell at us when we stop. When it comes to the game, it's just natural instinct for them to run."
Several plays later, Cincinnati took a 29-15 lead on Jeremy Hill's five-yard touchdown run and his ensuing two-point conversion.
Despite Kansas City scoring points on seven of their 10 possessions on Sunday, they didn't score a touchdown. Kansas City entered the redzone three times, going as far as the Bengals' 10-yard line during their initial possession of the game. However, Johnson and Dunlap forced Smith out of the pocket as he scrambled to the four-yard line.
Kansas City converted a field goal but lacked any significant threat to score a touchdown throughout the afternoon.
"We gave up some yards. They had the ball most of the game, but we've got to get them off the field," Peko said via Bengals.com. "But I Iiked the fight in our team. We kept our composure and held them to field goals. Field goals are cool but you're going to have hard time winning not scoring touchdowns."
According to Pro Football Focus, in addition to the five quarterback sacks Cincinnati generated on Sunday, the defense added five additional hits on the quarterback and 16 hurries, led by Johnson (six pressures), Geno Atkins (five pressures) and Carlos Dunlap (four pressures). Wallace Gilberry had two pressures but made his presence known during an end around where an unblocked Gilberry dropped De'Anthony Thomas for an eight-yard loss.
Kansas City, with under six minutes remaining in the third quarter, were unable to secure another first down and were forced to kick a field goal. Cincinnati maintained a 21-15 lead.
If Sunday highlighted anything, it's the celebratory return of Cincinnati's defensive line.