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The Bengals defense has 47 sacks this season, second in the NFL
Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis knows all about a championship defense. In 2000, he was defensive coordinator when the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV. That Ravens defense is ranked as the third best defense in NFL history according to ESPN. The 2012 Bengals won't be competing for any of those accolades, but Coach Lewis is in position to make yet another defensive-led run into the playoffs.
Many players have contributed to the success of the Bengals' defense but the undoubted leader has been third year defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Atkins found out yesterday that he will be attending the Pro Bowl for the second time following this season. Differently from last year, however, Atkins will be starting for the AFC team in Hawaii.
En route to earning enough votes for the Pro Bowl, Atkins has amassed 12.5 sacks through the first 15 games of the year; helping the Bengals to second in the NFL in sacks. Atkins' presence in the middle has been problematic for opposing offensive linemen. His impact ranges even further than his team leading sack total. When asked of Atkins, tackle Andrew Whitworth had the following to say, "The truth is he's far more disruptive than just 12 sacks. As good as it is that doesn't even tell the story."
Of the Bengals' 47 total sacks, 38 are by defensive linemen. defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap along with defensive tackle Domata Peko join Atkins in the starting lineup for the defensive line. Together, they have 16.5 sacks combined to add to Atkins' 12.5.
Atkins was chosen as the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after racking up two sacks and a forced fumble in the late win over Pittsburgh. Atkins is the third Bengals defensive lineman to be chosen as defensive Player of the Week this year. Dunlap and Michael Johnson received the award.
The defensive line has been great at keeping defenses to short gains and hurried passing decisions but the linebackers have been stellar thus far as well. Fourth year linebacker Rey Maualuga has taken a leadership role on the defense this year, setting a good example for rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict out of Arizona State. These two players lead the team with 112 and 109 tackles, respectively.
Other players like safety Reggie Nelson and cornerbacks Adam Jones and Terence Newman have brought added security from the defensive secondary. Nelson has been solid this season with 56 tackles, one sack, three interceptions, five tackles for loss, eight passes deflected and two forced fumbles.
Jones has a sack, nine passes deflected and a forced fumble. On punt returns, he averages 12.3 yards per return and scored Week 2 against the Browns with an 81-yard punt return for touchdown.
Newman has added another 75 tackles along with two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and ten passes deflected.
In a low-scoring, hard fought battle against the Steelers last week, the Bengals showed that they can survive in physical match-ups and grind out wins. That's exactly what they can expect to see this weekend versus the Ravens.
Running back Ray Rice has always caused problems for Bengals' defenses and Joe Flacco is consistent if nothing else. Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer has his hands full this week plotting how to contain the Ravens although they have fallen off the last few weeks losing three out of four. Week 17 should be much more like last week's meeting with the Steelers than the thrashing the Ravens put on the Bengals on Monday Night Football to begin the season.
If the Bengals are to succeed deep into the playoffs, the foundations will have to be a solid running game and a stingy defense. Both of these groups are trending in the right direction. Let's just hope it continues as long as it can.