Almost to a man, the Bengals defense played good football in 2012.
Though the Cincinnati Bengals offense dealt with its fair share of inconsistency in the 2012 season, the same could not be said for their defense. For the second year in a row, the Bengals fielded a top-10 defense, and, not coincidentally, also went to the playoffs for the second straight season.
Last week, I recapped the 2012 Bengals offense; this week, let's look at what the defensive side of the ball accomplished.
The Defensive Line
The Bengals had one of the best defensive lines in the NFL in 2012, thanks in a big way to having the league's best defensive tackle, Geno Atkins. Atkins recorded 12.5 sacks on the year, as well as 13 additional quarterback hits, 53 hurries and 47 total defensive stops.
Though Atkins was not thought of as a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year—what with the Bengals rotating their defensive linemen as often as they do—what he did accomplish in 2012 while playing just 806 total snaps cannot be ignored. And it certainly helped the Bengals to have the third-most sacks of any team in the league (51).
Atkins also ranked second amongst defensive tackles in his run-stopping percentage, with 28 total stops on his 263 run snaps and was the top pass-rushing defensive tackle of the year. The threat he posed to running backs and quarterbacks demanded that opposing offensive lines double-team him. In turn, his presence made the rest of the Bengals defensive line that much more productive.
Joining him at tackle was Domata Peko (though first-year player Devon Still and veteran Pat Sims also saw snaps, with Sims returning to the active roster in Week 10 after finally recovering from the ankle injuries that landed him on injured reserve in the previous season). Though Peko didn't have as dominant a year as Atkins—he recorded only three sacks in his 337 snaps as a pass-rusher—he played most of his time against the run and notched 30 defensive stops.
The Bengals defensive ends had a strong season, as well. Michael Johnson was more successful as a pass-rusher than Carlos Dunlap, with 13 (or 11.5) sacks on the season to Dunlap's five (or six, according to ESPN), as well as eight quarterback hits and 34 hurries, but Dunlap was the higher-ranked end overall, thanks to him succeeding at bringing pressure on a greater per-snap basis.
The end position was rounded out by Robert Geathers, who played 399 snaps as a pass-rusher and 276 against the run, and Wallace Gilberry, who saw action as a situational pass-rusher and notched 6.5 sacks despite playing only 353 total snaps.
Though it may behoove the Bengals to add another versatile defensive lineman to draw attention from Atkins, there's little bad to be said about the Bengals line's performance in 2012. In fact, they were downright scary. On any pass attempt, any one of the Bengals's defensive front four posed a threat to the opposing quarterback.
Things were less reliable when it came to the Bengals linebackers, especially when it came to the guy in the middle, Rey Maualuga, who ranked dead last amongst his position, according to Pro Football Focus.
He struggled mainly in coverage, allowing completions on 62 of the 80 passes thrown his way for 654 yards (370 yards after the catch) and two touchdowns, but he also ranked near the bottom of the pack against the run, with just 59 total tackles in 385 run snaps.
On the outside, it wasn't much better. Only rookie Vontaze Burfict, who took over as starter when Thomas Howard's season ended with a knee injury, fared all that well, ranking 18th overall as a 4-3 outside linebacker.
Burfict was the Bengals' leading tackler in 2012, with 127 combined tackles, his 984 total snaps almost evenly split between run defense and coverage duties. His run-stopping skills were clearly on display, though he was exposed a bit in coverage, giving up 54 catches on 68 targets for 493 yards (305 yards after the catch) and three touchdowns.
Burfict was joined on the outside by Manny Lawson, who played 398 snaps, Dan Skuta (116), Vincent Rey (112), and Emmanuel Lamur (136). Lawson was strongest in the pass rush, recording two sacks on the season, while Lamur performed better against the run. However, all three were lacking in coverage, though Burfict was the only outside backer to give up a touchdown.
With Maualuga set to become a free agent, it's likely that Burfict will be moved in 2013 to his natural inside position. The rest of the Bengals linebacking crew, however, needs to be bolstered by players with more consistency both against the run and the pass.
The Bengals cornerbacks and safeties were among the most unstable of players on the 2012 roster. Injuries and inconsistent play both required a bit of creative thinking when it came to the Bengals defensive backs.
For example, Nate Clements returned to the team and played nine games at either free or strong safety this season and six at cornerback while Chris Crocker was a starting corner in Week 1 and then played at either free or strong safety for the rest of the year.
Terence Newman was the starting cornerback on the left side and Leon Hall was mainly the starter on the right, though Adam Jones often switched between both sides depending on the formation. Rookie Dre Kirkpatrick saw action in three games after returning from his preseason knee injury, but a re-aggravation of it saw him end his year on injured reserve.
Safety was also an oft-changing position in Cincinnati, with the only stability provided by Reggie Nelson, who started at strong safety for 13 games and free safety for the other four. Taylor Mays played in 11 games, primarily at free safety, with just three starts. All told, the Bengals had four players with significant snaps at the safety position in 2012.
The constant shuffling among the defensive backs, however, didn't harm the Bengals bottom line. They ranked eighth in passing yards allowed (215.4), and gave up under 200 passing yards in eight games, including their last three of the regular season. However, the team had a total of just 14 interceptions on the year—Crocker and Nelson led the way with three apiece—and while that was an improvement over the 10 they had in 2011, it still wasn't an impressive figure.
In coverage, however, no Bengal corner gave up more than three passing touchdowns on the season and no safety more than one. Crocker ranked fourth overall and Clements 18th when they were in the slot, while Jones ranked 10th among cornerbacks in blitzing situations, with one sack in his four pass-rush snaps.
If the Bengals secondary can find ways to improve their takeaways, and the linebackers can be more reliable both in coverage and against the run, they're but a few tweaks away from having one of the best defenses in the league.
Though the offense got the most attention—what with wide receiver A.J. Green quickly becoming one of the best presently playing the position—it was clearly the defense that played consistently well and had the most to do with why the Bengals reached the postseason for the second consecutive year.