When the Cincinnati Bengals lost defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer after he was hired to be the next head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, the immediate fear within the Bengals fanbase was that the team's defense would see a significant drop-off in production.
According to Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson, this year's defense held opponents to 17 points and 1.1 touchdowns per game and finished third in the NFL team defensive rankings, tying for the second-highest ranking in franchise history.
Not to mention four of Cincinnati's nine highest ranked defenses in franchise history came under Zimmer's watch. He was as good of a defensive coordinator as there was in the NFL, and losing him will hurt the Bengals.
But don't make the mistake of thinking there will be an noticeable decline in the play of a unit led by two former All-Pros and loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber talent. Cornerback Leon Hall and defensive tackle Geno Atkins are two of the best players at their respective positions in the NFL, and Atkins was named to the 2011 and 2012 All-Pro teams by the Associated Press.
Hall was named to the All-Pro team in 2009 and was contending for a spot on this year's team before tearing his Achilles in Week 7.
For us to be able to continue on [in the playoffs], I would have liked to see what we could have done if we had all hands on deck...We did good for the people that we had, and all the players, they worked their rear ends off for us.
While they're both coming off season-ending injuries, both are expected to return to form and be impact players on next year's team.
They'll join the likes of Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, as well as defensive ends Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap, who combined for 18 sacks last year.
There are also several young and talented players who figure to improve this offseason. Safety George Iloka, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson were all starters in 2013 and will be entering just their third year in the NFL in 2014.
Iloka started every games this year at strong safety and finished third on the team in tackles (66) and tied for second in forced fumbles (2).
Thompson emerged as a quality starter and had 14 stops (tackles that constitute an offensive failure) over the final 12 games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). If anything, he'll be a quality backup next year once Atkins returns.
Kirkpatrick was vital to the team's success when he replaced cornerback Terence Newman, who missed the final four games of the season. Kirkpatrick allowed just 113 yards to receivers whom he covered in those games, according to Pro Football Focus.
That's an average of just 28.25 yards per game allowed, which showed he can play meaningful snaps and not be a liability in coverage. He also had two critical interceptions in Week 17 versus the Baltimore Ravens, including the game-sealing pick-six of Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter:
The Bengals defense is much more than Mike Zimmer, and while he's a great coach who should succeed with the Vikings, the Bengals have the talent and depth needed to survive without him.
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