The Cincinnati Bengals have spent years amassing talent in their defensive front seven to become one of the NFL's most fearsome pass-rushing units. They ranked 10th in the league last year, with 43 sacks, and had an additional 68 quarterback hits and 191 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
There have been some changes, however, that could affect the Bengals' ability to pressure quarterbacks in 2014. First, there's the ACL tear that defensive tackle Geno Atkins suffered on Halloween. Though expected to be healthy at some point during training camp—if not Day One of camp—it's unknown if Atkins will again be one of the league's most dominant players at his position.
There's also the matter of Michael Johnson's free-agency departure, which leaves a hole at defensive end. Paul Guenther taking over defensive coordinator duties from Mike Zimmer, who is now the Minnesota Vikings head coach, also could result in a few changes.
The Bengals seem well poised to weather these changes and uncertainties. It doesn't look like the Bengals defense will look much different under Guenther than it did under Zimmer, based on reports out of OTAs and minicamp about the defensive line rotation.
Zimmer established a line that is malleable, which worked so well thanks to prodigious defensive depth. That philosophy and depth still remain and, combined, will be the keys to keeping the Bengals pass rush productive.
A combination of Carlos Dunlap and rookie Will Clarke will likely be rotated in and out at left defensive end, according to ESPN's Coley Harvey, while Margus Hunt will take the right defensive end spot, splitting time with Wallace Gilberry. Gilberry has also been playing some defensive tackle in practices, in the nickel defense. Clarke could also move inside, to tackle, in the rotation.
|Bengals Sack Leaders, 2013|
|DE Carlos Dunlap||7.5|
|DE Wallace Gilberry||7.5|
|DT Geno Atkins||6.0|
|LB Vincent Rey||4.0|
|DE Michael Johnson||3.5|
|DT Domata Peko||3.0|
|LB Vontaze Burfict||3.0|
Gilberry and Dunlap were the Bengals' sack leaders in 2013, with 7.5 apiece. Atkins had six before his injury and Hunt had a half-sack in his 165 regular-season snaps. Johnson, who had 11.5 sacks in 2012, had only 3.5 in 2013, owing partially to Atkins' absence for half of the season. Clarke had six sacks in his senior season with West Virginia.
Ultimately, it looks like the Bengals' ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks won't be negatively affected by Johnson's departure or the transition from Zimmer to Guenther. The only question marks are Hunt, who is a second-year player and relatively new to the game of football, and the rookie Clarke.
Gilberry's ability to play both end and tackle helps Atkins rehabilitate his knee without rushing back too quickly. Though the ideal situation is for Atkins to be at 100 percent health by the time Week 1 comes around, if he needs a few additional weeks to be ready Gilberry can step in.
Gilberry is entering his seventh year in the NFL, set to take on his biggest role yet. He's never had more than 24 combined tackles in a season and has a total of 105 to his career. His strength has primarily been as a situational pass-rusher, which has produced 28 sacks. However, he's shown prowess in other areas—he's forced six fumbles, recovered five and has defensed six passes in his career.
It's more likely that Gilberry will be a pass-rusher first and a run-stopper and occasional coverage man less often. In 2013, Gilberry played 548 snaps, with 402 as a pass-rusher, 142 against the run and just four in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
Those numbers are perfectly in line for a 4-3-style defensive end. The only difference this year is that his participation will be increased—he played only 47.8 percent of the Bengals' total defensive snaps in 2013.
Dunlap, in contrast, is well acquainted with having significant playing time, having been on the field for 87.1 percent of the Bengals' defensive plays last year. The difference this season is that he's likely to be moved from left defensive end to the right. He should remain productive regardless—since becoming a major player in Cincinnati's line rotation in 2012, he's had 98 of his career 145 combined tackles.
|Carlos Dunlap's Key Career Stats|
|via ESPN & Pro Football Focus (subscription required)|
Like Gilberry, Dunlap's primary task is rushing the passer. He's had 27.5 sacks in his four seasons with the Bengals, quietly becoming a consistent source of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And unlike Johnson, his production doesn't seem so dependent on the other members of the defensive line.
He's had impressive sack totals regardless of playing time—such as in his rookie season in 2010 when he had 9.5 while only playing 38.2 percent of the Bengals' defensive snaps. Johnson may have earned a large contract in free agency from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Dunlap should prove more valuable to the Bengals.
Hunt has a better chance at equally splitting time with Gilberry than the rookie Clarke does with Dunlap. He has a year of experience in the defensive system and is only practicing at left end, which has simplified matters for him. In speaking with Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, Hunt said of his new, stable position:
Last year I had to learn the end spot, inside, it was really overwhelming. I was really slow with my play. (Playing one spot has helped) a lot. I'm comfortable where ever they can put me because I've been in the system for a year and I know the plays. Last year that was a big issue, the plays. Every day there was something new, something different and I was trying to memorize all that. I feel more comfortable with what I have to read.
As a result, Hunt has already been turning his coaches' heads in practices. Hunt has put on 11 pounds, which has not hurt his speed or athleticism. Instead, it's made him more of a monster. Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes said (via Hobson): "I can't wait to see him at (291) pounds and hunting guys...I think it's going to be a very good improvement. I think he's going to give us quite a few plays at the left end."
Hayes went on to say: "You never have enough pass rushers regardless of how many you have. You always want one more," which means only good things for Hunt, Dunlap, Gilberry and Clarke, along with the returning Atkins and the remainder of the line rotation, which includes Domata Peko and Brandon Thompson.
Despite the right and left ends being swapped and the transition from Zimmer to Guenther, it appears that the Bengals will be business-as-usual when it comes to their pass rush this year. They will remain devoted to a rotational approach. Younger players like Hunt and Clarke will get increased playing time, and Gilberry will be a bigger part of their plans.
The changes the Bengals have made to their defense, and to their pass-rushing corps in particular, are more cosmetic than schematic. A bit of offseason change doesn't really feel like change at all. Yes, there are younger, less experienced players tasked with doing more this year, but that is what should happen on a football team.
Because the Bengals have so masterfully built defensive line depth, they have specialists for every situation. Because they promoted from within at defensive coordinator, they have system stability. There's no reason to think the Bengals won't again reprise their role as a top-10 pass-rushing defense in 2014.