Newest AFC North Power Defense: Cincinnati Bengals

Doug TifftContributor ISeptember 20, 2009

GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 20: Quarterback Aaron Rogers #12 of the Green Bay Packers is sacked by defensive end Antwan Odem #98 of the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field on September 20, 2009 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Bengals defeated the Packers 31-24. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

For years, the AFC North has represented the gold standard in NFL toughness, as hard-hitting defensive stalwarts Baltimore and Pittsburgh have dominated the division.

Well, don’t look now, but there may just be a new addition to the division’s—and league’s—elite defensive units: the Cincinnati Bengals.

After turning in six sacks—five from rejuvenated defensive end Antwan Odom—on Sunday in a 31-24 victory over the Green Bay Packers, the Bengal defense has proven to have filled some of the holes in an already effective defensive unit that finished the 2008 season 16th in the league in total defense.

Odom’s emergence after missing four games in ’08 with shoulder and foot ailments has been a major factor in curing the Bengal pass rush that produced only 17 sacks a year ago.

The sixth-year defensive end has benefited from an increase in favorable matchups through the first two weeks as a result of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s third down alignment, moving Odom to defensive tackle and inserting rookie pass-rusher Michael Johnson on the outside of the Bengal four-man front.

In order for the pass rush to continue its production Zimmer will likely have to utilize more blitz packages against healthy offensive lines—something the Bengals have not faced for four quarters yet—in upcoming games against Pittsburgh (week three) and Baltimore (week five).

Part of the reason the pass rush has been so effective in the first two weeks has been because of the opposing offenses’ necessity for the aerial attack in lieu of an effective ground game. A Cincinnati defense that allowed 11 opponents to surpass 100 yards on the ground in 2008 has held opponents under 90 rushing yards in the first two weeks, in large part because of a slew of new additions.

The linebacking corps has been revamped by the return of 2008 first round pick Keith Rivers, who missed the final nine games last season with a broken jaw. When combined with Rivers’ Southern California brethren Rey Maualuga—Cincinnati’s second round choice in the 2009 draft—an aging, undermanned unit from a year ago now boasts a lineup of hard-hitting playmakers.

Rivers and Maualuga—along with run-stopping safety Roy Williams, an offseason addition from Dallas—will have to be cleaning up a lot of action on Sunday against Pittsburgh. The Steelers run game typically isolates linebackers by negating four-man fronts with combo blocking from interior linemen Trai Essex, Justin Hartwig and Chris Kemoeatu.

Even with defensive tackles Demota Peko and Tank Johnson—the latter of which being the latest career-reclamation project of Bengals owner Mike Brown after signing a one-year deal in the offseason—nullified against the ground attacks of upper-echelon opponents, the newfound stinginess of the Bengal defensive unit has allowed the Cincinnati defense to take its place in the AFC North mold.

Toughness. Defense. Hitting. It’s in Cincinnati now.