As a team, it's hard to find many weaknesses with the Cincinnati Bengals.
However, the one area in which the Bengals glaringly fell short in the 2014 season is in the pass rush. The Bengals had just 20 sacks on the regular season, which amounted to the fewest in the league.
The Bengals' struggles to pressure quarterbacks are even more stark when contrasted with the team's pass-rushing performance in the previous three seasons, when the defense ranked in the top 10 in total sacks.
It's not just sacks that the Bengals lacked in 2014—it was the pass rush in general, which included quarterback hits and hurries.
As a group, Cincinnati's defense was dead last in the pass rush, according to Pro Football Focus. It had just 58 quarterback hits and 160 hurries to go along with the 20 sacks. The biggest problem came along the Bengals' defensive line.
|Bengals' Sack Totals, 2010-2014|
Though the most prominent members of the line—defensive ends Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers along with defensive tackle Geno Atkins—played the vast majority of their defensive snaps as pass-rushers, only Atkins registered a positive pass-rushing grade.
Still, that wasn't enough for Atkins to turn heads. After totaling 18.5 sacks between his 2012 and 2013 seasons prior to tearing his ACL, Atkins had just three sacks in 2014.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther isn't entirely convinced that the injury was the only reason for Atkins' poor season. He said the following to reporters at the end of the season:
[Atkins] just didn't play as effectively as he has in the past. Whether it's in his mind from a health standpoint, we got to get that figured out before next season starts.
We need to get him back to where he's one of the best three-techniques in the game, because this year he was just three-technique number 20, in my mind. He was just a guy out there.
Dunlap was the Bengals' leader in sacks in 2014 with eight. He also was one of just two Bengals defenders with double-digit quarterback hits and also had 34 hurries. Atkins had the second-most sacks. No other Bengals defender even reached two sacks on the season. Offenses simply had no one to fear.
Either these players must get better in the offseason or the Bengals need to find others who can do a better job of bringing pressure.
Guenther wasn't shy about that aspect of the situation either, adding, "We got to improve the younger players in the rush and we have to look in the draft or free agency to get some fresh talent in here, for sure. We need to infuse the D-line because we've got to get better at rushing the passer—period."
None of the Bengals' 2014 starters on the defensive line are impending free agents, but some—if not all—could see their playing time decrease without improvement in the crucial area of rushing the passer.
Guenther has made it clear that players will be added from the outside in order to turn this around.
Cincinnati's defense, as a whole, was not bad in 2014, which further highlights just how much the absence of a consistent pass rush hurt the team. It allowed opponents to convert third downs on just 37.12 percent of their attempts. It held quarterbacks to the third-lowest passer rating in the league. It tied for the third-most interceptions on the season with 20.
However, there were tangental defensive issues that correlate with the front four's inability to rush the passer, like the Bengals ranking 20th in rushing yards allowed per game. Not only was the Bengals' defensive line ranked 31st by Football Outsiders as a pass-rushing unit, it was also 27th in run-stopping.
There was not a viciousness to Atkins and the defensive ends like in years past. The Bengals have roughly $30 million in salary-cap space to help correct the problem in the offseason.
That could put them in the position to upgrade the defensive line with high-priced free agents like Ndamukong Suh or a collection of less expensive veterans mixed in with high-ceiling rookies.
It would not be surprising if an edge-rusher is the Bengals' first-round draft selection (21st overall), nor would it be surprising if the Bengals took a number of defensive linemen throughout the draft.
The Bengals don't have many glaring positional needs outside of their front seven—and their front four in particular. Guenther has already expressed the willingness to rebuild the entire line if that is what's called for, and it's something the team can afford to do.
Cincinnati had spent its previous three seasons with the pass rush being the crown jewel of one of the NFL's most effective defenses. The secondary remained strong in 2014, but the pass rush—and the run defense, which also falls very much in the hands of the defensive line—took a noticeable and troubling step backward.
In order to be a successful team, the Bengals must be a balanced one. Just as the run must produce as much as the pass in the offense, the defense must not just stop the pass in the secondary but also up front, at its source—the quarterback.
The Bengals' pass-rushing personnel was not up to par in 2014, to the point where Guenther used his last public remarks of the season to call it out specifically.
Expect the defensive line to be the area the Bengals pay the most attention to in the offseason. The Bengals should commit most of their free-agent spending and the majority of their draft picks on players who can add an instant boost.
It only took one year for the Bengals' biggest defensive strength to become its biggest weakness. It can be turned around just as quickly, as long as they make the right personnel decisions in the coming months.