Cincinnati Bengals: Analyzing the defensive line positions

Dec 4, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (96) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 32-14. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 4, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (96) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 32-14. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

Can the defensive line of the Cincinnati Bengals return to its former glory in the 2017 season?

The defensive line used to be the engine of the Cincinnati Bengals defense. The moves made in this year’s draft could return it to prominence in short order. Simply put, the hope is that it can become a strength for this team once again.

As the offseason wears on, the time is primed for assessing the Bengals roster as in-depth as possible. That means looking at each position group and looking at what’s there and the outlook for said group.

We’ve already looked at quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and offensive linemen. Now, we jump to the other side of the ball, beginning with the defensive line.

Defensive Linemen

Geno Atkins (32 tackles, 9 sacks)
Carlos Dunlap (49 tackles, 8 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 15 passes defensed)
Michael Johnson (45 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 passes defensed)
Pat Sims (37 tackles, 1.5 sacks)
Will Clarke (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 pass defensed)
Wallace Gilberry (5 tackles)
Chris Smith (4 tackles, 1 sack)
Brandon Thompson (8 tackles, 0.5 sacks)
DeShawn Williams (2 tackles, 0.5 sacks)
David Dean (N/A)
Marcus Hardison (N/A)
Andrew Billings (N/A)
Ryan Brown (N/A)
Jordan Willis (N/A)
Carl Lawson (N/A)
Ryan Glasgow (N/A)
Josh Tupou (N/A)

* = expected starter | 2016 statistics in parentheses

During the early days of the Andy Dalton era in Cincinnati, the defense was the force which carried this team to prominence. those efforts were led by strong efforts from their defensive linemen clogging up the middle and pressuring quarterbacks.

From 2011-13, the group consistently ranked well in multiple aspects of both run and pass defense. The team ranked in the top 12 for rushing yardage allowed and top-seven for passing yardage allowed in all of those seasons. They were also top 10 for sacks each of those years (totals of 45, 51, and 43, respectively), as well as also being a top 10 unit recovering fumbles (13, 16, and 11).

Football Outsiders graded their defensive line performances pretty well in particular; the group rated No. 5 overall against the run in 2011, No. 2 in adjusted sack rate in 2012, and top 10 in multiple run defense criteria (power run success, second-level yardage, and open-field yards) in 2013.

Things fell off a cliff in 2014, however. The formerly-dominant group joined the dregs of the league with a pitiful display all year. As an entire defense, they plummeted to 20th in both passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowedtied for 27th in fumble recoveries, and were dead last in sacks. FO’s metrics did the defensive line in specific no favors either; the group ranked 27th overall in run defense metrics (including 23rd or worse in power-run success, stuff rate, and second-level rushing) and 31st in adjusted sack percentage.

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Of course, some mitigating factors were involved with that steep drop. Atkins was in his first year back after an ACL tear, an injury which often takes two full years to return to full strength from. Michael Johnson left for Tampa Bay’s big money offer in the offseason. That’s two major contributors basically reduced to half a man, so it makes sense there would be a significant impact.

With them both back and healthier in 2015, they helped return the unit to a high level of play. They helped lead the defense to be No. 7 in rushing yardage allowed and No. 5 in opposing passer rating while providing 28 takeaways to get Cincinnati to a +11 turnover differential. In FO’s metrics, the defensive line jumped up substantially all over the map; their rankings in overall run defense, power run success, stuff rate, second-level rushing, and adjusted sack percentage all rose by double digits.

Unfortunately, 2016 proved to be a blip rather than a trend. Atkins was again at peak performance last season and Carlos Dunlap balled out at one end position, but Johnson continued a decline which began when he left in 2014 while Domata Peko played at an eminently replaceable level next to Atkins all year long.

With little beyond their top two guys, the defense fell towards their 2014 abyss once again. They were 21st in rushing yardage allowedtied for 19th in sacks, and tied for dead last in fumble recoveries. FO’s metrics for the line itself crept towards the bottom again as well. Everything related to run defense was in the 20s again except for their overall (19th), while their adjusted sack rate dropped from above average to middling.

Clear moves needed to be made to turn the tides back in Cincinnati’s favor. Good news: they invested heavily in making that happen this offseason.

While Dunlap is one of the better defensive ends in the league, having just one quality edge rusher has proven to not be enough when the defensive line is your defense’s catalyst for success. Johnson has been washed up since the day he left for Tampa Bay’s money. Clarke and Gilberry have never exactly been that good either outside of short spurts, and that’s in limited roles. Putting them in bigger ones would only expose them even worse.

Enter the draft picks.

Nov 14, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive lineman Carl Lawson (55) walks on the sidelines during the first quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 14, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive lineman Carl Lawson (55) walks on the sidelines during the first quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports /

With back-to-back selections in the middle of the draft, the team added Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson to the mix, and both of these guys immediately add a new dimension to what the Bengals should be able to accomplish.

Willis’ talent had him projected as a possible second-round pick by, and it’s easy to see why. He’s an endless hustler and quick reactor that’s well-versed with using his hands to get by his opponents. His style of play helped him rack up 21 sacks across his final two seasons in college. Production like that would be gleefully welcomed opposite Dunlap.

The predictability of his movements could be a problem on the next level, but that should be mitigated to a degree early on with offenses having to focus their efforts to stopping Atkins and Dunlap first. Plus, his type of persistence portends to causing problems even if he doesn’t add a degree of unpredictability to his arsenal.

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Lawson brings a different dynamic to the fold. While many only focus on pure production and pressure caused directly by a player (and to be clear, he’s no slouch there either; 13.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks in 2016), Lawson has shown himself to provide something just as important: setting the edge. In this dynamic, a player may not see his impact show up on the stat sheet, but it does indirectly show up through the exploits of teammates.

This tends to be what many interior linemen and 3-4 defensive ends do; gobble up the blockers and open lanes for the players beside and behind them to burst through and break apart plays. Though we don’t hear about it as much, it can work well in 4-3 setups too; in fact, at his best this is how Johnson would routinely function. The main issue with Lawson is his health; he missed significant time in 2014 and 2015 due to an ACL tear and a hip injury, respectively. And even with players recovering faster than ever from these potentially devastating problems, they can still ultimately derail careers.

With these two in the fold, the rotation at defensive end should be dramatically better. Even though I ultimately expect Johnson to hold onto the starting role to start the year, both should step into major rotation roles right away to make Clarke and Gilberry expendable. By the end of the year, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the two (most likely Willis) could put himself ahead of the declining Johnson in the lineup.

The middle of the defense has a key addition too, as well as some other young players who may be in line for elevated roles.

Glasgow shouldn’t be considered a future star or anything, but that’s fine. He’s exactly the sort of player you need on a high-level roster. Not everyone you bring in will be a top-level talent; plenty of the guys even the best teams end up putting out there have a defined role to fit their skill-set and let them thrive. Glasgow’s comes in his run defense.

The grit and determination he exudes are exactly what a team needs to muck up the middle and stop a ground game in its tracks. With Domata Peko finally being allowed to move on, that role is immediately available to him in the starting lineup, and it wouldn’t be surprising to have him stepping in right away to handle those responsibilities.

Glasgow would only be handling running downs, however. The passing downs are a different story.

As of now, Pat Sims is set for that role again. In the past, he’s been a fine choice for that; according to PFF, from 2012-2015 he was average or better in his snaps — with passing downs being a large portion of those opportunities. Like most of the line though, 2016 saw his performance drop off significantly, and with his age factored in (he’ll be 32 in November) it’s likely he’ll never reach those previous heights.

This is where another recent draft pick can come into the fold.

Last season, the Bengals drafted Billings as a potential nose tackle of the future; in fact, they probably had plans in place to get him on the field for a sizable chunk of last season, especially with the struggles which befell everyone on the defensive line outside of Atkins and Dunlap. The only reason they didn’t do so was because he was injured before the year started, taking him off the table entirely.

With him back in the fold, Sims’ role is ripe for the picking, and as long as he stays healthy it would surprise me if he didn’t manage to bite into a major portion of Sims’ snaps. This is a guy who was heavily hyped coming into his draft, with Lance Zierlein even mentioning all-pro potential in his future, so managing to overtake an aging, replacement-level interior man like Sims shouldn’t be out of the question.

There are some other young guys to consider in these interior roles as well.

Hardison missed 2016 with injury problems; had he not, the quickness which got him drafted by the team in 2015 could have been put on display in a key rotation role. Williams managed to garner some playing time last season and did a decent job in those few snaps. Tupou engorges spacing up the middle with his huge frame.

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Between all these recent young additions, Cincinnati should be able to find a couple guys who could make this defensive line more impactful in short order.

At the very least, Cincinnati has a bevy of options to sort through. Only time will tell which ones they eventually decide to stick with, but they undoubtedly have the best combination of youth and ability we’ve seen in years for the Bengals to choose from.