Last week, I looked at the five biggest questions facing the Bengals’ offense. This week, I am going to turn an eye to the Bengals’ defense. This unit has been a mainstay of the Bengals’ recent success, what can we expect in the 2016 season? These are the five biggest questions the defense faces …
The Burfict-less Games
Thanks to a league suspension, the first three games will be played without Vontaze Burfict on the defensive side of the ball for the Bengals. So, one of the leaders of the defense will be out of commission for the first three weeks … is this a good or a bad thing? Honestly, looking at the schedule, the game where I see the suspension hurting the most is the second week at Pittsburgh. The Jets continue to face a major question at quarterback, as they have yet to offer an acceptable contract to Ryan “Crazy Legs” Fitzpatrick; leaving them Geno Smith at quarterback. I fully expect Fitzpatrick to be back in charge of the offense by the time the first game rolls around; but, I don’t know exactly what he can do against the pass rush the Bengals will bring to the Big Apple. Add in questions about the Jets defense, and I see this as an extremely winnable game for Cincinnati. The third game against the Broncos also falls in the extremely winnable category. Major questions surround the Bronco offense since the retiring of Manning and the departure of Osweiler. Yes, the defense is good enough to win the game on their own – but I don’t see that happening.
The second game against the Steelers is the big problem. Without Burfict on the field Bell could have a big game for Pittsburgh, which could open up the long passing game for Big Ben and his arsenal. Karlos Dansby should help the defense some at backer and we are going to see a lot of P.J. Dawson. Despite the questions, if the offense can hold their own in the first three games, Cincinnati should sit at a respectable 2-1 after the first three games.
After spending another first-round draft pick on a cornerback, one would think that this would be the strength of the defense. Dre Kirkpatrick is an unproven commodity; he needs to live up to his first-round pick in order for the secondary to function well. Can Adam Jones should be the lynchpin of the defensive backfield; but, he isn’t getting any younger and age has a tendency to show quickly in the NFL. Darqueze Dennard is coming back from an injury, and Leon Hall is gone (although is yet unsigned, leaving a reunion a possibility) – leaving Josh Smith as the backup.
Looking at the safety position, the Bengals threw a lot of money at George Iloka and Shawn Williams, letting Reggie Nelson walk in the process. This gives the Bengals a young and unproven safety tandem. Yes, Iloka is showing that he can be a top-tier safety in the league; Williams is the one who worries me a bit. He has shown flashes of ability, will he be able to do this on a consistent basis?
With the weapons on the edges in Pittsburgh and both Flacco and Steve Smith back in Baltimore, the defensive backfield is going to need to step up in a major way in 2016.
The Pass Rush
Last year, the Bengals totaled 42 sacks, led by Carlos Dunlap’s 13.5 sacks. Dunlap was helped quite a bit by a resurgent Geno Atkins, who racked up 11 sacks in the middle. If Atkins can continue to dominate the middle of the line, we should see Dunlap continue to live in the quarterback’s face. The wild card on the defensive line is Michael Johnson. He is going to have to provide more pressure from the other side so offensive lines can’t shift their protection toward Dunlap. I was very happy when the Bengals brought Johnson back last season; but, he’s going to have to produce a bit more in order to take some pressure off of Dunlap.
The defense is going to need the pass rush to make offenses miserable – especially with the questions in the defensive backfield. The youth in the defensive backfield will get a major boost if the Bengals front crew can hold down the fort and make life hell for opposing quarterbacks and running backs.
Quick, who led the Bengals in tackles last season? No looking … if you said Vinny Rey, you were right – and you more than likely cheated. Vinny Rey does nothing spectacular. He won’t blind you with his speed, he won’t amaze you with his pass coverage, he won’t total double-digit sacks, but he will anchor a defense. Rey had 98 tackles to lead the defense last year, following up his team-leading 121 tackles a year earlier. He isn’t even listed as a starter on the defensive depth chart (on the team’s site, which still lists AJ Hawk as a starter, so take it with a grain of salt) – but expect him to log a lot of playing time, as he did the year before.
If Rey can continue his steady production, the defense shouldn’t miss a beat during Burfict’s suspension.
The New Guys
My last question about the Bengals’ defense is how Paul Guenther will use his new weapons. William Jackson III, Andrew Billings, and Nick Vigil were all added through the draft and Karlos Dansby was signed in free agency. How is Guenther going to fit these guys into his rather solid defense? Quite honestly, I think this group is a bit of a luxury rather than a necessity. Any production out of the rookies has to be seen as a bonus – which one will have the most impact?
Speaking solely of rookies, I see Billings giving the biggest boost. He will spell Peko in the middle often and I see him stealing playing time from the veteran mainstay as the season wears on. Turning to Dansby, he will provide valuable veteran leadership to the young fellows on the defense, and may even help rein in Burfict a bit.
I expect another solid season from the defensive 11 for the boys in stripes – and if the offense can match, it could be a fun year.