There’s a pervasive assumption going around that the Bengals defense will be as good or better than they were last year. This is based primarily on the fact that they’re young which is supported by another assumption that young players naturally improve as they age. If this is to happen, the Bengals must develop a pass rush; something that’s been sorely lacking in the last few seasons.
The inability to collect sacks has put the onus on a pair of high-priced defensive ends in Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom. Each at one time has signed $30 million contracts with the Bengals, both missed time last year with injuries and neither was able to live up to their huge salary-cap number, racking up a combined 5.5 sacks.
It seems like a decade ago when Geathers ended 2006 with 10.5 sacks. Optimism for the athletic lineman skyrocketed after that performance and resulted in a 6-year, $33 million deal. He has only accumulated six sacks since he fell into that big money, and ended last season by undergoing micro-fracture knee surgery. Let’s all hope his best years aren’t already behind him.
Odom seemed doomed from the start; he hurt his foot on the first day of training camp last season and missed the entire preseason. He healed slowly, starting only eight games before injuring his shoulder and calling it a year. During his fairly limited action, Odom was only credited with three sacks but he did show a serviceable speed rush and a knack for swatting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands before the pass could be thrown. He forced two fumbles that way last year and was close to a few more. While perhaps not as athletically freakish as Geathers, Odom has shown an ability to create some pressure on his own.
If these big-shots are unable to stay healthy or prove to be ineffective, the team has made contingency plans to move on without them. Backups Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene have in the past been shoved into live action thanks to the starters’ injuries and have looked particularly solid against the run. If that’s not enough, third-round pick, Michael Johnson, the man who causes scouts to foam at the mouth at his size and athleticism, has signed his rookie contract and is ready to leap tall buildings in a single bound. There’s even talk about using him at outside linebacker when the defense shows a 3-4 defensive set. He’s one to look out for during preseason games.
If the injury bug hits the defensive end unit especially hard, larger linebackers like Darryl Blackstock and Rashad Jeanty might be pressed into action along the line and that doesn’t sound very intimidating for other teams.
As for the fat guys, the defensive tackles, they’ve never been much of a force getting to the quarterback under Marvin Lewis. Newcomer Tank Johnson is said to be most comfortable rushing the passer and will be supported by up-and-comers Domata Peko and Pat Sims against the run. There’s been talk of using Tank, Geathers, Odom and Johnson at the same time in order to get the best pass-rushers on the field together. Also in the mix is the gargantuan second-year player Jason Shirley, a man so big he casts shadows over whole city blocks.
If the defensive tackles don’t regularly disrupt the passing game, hopefully they can at least occupy blockers to allow linebackers and ends to burst through the pocket untouched. Pass-rushing extraordinaires like Roy Williams and Rey Maualuga could shine in that kind of scenario.
One of these days, the Bengals defense will have to be better than solid; they’ll have to actually scare teams. Stopping the run is great and all, but putting the quarterback on his back makes a team think twice about their game plan. If the big money players don’t earn their keep this season and get some sacks, a new approach to the pass rush experiment may be in order.