Hobson's Choice: don't forget defense

Posted Jul 8, 2014

The readers fire off the ball.

The return of SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur gives the Bengals more speed on defense.

With this being a season to where everyone is looking for Andy, and the offense to take reign of the division and start being "Elite," How do you feel about the defense and how much they have made strides to continue being a force. Also, I read your stuff every week when I am work, love your pieces and hope to get to that level one day. Thanks! Benjamin Faulkner, Highland Heights, KY

BENJAMIN: Thank you for the eyes and the kind words and you’re right. The fascination with the offense’s implosion in the playoffs and the hire of a former head coach in Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator has overshadowed one of the NFL’s best defenses.

The loss of its own coordinator, Mike Zimmer, isn’t a small obstacle. This is his defense through-and-through; the unit that formed the backbone of two AFC North titles and two Wild Cards in the last five years. But what the defense has going for it is the continuity of the scheme with the appointment of Zimmer’s top lieutenant as coordinator in former linebackers coach Paul Guenther paired with relatively the same personnel. Those are two huge factors in keeping this thing together.

Jackson stole the show during the spring with his up-tempo offense and he is a known quantity throughout the NFL. Guenther doesn’t have a track record yet so the jury is out, but it looks like he’ll be aggressive and different. He kept mixing up his fronts during May and June, and as Zimmer’s third-down specialist he’s got a good feel for matchups so the sense is he’ll be bringing heat on the passer a little more often. 

Yes, they lost a major player in right end Michael Johnson and they are bracing for the recovery of two of their best players after the season-ending injuries to two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall.

 But they upgraded in the secondary with the first-round selection of Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, increased their speed with the return of SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, and cushioned the loss of Johnson with the selections of ends Margus Hunt and Will Clarke in the last two drafts. Plus, the hire of Vance Joseph as cornerbacks coach quietly gives them one of the more respected defensive assistants in the NFL.

Hall’s history is he’ll be better than ever after the torn Achilles’, but no one knows how Atkins is going to rebound from the torn ACL. Yet they have that same depth that allowed them to finish No. 3 in defense last year even though they didn’t have Hall and Atkins the second half of the year.

It is going to look a little different, of course. But with Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict running the show, a healthy Carlos Dunlap and Atkins teaming up front, and another first-round corner, how different is it going to be?

Guenther has challenged them by reminding them that the defense also let down its end of the bargain last year in the playoffs when the Chargers racked up 196 yards, so there’ll be an ax to grind come August, too. Given the continuity and the talent, this should be another top ten defense.

Just read an article about how our run D suffers without Atkins. If he isn't healthy throughout this upcoming season, should we get used to seeing the D that played against San Diego? And in that case, I think we miss the playoffs. John DiGirolamo, Toronto

JOHN: The numbers don’t say that. With Atkins missing seven games, the Bengals finished fifth against the run. In the nine games Atkins played, the Bengals gave up 4.6 yards per rush and featured their two shakiest games against the run pre-San Diego:  182 yards against the Packers and 130 against the Bills. Throw in the Dolphins, too. Without Atkins in the second half, the Bengals allowed 15 of Miami’s 157 rushing yards.

In the seven games Atkins didn’t play, they allowed 4.0 yards per rush and the most they allowed was 115 in a home blowout of the Vikings and Adrian Peterson.

That’s not to say Atkins is a detriment against the run. Clearly he’s not while also being the NFL’s best inside pass rusher.  But it does say that Domata Peko and Brandon Thompson are pretty darn good against the run, too. Yes, the run defense blew up against San Diego (196 yards), but Thompson was playing hurt and the depth finally ran out on them with tackle Devon Still shelved for the last three games.

Sure, they need a healthy Atkins and the defense suffers without him. But that’s not the reason they lost to the Chargers.

I would say, though, they  may need some backup at tackle. Atkins and Still are expected to be OK physically, but they could use another big body just in case.

 I've heard a rumor that is said that it hasn't been made public but that Brown has already told Dalon that to get an extension this year he has to not only make it to the playoffs but win a play off game. Is this true? Jason Jarvis, West Carrollton, OH

JASON: No. They’re still working on trying to get an extension for quarterback Andy Dalton.

Hi Geoff, Thanks for providing us fans with thorough answers to these questions! This is a great addition to the Bengals website. A couple quick questions. Do you see a scenario where Chris Crocker returns to the Bengals and plays corner/safety in 2014-15? He was very effective last season and is worthy of another 1 year deal. Also, at this juncture, what personnel do you see taking the field during 4 wide receiver sets? Obviously Green, Jones and Sanu are the top 3, but do you think the Bengals are comfortable with Cobi Hamilton as the potential 4th wideout? Rich Hidy, Cincinnati

RICH: Thank you. There’s no question Bengals fans are among the most knowledgeable in the loop, so I’m probably learning more from you guys.

I’m afraid we’ve seen the last of Crocker, truly one of the great guys off the field and a savvy pro on it. But the Bengals basically signed a younger version of Crocker when they inked former Texan Danieal Manning in the offseason. I say younger, but not by much. He turns 32 in in training camp, two years younger than Crocker.

But like Crocker, Manning is tremendous in the locker room, is very bright, and can play nickel corner if he has to. As the Byrds sang, “There is a season turn turn turn.” Crocker was summoned off the couch three times by former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer because of how well he knew Zimmer’s system and how comfortable he was with him. Zimmer is now the head coach in Minnesota while Manning has been reunited with his position coach in Houston, Vance Joseph, a guy that can be his extension on the field like Crocker was for Zimmer.

Cobi Hamilton has a shot at catching on this training camp.

It looked like Hamilton had a pretty good spring. The kid looks like a pro receiver. He’s got an NFL body, good speed and solid hands. But they have to be comfortable with him on special teams because that’s the only way that fourth receiver is going to be active on Sundays.  And right now that seems to be an open question and one that can only be answered in the preseason.  At the moment you’d have to think that Dane Sanzenbacher has the edge when you line up four receivers. You know they’re comfortable with the way he catches the ball and he showed last season he has a knack for making tough, important catches. Plus, he’s got more special teams experience. But that’s a roster cutdown battle to watch, isn’t it?

 Do the bengals finally have enough talent to make a legitiment run in the playoffs? Paul Roe, Cincinnati, OH

PAUL: Talent isn’t the problem here.  They’ve had enough talent the last two years to do damage in January.  What they’ve needed is some seasoning as well as more efficient play from their young offensive stars (Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, and Jermaine Gresham are just a few) in the playoffs. That’s why this year is so interesting. Youth is no longer an excuse. The core of the team has been to three straight playoffs.

Does A.J. McCarron have a chance to become the starting QB this upcoming season?  Cory Davy, Cincinnati, OH

CORY: No, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be a starter in the league down the road in a couple of years. The fifth-round selection says they see McCarron as a developmental guy.

Even though his spring was marred by some shoulder problems, they thought his poise and pocket presence in the practices he could work stood out. You can clearly see he has the intangibles of a guy that won consistently in the big time. But he’s going to have to build his arm back up as well as get stronger and get acclimated to the league and all that is going to take time.

Saw an article recently about Duron Carter. I think he has a lot of potential. The article mentioned that a team could sign him to a 2015 futures contract. How does signing present CFL players work please?  Douglas Nilsen, Marietta, GA

DOUGLAS: If a player is under a CFL contract, an NFL team can’t touch him. The only way he could make it here this season is if he got cut. There’s a window that opens for working out CFL players late in the NFL season and after the CFL season. For instance the Bengals worked out Montreal wide receiver Andrew Hawkins in January a few years ago before picking him up off waivers from St. Louis in training camp.

Hello, Do you truly believe that Benjarvus Green-Ellis will see his last year in Cincinnati? When do you seem him being cut? Stephen Perry, Milford, OH

STEPHEN: BJGE is involved in a very tough numbers game now that they have drafted a big back in Jeremy Hill with such a high pick at No. 55. It still has to play out and that probably means all the way out because injuries are so much of a factor at running back.

The Bengals are loaded at running back. They usually keep four and Hill, Giovani Bernard and special teams co-captain Cedric Peerman would look to be locks. It could seemingly come down to BJGE and last year’s sixth-rounder Rex Burkhead and with Burkhead turning 24 and Green-Ellis 29 on the same day last week, age could come into play.

But it’s early. Both parties have been around the block.  Green-Ellis is such a prideful guy with a well-earned reputation around the NFL as the ultimate pro’s pro (i.e. he politely declined all football questions this past spring), and the Bengals, mindful of how much BJGE has meant to the locker room, want to be sure they treat him as such while also not closing a door.

 Stay tuned.

Is it too early to predict The Law Firm's role or lack of this year? Does his role get determined by Hill's progress or is he be counted on regardless to take more snaps than him in the first few weeks of the season? Or are we looking at 2.5 million in cap space by season's beginning? I'm ok with keeping Ben as a mentor to the young backs, but not at the expense where his ineffectiveness gets in the way of Hill. What should we expect?  Danny Clarke, West Chester, OH

DANNY: See above.

Would love to hear a follow up story with Clint Boling or Geno Atkins on how their knee rehabs went. What was the toughest part of phys. therapy? Did they seek or need additional inspiration after such a setback? and other such questions. Doug Mays, Atlanta, GA

DOUG: Hard to tell on Geno because he declined interviews this spring (at least to me), but head coach Marvin Lewis has said he expects him to be ready for the start of the season. So if he’s not out there Day One of training camp, that shouldn’t ignite a Bengaldom-wide melt down.

But Boling just may be out there on that first day at left guard after a seamless offseason with Bengals rehab  guru Nick Cosgray. During the first week of June Boling predicted, “I definitely think I’ll be ready for the regular season. I really think I can go the first day of camp, but if not it won’t be too long after that. It went really well. We just never had a setback, we got the range of motion back early, and there was never much swelling.”

Cosgray is a key guy in all this. He’s had such good success with past rehab cases (Carson Palmer’s elbow, Leon Hall’s Achilles, Emmanuel Lamur’s shoulder) that other injured players don’t have to look very far to see how it’s done.

Unfortunately, Hall has gone through an Achilles rehab in two of the last three offseasons so he’s become an expert on the drudgery of trying to put your body back together and here’s how he and Cosgray were dealing with it back in February. Hall has always said the toughest part about rehab is watching everyone else out there on the field.

Will we use a Quailty fullback this year ,so many times last year we needed one on 3rd and 2 or less !!! in the Red Zone !!! Delbert Dixon, Ironton, OH

DELBERT: I thought the Bengals might go out and try to get a veteran fullback in the John Conner mold, but it hasn’t happened yet. And who knows? They may if converted tight end Orson Charles and rookie converted nose tackle Nikita Whitlock don’t light it up in camp. But Whitlock is a guy to watch even if he has to go on the practice squad to develop.

Nobody has ever been able to adequately explain to me why there is a limitation of only 46 players being active on Sundays in the NFL. All 53 players on the active roster worked hard to make the team. Having all of them active on Sundays would not only give teams more options, but it would also limit injuries on special teams. Its a rule that makes no sense. Enlighten me please!! Thanks Geoff.  William Evans, Fort Myers, Fla.

WILLIAM:  I think you missed my response from May 29, so here you go:

It comes down to leveling the playing field on Sunday. If one team has everyone healthy and dresses all 53 guys, they have the distinct advantage over a team that goes into the game with just 48 available because of injuries. It’s a rule that speaks to competitive balance, more than anything.

Hey Mr. Hobson, Love your website. As a developer, your site is top-notch. Grew up in Covington, KY/Cincinnati (1970-1989), but after USMC I now live in Seattle,WA (but still subscribe to NFL Ticket to watch ALL Games). Anyway, I am finally able to make Training Camp this year (only 25th-26th). I looked at the schedule and at training camp, is there an opportunity to get autographs? The reason I ask is because my brother drew an amazing Bengals poster (cartoon) with all 32 teams hanging off of Bengal (I can send you a pic, but most of the wall is of his drawings of Bengals), and would like to ask/pay Coach Lewis and a few Bengals to sign it for my "Bengals Cave" (trust me, 80% of man cave is devoted to Bengals (other 20% is USMC), but am not sure how to go about it. Anyway, sorry to bother you, but I figured you might at least have a some insight. Thanks Jeff Scheibly, Port Orchard, WA

JEFF: You are the one to be thanked for your service.

After practice at training camp is a great place to get autographs and from what I’ve seen you’ll be able to get plenty of signatures. And they are free. But who and when remains to be hashed out since it changes daily, so you’re kind of at the mercy of the schedule depending on the day.

The Webmasters (the indefatigable Darius Howard and the invaluable Steven Hudy) certainly appreciate your observations on the site.

Hey Geoff, I grew up in Cincinnati but now live in China. I'm up every morning at 1AM, 4AM, or 8AM to watch my beloved Bengals Play. My question is this: If the Bengals win the division and get knocked out in the first round again, do you think Marvin Lewis will get fired? Don't get me wrong. I think Marvin is a well above average coach in this league. I just don't know how long you can stick with a guy that can't win in the playoffs.  Brent Engels, Zhaoqing, China

BRENT:  Your guess is as good as mine.  Mike Brown is known for having an eternal supply of patience when it comes to coaches and it would be hard to see him canning a guy that had just been to the playoffs four straight times and won the toughest division in football back-to-back.

Of course, it’s almost harder to imagine a team not winning a playoff game despite four straight post-season berths.  Can’t call it. The only thing I find interesting is that Lewis signed a one-year extension this offseason instead of two, but I’m not sure that means anything. I think we have to wait to see how it all unfolds. Usually, you get a pretty good idea from how it all plays out, although 2007 and 2010 would fool you. I do think, for the most part, Lewis has done wonders the past three years with such a young group and if he wins another division, well, those things don’t grow on trees.

Center-guard Mike Pollak's versatility is just one reason why the Bengals' offensive line is in better shape than last year at this time.

Hobs I love reading your responses to these questions, great stuff. I am concerned about the O-line. Clint Boling is coming off knee surgery, and he wasn't really playing that well to begin with. Whitworth is a year older, good for a penalty per game, and missed some time last year. Combine that with a new center and 60 percent of the line is a question mark, IMO. What do we know of Zeitler's recovery? Pollak is versitile and they like Hawkinson, but where will they turn if injuries happen again? Mike Zitt, Ross, OH

MIKE: Thanks very much. I’m not as worried about the O-line as everyone else seems to be and here’s why:

After a season Whitworth and his knee barely did anything last year until two games into the season, he’s back to his old self.  So he figures to be better and back to playing a position where he’s been to a Pro Bowl. Right tackle Andre Smith didn’t attend any of the spring camps last year because of personal reasons and the coaches liked the way he came out of this spring.

 Zeitler? I don’t know, but he has to be better than he was with his foot injury, right? I like Boling. Athletic. Bright. I don’t know what you think of, but last year the site rated him as the league’s 15th best pass blocking guard and 28th overall guard out of 81 players. And if Boling isn’t ready, they like what Pollak did for them last year. Remember, Pollak is a second-rounder himself (via the Colts in 2008.)

 So either way, rookie center Russell Bodine is surrounded by experience to help him along. And I don’t think there’s a question that Bodine offers an upgrade physically. Let’s face it. At the end, Kyle Cook’s legs were just too beat up to do what he did from 2009-2011.

Plus, I really like the depth. I think they’ve got a find in guard in Trey Hopkins, the rookie free agent out of Texas. Hawkinson is an athletic guy that can play both guard and tackle. They lost the talented and experienced Anthony Collins to free agency, but picked up a guy with a similar track record in Marshall Newhouse from Green Bay. Here’s a guy that stared 31 games for a perennial playoff team backing up both tackles. And you’ve got center-guard Trevor Robinson, who played very well as a rookie two years ago, trying to get back to that form after last year’s shoulder injury.  

Yeah, I know the line was horrific against San Diego. But except for Whitworth, who was already hurting, they were also all dancing with foot injuries in some shape or form. Another reason why throwing 51 passes remains a mystery for the ages.

I would still take this offensive line over the ones in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  And Cleveland’s two Pro Bowlers would make it an interesting discussion for best line in the division.

Hello Geoff, Life Long Bengals fan all 24 years of my Life. Born and Raised in the Tri-State. So that means as a baby I was adorned with every possible Cincinnati Sport's onesie, cap, gloves, binky to the Bottle. Obviously Bengal & Red Fever was in full force my early years and thus a new fan created. Now it hasn't been the easiest to latch on to a Franchise such as the Bengals but none the less I have done so. My question to you(Finally Geoff Says) is, as an educated individual with a solid grasp on reality and a general understanding of how things work in life as well as buisness, should I continue to invest my hard earned money, time and passion into THIS orginization? I am at a crossroads as i believe a lot of the Blue Collar Cincinnati fans are. Do we have only blind faith and a home town bias to Keep us going or should we truley believe in the future of this Team that represents our great City. Thank You. Michael Parker, Bethel, Ohio.

MICHAEL: That’s too lofty of a question for me. I’m just a scribe.

But why not embrace the Bengals?

They are winning. Only the Patriots and Broncos have been to three straight playoffs in the AFC and their past handful of drafts have been praised by league personnel and pundits alike.

They’ve got a bunch of exciting young players like A.J. Green, Giovani  Bernard, Geno, Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, guys that are considered among the best in the league at their positions.

They’ve got a locker room full of great, likeable guys.  Guys like Peko, Whitworth, Geathers, Marvin Jones, Kevin Huber (you can’t name them all), who are always out in the community every Tuesday during the season reaching out to the youth and making you feel glad you’re from these parts.

And the club is investing. Management has wrapped up two of those guys (Atkins and Dunlap) with mega long-term deals and is working on two more (Burfict and Dalton) while extending Peko for two more years. The club has also gone beyond the roster and has pumped money into the team space infrastructure. A multi-million dollar renovation that is set to be completed by next offseason is going to leave the players with a more spacious locker room, weight room, and cafeteria.

Why not the Bengals?

I know it’s not easy. But what team, indeed, what person, is easy to live and die with day after day with it all on the line?

 I might be able to think of one, but first I’ll have to take the needles out of my eyes after watching the Red Sox blow their shot at the A.L. East this season with a miserable week of baseball in which they played like Double A hopefuls while getting mastered in their own yard by the woeful Cubs and the clueless Orioles.

Did the Bosox really win it all last year? I can’t remember because all I see is Nelson Cruz prancing.

Why not the Bengals?

I've heard several national pundits say the Bengals regress this year due to a "major" loss with Michael Johnson gone. I say we didn't lose that much because Geno Atkins is back and he alone makes that D-line special. What say you? Keep up the good work and thanks for keeping us involved during this slow time of year. WhoDey!!!! Nathan Wiley, Dayton, Ohio

NATHAN: Thank you and I agree with you.

No one is a bigger Michael Johnson fan than me. But I’m also a big fan of the Bengals’ recent drafts and their line depth. This is why you take Margus Hunt and Will Clarke early in the last two drafts and extend Geathers and Gilberry before the ’13 season.  So you can pay Atkins and Dunlap and keep your team solvent. It remains to be seen, but that’s how you survive the loss of players you can’t keep. Yes, Johnson is a major loss. But the idea is that planning and development have turned it into a stalemate and not a regression.


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