With his first season in the books, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has some changes in mind.
Not even 10 days ago, when the Bengals took the field in Pittsburgh, first-year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther looked at Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and told him it was amazing they had 10 wins and were about to play for the AFC North title.
"If you would have told me before the year (Vontaze) Burfict was going to play two games and the corners were going to be dinged up some of the games and Geno (Atkins) was going to be what he was this year I would have told you we weren't going to win 10 games," Guenther said Monday.
That said, Guenther is steaming into the offseason bent on improving a defense that fell from No. 3 to No. 22 this season, their first dive into the 20s in seven years. He's starting with a defensive line on a team that ended up with the fewest sacks in the league and going right to the top with two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins in the wake of his toughest season since his rookie year with three sacks and 34 tackles.
"Otherwise we need to go find a new inside rusher," said Guenther, if Atkins doesn't regain his pre-torn ACL form. "I wish I had the answer (to his slide). He 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."
Guenther says the Bengals must "infuse," their line with new blood via either the draft or free agency, hinted they need a starting SAM linebacker that can play the run, hopes they re-sign free-agent middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and gave a rousing endorsement of young cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard.
"Dre came along pretty damn good. He played good. He's going to be a guy we'll have to count on in the future," Guenther said. "Proved he could be a starting corner.
"I thought (Dennard) could play. But when you've got veteran guys…It was just tough for him to get in there…I had all the confidence in the world in him. Obviously he made a big play (forcing a fumble to set up a field goal) for us yesterday. He's going to be a great player."
But the lack of a pass rush is clearly on his mind, particularly after they sacked Colts quarterback Andrew Luck just once during his 376-yard air assault in the 26-10 loss in Sunday's AFC Wild Card Game. Guenther is looking to regain "The Wave,' substitution pattern that made them one of the NFL top pass-rushing defenses in 2012 and 2013.
Instead of guys like ends/tackles Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers playing in situations, they became regulars. Gilberry took 840 snaps (up from 520 in '13) and went from 14 sacks in his first 30 Bengals to none the last 15 games of this season. The 31-year-old Geathers took 604 snaps for one sack while the young ends they thought were going to cushion the loss of right end Michael Johnson, 2013 second-rounder Margus Hunt (187) and 2014 third-rounder Will Clarke (64) combined to play just 251 plays.
"There's upside to both Will Clarke and Margus, to be honest with you," Guenther said. "But unfortunately, Margus got hurt. His maturation got closed off for six, seven weeks when he was hurt. He had some good rushes (Sunday). That's just something where we've got to improve the younger players in the rush, and we've got to look either in the draft or free agency to get some fresh talent in here for sure.
"You play Baltimore, you've got Dumervil and Suggs. You play Denver, you've got Ware and Miller. You got two guys. And then if you have two or three of them guys, then you do get the double team. If you only got one, that guy's going to get doubled."
That would be left end Carlos Dunlap, their leading sacker with eight who often battled double teams without a dominant Atkins. Atkins tore his ACL on Halloween Night 2013 and at that point he had an astounding 29 sacks in 57 games. But he clearly wasn't himself this year.
"We need to get him back to where he was when he was one of the best three techniques in the game," Guenther said. "This year he was just three technique No. 20. He was just a guy out there. We need to get him back where he was a game wrecker inside."
Guenther has been told that Burfict's knee injury that knocked him out of the last nine games should be healthy by next season. He says they are trending toward surgery but there has been no definitive word yet. All Guenther knows is what they were missing.
"I can't reiterate this enough, it's like losing your starting quarterback, it really is," Guenther said. "You guys don't see it that way but I do. He gets us in and out of calls, he makes the fronts calls, the moves, all those things that goes on throughout the course of a game. Not only that, when I coached him as a linebacker, he thinks exactly how I'm thinking most of the time. When you have a guy like that not he field for you, you sleep well at night on Saturday night. Hopefully he can come back and play like he's played in the past."
The fallout of the Burfict injury turned another role player into a regular. WILL backer Vincent Rey played 952 snaps after playing a total of 461 snaps in his first four seasons combined.
Lewis had the highest of praise for Guenther, saying Guenther's first year calling the defensive sets was better than his.
"I was pleased with his demeanor. I was pleased with his ability to handle the ups and downs of injuries, and the things that we've had to overcome all year," Lewis said. "That part is a real positive. There is no question in my mind that as a play caller, in your second year, you're so much calmer at what you're doing, and how you do it, and things unfold so much better for you. You get a better sense of how much you need, and what you need going into a game, and how all of that works, and comes off the sheet and so forth. I think there's always going to be a big jump, just as there is from a rookie player to his second season. There's such a jump in that. You look forward to good things that way."
Guenther already knows how he'll improve next season after watching Burfict and Maualuga leave the field for major stretches. He says he learned one major lesson.
"Probably that you've got to make sure in the spring and in training camp that you get the backup players involved with the first-team players," he said. "I didn't anticipate as many injuries as we got this year so you have to feel confident week seven that a guy goes in there he knows exactly what to do. That's probably the biggest thing. X's and O's that was the easy part."