With all eyes on the offense in the early days of the offseason, here are five leading issues facing defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
MAUALUGA IN THE MIDDLE?
A lot of people thought this move would have been made sooner, but after Maualuga's first two seasons the Bengals hung with Dhani Jones' leadership and signal-calling at middle linebacker. With Jones turning 33 next month and at the end of his deal, now looks to be the time. Linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald said late in the season he's confident that Maualuga and rookie Roddrick Muckelroy can play in the middle, but they wouldn't be able to have the responsibilities that Jones has in the scheme.
Maualuga continues to show big-play flashes and earn Zimmer's trust, but there's no question Zimmer wants to see more.
"He had an OK year. He wasn't fantastic. He'd tell you the same thing," Zimmer said. "He's a football player. He loves to play, he loves to practice. He's a good kid."
Not to mention tough. He played with a broken thumb the last month and is getting surgery this week.
Starter Roy Williams and backup Chinedum Ndukwe are free agents and starter Chris Crocker turns 31 in March as he comes off torn PCL and MCL ligaments in his knees. Plus, the backup that never played after tearing his ACL, Gibril Wilson, is a free agent.
The Bengals were lucky when they couldn't trade up and get USC safety Taylor Mays in last year's draft, because it would have cost them Carlos Dunlap, Jordan Shipley or Geno Atkins, or maybe two of them. But they'll have to get one or maybe two safeties next year. Reggie Nelson, a former No. 1 pick who lost his starting job in Jacksonville, played well here while starting the last month and the team will have to make a call if he can do it again next year. The Bengals also have some options with Rico Murray, a cornerback who can also play safety.
The short-lived tandem of Robert Geathers-Antwan Odom looks to be done with the emergence of rookie left Carlos Dunlap and second-year right end Michael Johnson. Odom, the richest free agent in Bengals history, has barely played in two of three seasons because of injuries and he may be at the end here. Geathers can still be a valuable player in the rotation because he can line up at end and tackle on pretty much any down.
After starting out the season as the backup SAM backer, Johnson played the last half of the season at right end and played physical enough that he showed up pretty well on some goal-line stands late in the year. The Bengals can always move Johnson back to SAM and make Frostee Rucker the starter at end. His knee looks OK after he went on injured reserve earlier in the year. Zimmer made a good point this week when he said people tend to forget the Bengals didn't have their two top sackers from a year ago (Odom and defensive lineman Jon Fanene) and their pressure got better as the year went.
Fanene, who turns 29 in March, is a free agent after missing virtually all this past season with a hamstring problem. He's been a superb role player who can work inside and outside. The Bengals have to decide if they've got enough youth to move on, but his versatility and athleticism is a good value.
So do they keep Johnson at end, move him to backer, cut Odom, re-sign Fanene?
With Johnathan Joseph a free agent, Adam Jones recovering from a neck injury, and Morgan Trent battling knee problems, their once-solid depth is no more. It looked like the Bengals helped themselves with depth when they picked up Jonathan Wade off the street. Joseph battled a high ankle sprain all season and they have to make a long-term decision about his durability. The Bengals may decide to go that first-round route again if they don't want to go $9-10 million per year on him and don't look for them to use the franchise tag on him.
Except for the big-play festival against the Saints, Zimmer ended the season the way he wanted to start. The Bengals didn't allow 100 yards rushing in the last three games after giving up 11 in the first 13. In '09, they held foes to less than 100 in 11 games.
Zimmer says the defense will be better once it gets some players back.
"When we were getting ready for the Jets game," Zimmer said of the Thanksgiving night loss, "we were missing 10 of our top 22 players. And that didn't count guys on the third and fourth teams. At the end of the year we did a lot of things that good defensive teams do. I still think we have a good nucleus of guys. We ended up 15th in the league, which is average, but considering who we were missing…"
One guy that Zimmer is looking to keep it going after a good late season run is WILL linebacker Keith Rivers. Rivers gained a lot of respect from the coaches for playing most of the season with a painful case of plantar fasciitis.
"He was struggling in practice every day. I think he played better at the end of the year," Zimmer said. "Much better than at the beginning of the year."