Old D-line rotates back

Cincinnati Bengals host Mandatory Minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium 06/16/2015

There is big Pat Sims again, swatting away a Terrelle Pryor dump pass during Tuesday's workout.

There is Carlos Dunlap before practice talking about his goal of an NFL record 23 sacks this season, brimming with the same confidence that has made him one of the franchise's most prolific sackers.

There is Wallace Gilberry saying he wouldn't be surprised if he did it because Dunlap has the potential "to be a Pro Bowler." but not divulging his own goal.

There is Will Clarke, the new kid, looking more and more like the young Michael Johnson and even wearing his same number of those good old days: 93

And there is Geno Atkins, as usual, in the middle of it all, not uttering a syllable.

"I look around," says Gilberry, "and it is three years ago." 

Which would be very good for the Bengals defensive line because in 2012 they set a club record with 51 sacks as Atkins posted the third most in history and Johnson the fifth most, with 12.5 and 11.5, respectively.

And the reason

they are sounding like Thin Lizzy's 1976 summer hit "The Boys Are Back in Town,' is because they think the rotation is intact.

Johnson, the right end, has returned from a one-year hiatus in Tampa. Sims is back from a two-year exile in Oakland. Atkins, the three-time Pro Bowler, is looking like his destructive self before he tore his ACL on Halloween 2013. Clarke, the third-rounder from last year, has convinced them he's got enough weight and experience to contribute. Last season's league-low 23 sacks are a distant memory.

"I felt like I was doing a pretty decent job of getting back there and brining everything I've got, but we didn't have the rotation because we had a lot of guys injured in that front seven," Dunlap said. "Here one game, gone the next…Now we've got those rookies from last year that weren't exactly ready to get their feet wet yet, like young Will. I feel like he'll help us a lot this year…We had Wallace playing nose in some run situations, and that's not really what we want. Having this rotation back and keeping guys healthy is going to be huge for us."

In 2012 and 2013, Gilberry came off the waiver wire to teach a pro's pro lesson with 14 sacks in 30 games on 836 snaps. With the rotation gone last year, he had 1.5 despite playing 840.

"I kind of lost myself," Gilberry said. "I had a lot on my plate playing 70 snaps opposed to 30. It's a big adjustment. But toward the end of the season, I started to get better. I'm trying to reinvent myself. When I'm inside (at tackle) on third down, I'm good. When I'm at end on third down, I'm OK. I want to be great all the way across the board."

The 6-2, 275-pound Gilberry figures all but two of those sacks have come at tackle.

"I'm quicker (than guards). I'm stronger than I look," Gilberry said. "They look at me like I'm not that big, so they want to jump set me and by the time they want to do that they're in the quarterback's lap."

But with Clarke backing up Johnson, Gilberry senses he'll have more sacks because of 'a solid rotation and being fresh in the fourth quarter."

And then there is Dunlap, the enormously talented left end who set the Bengals rookie sack record with 9.5 in 2010. He hasn't bettered it yet, but his 35.5 sacks are the fifth most in team history. He had 7.5 last season and if he does that again, he'll be half a sack behind fourth-place Justin Smith on the all-time list.

But he's looking to do more than that and he thinks a healthy Atkins has a lot to do with it.

"Geno's obviously got his confidence back. Coming from the first career devastating injury, it takes a little while to get your confidence back," Dunlap said. "This year I feel like he's got that confidence, making the cuts and playing on his knee like he was before. Like it never happened.

"Having Geno back to his normal ways before the injury, Geno's going to get 10 sacks alone. Then hopefully I can top him…I want to lead the league. That's my goal every year. So whoever the leader is, I'm trying to have one more than him. Actually the goal is 23 because I think 22.5 is the season record."

Indeed, Michael Strahan set it 14 years ago with the Giants. If Dunlap is going to get 23, he'll have to perfect what he calls his "get off," his jump off the ball. He has spent the offseason immersed in it.

"Working on my hips. Just working on stretching a lot more, getting a lot more flexible and just staying on top of it," Dunlap said. "Just watching the ball and being ready. The main thing is getting in a functional stance rather than a comfortable stance. That's one huge thing that I'm trying to remind myself of every snap.

"I've just been listening to all the vets and studying myself on tape more with my get-off. Obviously I focus on my pass rush, but I hadn't really ever studied by get off. Now I'm studying my get off more."

The way defensive line coach Jay Hayes sees it, it is Dunlap becoming more aware of the little things.

"The difference is he's in a comfortable stance he may be able to feel it's not stressing him and easy to get in and out of. I want him to be able to get off on the snap and have it where he's stressing other people," Hayes said. "What he needs to do is whenever it's to his advantage if he knows what's going on and you can beat somebody on the snap use your God-given ability."

Both Dunlap and Hayes say in a lot of cases he simply has to finish. Hayes says he missed half a dozen last year and never mind Strahan. Those would have given him 13.5, one better than Atkins' career high.

"He's been there he just needs to not miss the layups because he'll be there on it. Last year he probably missed a good six. He probably missed as many as he made," Hayes said. "It's hard to get guys down. You ever tried to grab Ben Roethlisberger? This is hard stuff. That's his thing. That's why they gave him all that money, to do that. He does it pretty good. Hopefully he can get him — it's like shooting that three — some games he's hot. You can get your percentages up and you'll be good…Bottom line is if he can finish better. You get his close to somebody and you have to finish them."

Everybody can't wait to see Clarke start in his second season. Now that he's put on enough weight to be at 290 pounds, Hayes sees enough strength to contribute, as opposed to last year's 64 rookie snaps.

"You can tell by things you've seen in practice, can't wait to get the pads on and play the preseason games and see how he does," Hayes said. "I think he has solid footing to take a leap… He couldn't do that last year. He'd jolt somebody…He needs to continue on his get-offs and stuff like that. That's something I've always been on him about. He's getting better at it. I wish he would get that trigger going all the time. His is more focus a little bit on the little things. It's coming. And he's young."

Young enough that he reminds Dunlap of the young Michael Johnson.

"Especially wearing that 93. I still mess around and call Mike 93 sometimes," Dunlap said. "Because we were 96 and 93.  I forget he's 90, so I keep forgetting that. I just have to remind myself that. It's the new Mike.

"Mike started off with the dreads (dreadlocks) and that's basically what Will has now.  And like how Mike had that one offseason and put on all that weight, that's what Will just did this offseason and so I look forward to seeing it pay off."

They know it has already paid off in another time. Gilberry says it's hard to explain the feeling they get being back together. He says the bond between these defensive linemen is the tightest he's ever seen.

"You should see our group text. We talk about everything," Gilberry said.

The talk is again of rush, sacks, and the rotation.

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