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Bengals Gab Looks At the D-Line

As the offseason activity dies down and we roll towards the promise of football again under the summer sun, let us look to the future! Bengals Gab will be looking at each of the individual position groups on the team over the next several days, providing readers with a grade on each and a primer as training camp and the preseason approaches.

Next up, we switch to the defense, starting with the defensive line.

For the first time in decades, the Bengals can boast a legitimately deep and talented rotation along the defensive line. At least on paper, this group looks impressive.

Defensive Tackles

Marvin Lewis spent years trying to develop a stout interior group of tackles, missing on attempts to lure Warren Sapp, Shaun Rogers and others to the queen city. It appears he finally has two quality starters, one home-grown in Domata Peko, and the other an import in Tank Johnson. Both are effective against the run and managing gap responsibility and both can give a good push in pass rush up the middle. Pat Sims continues to develop and has made some solid plays while being worked into the rotation. The team has high hopes for fourth-round pick Geno Atkins from Georgia, and gave 2009 draft pick Clinton McDonald a red-shirt year on the practice squad.

Defensive Ends

This group is dripping with as yet unrealized potential. Robert Geathers is solid, but hasn’t produced the numbers expected of him after his 10.5 sacks in 2006. It was expected that his production would increase with help on the other side from last year’s big free agency plunge, Antwan Odom. Odom had an impressive 8 sacks, 2 passes defensed and a blocked kick in the first six games, but went down with a season-ending injury. His replacement, Jonathan Fanene is a high-motor, high effort player who reeled in 6 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown while being strong against the run. The team expects to have all 3 players back and healthy for the 2010 campaign.

2006 third-round pick Frostee Rucker played well in spot duty, pulling in a sack and a big interception in the win at Pittsburgh. 2009 third-rounder Michael Johnson was impressive in his first season in stripes, getting 3 sacks and 5 passes defensed in mainly third-and-long situations. Johnson’s 6-7 frame proved to cause havoc with opposing QBs.  Johnson has been so productive and athletic this spring that he’s been practicing at linebacker as well.

Additionally, the team has high hopes for this year’s second-round pick, Carlos Dunlap. The former Florida Gator has a long frame similar to Johnson and Odom, and was highly productive in the ultra-competitive SEC.

Both line groups are coached capably, though unspectacularly, by Jay Hayes.

Overall Position Group Grade: B

As with the receivers, this group looks impressive on paper, but the proverbial proof will be in the on-field pudding. The line should continue to provide excellent run support, maintaining the line of scrimmage and allowing the linebacking corps to make plays.

The pass rush is the big question mark. For the team to repeat as division champions, they must get more pressure on the quarterback, particularly with their front four. The more pressure the line generates, the more effective the entire defense becomes as the linebackers and safeties can be free to fill zones. This is defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s biggest challenge to improving the defense in 2010.

A healthy Odom should immediately help in this area.  He was emerging as a legitimate league leader before his injury. Fanene gained excellent experience and should improve upon last year’s numbers with similar playing time. Johnson and Dunlap should give solid pressure in nickel and dime packages, where Odom and Fanene can slide inside and play tackle, clogging interior passing lanes with their long arms.

Rucker may find himself the odd man out with too many more talented options ahead of him. However, depth will remain a concern. The line suffered numerous injuries in 2009 with Tank Johnson, Geathers, Peko, and Odom all missing time due to various nicks and dings.

If they can stay healthy and build some rapport as a unit, the defense should get be even better than their #4 finish last year.

What do you think?  Vote on a grade and leave a comment!

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