Air Tight

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The elite defense constructed by former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has continued under his pupil, Paul Guenther. And due in part to that continuity, the team is not only the top-ranked team in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA rankings, but Cincinnati’s pass defense also boasts a No. 1 ranking after racking up three impressive performances to begin the season.

The fact that the Bengals’ air defense ranks highly shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who follow the team closely. Cincinnati was second only to Seattle in yards per pass attempt and quarterback rating last season, and was a top-10 unit in both passing yards allowed and yards per attempt in 2012.

Those performances have carried over to a hot start to this season:

  • Week 3 against Tennessee was a bloodbath, with poor Titans QB Jake Locker throwing a pair of picks and completing just half of his throws (17/34). Defensive end Robert Geathers even had an interception off a deflection that was a product of blanket coverage and a great play on the ball by Iloka.

Through three games, Cincinnati also leads the NFL in opposing quarterback completion percentage, QB rating, yards per attempt and is tied for second in interceptions.

Where did the dominance come from? Well, the defense doesn’t lack for talent, especially at cornerback.

The Bengals sport five former first-round picks at corner: Terence Newman (No. 5, 2003), Adam Jones (No. 6, 2005), Leon Hall (No. 18, 2007), Dre Kirkpatrick (No. 17, 2012) and Darqueze Dennard (No. 24, 2014).

Newman and Jones were acquired via free agency, with the former given his release by Dallas during the offseason prior to the 2012 season while the latter—formerly the NFL’s premier bad boy—was cast aside by Tennessee and Dallas, though his aptitude as a defensive back has never been in question.

With Hall—still an elite cover man in the slot despite a pair of Achilles tears—and Newman starting and Jones performing well as the nickel man, Cincinnati’s top three corners are entrenched. I’m not sure if Kirkpatrick’s failure to crack the rotation says more about the agelessness of Newman (36), Jones (30), and Hall (29) or Kirkpatrick’s failure to live up to the first-round hype. (It should be noted that Kirkpatrick has made more than a few key plays as a gunner on punt coverage and was solid in three starts at corner in 2013, so the 24-year-old does possess value).

Dennard—the recipient of some rare hyperbole dished out by Marvin Lewis in August—has also barely seen the field. The reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner sat out Week 1 with a hip injury and played 16 defensive snaps in the next two games, per Football Outsiders. The fact that Dennard can’t get on the field speaks to the play of the corners in front of him.

At safety, the Bengals start a pair of guys in Iloka and Reggie Nelson who don’t have the name recognition of Seattle’s Earl Thomas, Kansas City’s Eric Berry or San Diego’s Eric Weddle, but have proven their worth in the NFL.

As I mentioned earlier, Iloka—now in his second season as a full-time starter—picked off Matt Ryan twice in Week 2 and also prevented a touchdown in the second quarter. Not bad for a fifth-round pick.

As for Nelson, he was a first-round selection of Jacksonville in 2007, but was shipped to the Queen City on Sept. 4, 2010 for the immortal David Jones. The 31-year-old Nelson has started all but three regular-season games for Cincinnati since, and has morphed from bust to a solid all-around safety.

The return of a healthy Lamur has also done wonders for the pass defense. After missing last season with a shoulder injury, Lamur leads all Bengal linebackers in snaps, having been on the field for 92 percent of the team’s defensive plays.

The 25-year-old Lamur went undrafted out of Kansas State, but caught Zimmer’s eye for his ability to range sideline-to-sideline with speed not typically associated with an NFL linebacker. A healthy Lamur has also meant less snaps for the coverage-challenged Rey Maualuga, who has been on the field for just 37.8 percent of the team’s defensive plays.

Throw in the emergence of Carlos Dunlap (three sacks through three games) and the entire defensive unit is functioning seamlessly as one—not a stunning notion when considering that aside from defensive end Wallace Gilberry, every one of the Bengals’ defensive starters has at least three years under their belt in the Zimmer/Guenther system.

Factor all those reps in with ample first-round and overlooked talent, and first-rate pass coverage has established the Bengals—at least early on—as the league most intimidating defense.

Grant Freking is a co-editor for The Ohioan. He can be reached on Twitter or via email at gfreking@gmail.com

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