In 2011, the Bengals finished the season with 45 sacks. In 2012, they had 51. In 2013, they had 43. Through 13 games in 2014, they have…15. The Bengals are currently tied for last in the league with the infamously bad Atlanta pass rush. What was once the pride and strength of the team is now a glaring weakness.
Certainly, the most obvious reason for this massive drop in production is the loss of both Michael Johnson and Mike Zimmer. But the issue is more complex than that.
Let’s start by explaining exactly how the defensive line rotation works under coach Jay Hayes. Five players end up with a significant percentage of the snaps, then there’s a dropoff to the true backup players. In 2013, the five players were Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, and Wallace Gilberry. Dunlap and Gilberry had nine sacks each, while Johnson had five (and was racking up the hits and hurries) and Atkins had six in about half a season before tearing his ACL. Peko, the run stuffer, is a rotational player. So, when the Bengals were in pass-rushing situations, Peko went to the bench and Gilberry rushed from the defensive tackle spot, as shown below.
In other words, you have three dominant pass rushers (Dunlap, Atkins, and Johnson) and Gilberry, a good pass rusher, but not a dominant one. From a talent perspective, Gilberry is the clear weak link, but he did rack up nine sacks last year with help from the push of the other three and a lot of one-on-one situations.
Fast forward to this year. In short, Gilberry goes from the weak link to the second most productive pass rusher on the team.
When the Bengals move to pass rushing situations, they take Peko off the field and move Gilberry from right defensive end to the defensive tackle spot. So instead of coming in fresh off the bench, Gilberry is playing the second-most snaps on the defensive line. His sack numbers are down from nine to two, although his other pressure numbers have improved, which I’ll explain later.
Robert Geathers, who missed almost all of 2013 to an elbow injury, is now the fifth lineman coming off the bench. It should come as no surprise that he’s added virtually nothing as a pass rusher. He’s always ranked near the bottom of the league in pass rushing productivity, and this year is no different. In fact, among 39 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends, Geathers comes in dead last in pass-rush productivity. That’s one sack, five hits, and eleven hurries in a whopping 310 pass-rushing snaps. In other words, Geathers has pressured the quarterback on about 5% of his pass-rushing opportunities. And here’s another one: his -21.2 pass rushing grade from Pro Football Focus is the worst in the league; second worst is -14.2.
Moving on, there are other major issues with the Bengals pass rush. For one, Geno Atkins only has two sacks this year, compared to 2012, when Pro Football Focus credited him with 16. Or last year, when he had 6 in 8.5 games. Obviously, Atkins was still getting his legs under him for the first half of this year. A 300-pound man who pushes around two more 300-pound men at the same time is going to need a lot of time to recover that knee ligament to it’s original strength. By October and early November, it seemed as if Atkins either played well in run defense or pass rush over the course of a game, but never both at the same time. However, in the last six weeks, Atkins has racked up 17 stops, 17 solo tackles, and 17 QB hurries, which all rank first among defensive tackles and nose tackles. Atkins was dominant in run defense last week against Pittsburgh, stopping three different run plays in the backfield during the first half. On the pass-rushing side of things, Atkins needs to start converting his pressures into sacks, because the Bengals aren’t getting them from anyone other than Dunlap.
Take a look at this chart, which compares the pass-rushing productivity of the Bengals’ front seven over the past two years.
These numbers are all taken from Pro Football Focus. The Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) number comes from a formula that adds up sacks, hits, and hurries. Hits and hurries are weighted less than sacks.
First, take notice of the dominant group of four from 2013: Dunlap, Johnson, Atkins, and Gilberry. All four had PRP numbers in the top tier of the league. On the right, you can see that the four main pass-rushers this year are nowhere near the production of last season. Dunlap is the only one who has truly sustained his production, while Gilberry could be considered a push since his hit and hurry numbers are up. Also, in the past two weeks, he has had two hustle sacks taken off the board due to penalties in the secondary, and another two possible sacks prevented by blatant holds. Gilberry is less athletically gifted than Dunlap or Michael Johnson, but he’s still a good playmaker due to his effort and hustle. He needs to close on more sacks, but he’s hasn’t been a major part of the problem this year. Similarly, Atkins has a high number of hurries, but his sacks are way down; and again, Atkins needed most of this season to return back to his original dominant self.
Geathers and Peko are two of the worst pass-rushers in the league. This is nothing new—they have ranked near the bottom in PRP for the last four years. It’s understandable that Peko’s pass-rushing snaps are so high because he is the starting nose tackle and he ends up on the field for a good chunk of pass plays out of the base defense. However, sending Geathers out to rush the passer 334 times this year, when he’s clearly one of the worst in the NFL, is inexcusable. Sure, he’s a veteran guy who does what’s coached and doesn’t make mental mistakes, but there’s no playmaking ability there at all. He’s invisible as a pass rusher.
Meanwhile, the two early-round picks at defensive end in the last two years are nowhere to be found, but they each have legitimate excuses. Margus Hunt was expected to be a big part of the Bengals pass-rushing rotation this year, racking up sacks in the preseason and really beginning to show some promise. Then, in Week 1, he took a vicious shot to the ribs when he wasn’t expecting it. He played in 17-38% of the defense’s snaps in the first six games, but really didn’t show up on on the stat sheet at all. In games seven and eight, Hunt’s snaps dropped to the single digits, leading many to question if Hunt was playing while hurt. Rumors from the beat writers were that Hunt was nursing a rib and shoulder injury, limiting his playing time and effectiveness. Then, in Week 10 against the Browns, Hunt played 27% of the snaps and made two nice stops in run defense late in the game, but any progress in production or health that Hunt had regained was cut short when he injured his knee early in the Saints game the very next week. Mark Ingram cut-blocked Hunt resulting in what looked like it could have been a season-ending injury. Nearly four weeks later, Hunt hasn’t even returned to the practice field yet.
This did allow 2014 third-round pick Will Clarke to get some extra playing time. Clarke, who looked completely lost in the preseason, was inactive for eight of the Bengals first nine games and has only averaged nine snaps per game over the Bengals last four without making much of an impression. He certainly doesn’t look lost anymore, but he’s making about the same impact per play as Robert Geathers. Bengals coaches have recently stated that they want Clarke add 20 pounds to his frame this offseason so he can play at 290. Clarke (6’6”, 271 lbs) and Hunt (6’8”, 290 lbs), are clearly in the Bengals plans for the future, but it doesn’t look like either are going to contribute anything this year.
The Bengals would be smart to release Geathers from his $3.05 million cap hit in 2015. (They wouldn’t incur any dead money in doing so.) Additionally, the Bengals should strongly consider drafting a speed rusher early in the 2015 draft, as all four of their young defensive ends on the team are bigger power rushers. For the rest of 2014, though, the Bengals have no choice but to continue to waste valuable pass-rushing snaps on Geathers. At the defensive tackle spot, Geno Atkins is the only one in this group (Peko, Thompson, Still) that can get to the quarterback consistently, and the team needs to find a long-term replacement for Peko, who has had only one good game this year (against the Saints). Brandon Thompson has shown far more playmaking ability than either Peko or Still, and one of these two needs to be replaced with an early pick in the 2015 draft.
Lastly, the loss of Zimmer cannot go unmentioned. The 2013 linebackers earned nine sacks, while the 2014 unit has zero. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s gameplan has shifted away from the heavy-blitzing he used early in the season; over the past few games, he has been content just to rush the four linemen, who aren’t getting home. (Ironically, Guenther, the former linebackers coach, was actually the one designing Zimmer’s blitz schemes last year.) Guenther must find a way to blitz more effectively in the final three games of the season. If his defense doesn’t step up the pass rushing immediately, the Bengals may miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Brennen Warner is a contributor to the Cincinnati Magazine Bengals Blog and SB Nation’s Cincy Jungle. You can follow him on Twitter at @JustBeWarned.