The Bengals offense was the story of the offseason, the preseason, and especially, the early part of the regular season. Sure, things are looking better now that the offensive coordinator knows which end of a play sheet is up. But all the attention paid to the trials and tribulations of Andy Dalton & Co. has obscured the tremendous play of the defense through five games.
How good has the unit been? The answer surprised even me, your humble Bengals correspondent. Per Football Outsiders, Cincinnati’s defense is second-best in the NFL in efficiency (DVOA), trailing only the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” heroes from last weekend, Jacksonville. Digging deeper, only Denver has given up fewer yards per drive, and only the Broncos are better in Drive Success Rate, which tracks the percentage of series that result in first downs and touchdowns. No defense has forced more three-and-outs and more punts per drive than the Bengals.
“But wait!” you say. “Cincinnati played the Browns, and the wide receiver-less Bills, and the Texans in DeShaun Watson’s first start, and Joe Flacco! Of course their defense is going to look good! And they couldn’t stop Aaron Rodgers when they had to!”
First of all, fewer exclamation points, please. Secondly, as he showed this past Sunday, Rodgers does that kind of stuff to everybody. Lastly, and most importantly, DVOA factors in the efficiency of opposing offenses, as well as location, score, time, and many other data points. In other words, the defense is good, even when factoring in the opponents. With the slightest modicum of support from the offense in those first two games, Cincy could easily be 4-1.
The success on D starts up front, where defensive line play was underwhelming last season. But this year, the Bengals already have 18 sacks through five games, after 33 sacks in all of 2016 (they are 6th in Adjusted Sack Rate). When Cincy drafted flashy skill guys with their top two picks in last spring’s draft, attention was drawn away from the next three selections—Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson, and Ryan Glasgow—linemen who have brought speed, power, and intensity to a front desperately needing it. (Technically, Lawson is a linebacker, but of course he is 100% an edge rusher/) Lawson has flashed the most, by far. Pressure stats can be an eye of the beholder situation, but the rookie from Auburn is clearly affecting the quarterback on a constant basis with hits and hurries as well as sacks. It’s quite premature to put him in the class of another 4th round steal, Geno Atkins, who continues to wreak havoc up front, but Lawson is certainly off to a promising start.
Willis has been decent, flashing here and there but without consistency. It is Glasgow that has been the biggest surprise. The Michigan tackle was considered a “try-hard” type—he gave it his all but was thought to be too small and slow to make an impact. But Glasgow’s work rate has made a difference, especially late in the down. As such, he’s taken snaps from the “other” fourth-rounder (from 2016), Andrew Billings, another virtual rookie who missed all of last year with injury.
Elsewhere, Michael Johnson appeared to be burnt toast after last season, a plodder with no ability left to turn the corner on tackles. But defensive coordinator Paul Guenther cannily moved MJ inside on nickel passing downs, creating better matchups for Johnson, who retains good hand-fighting technique. His length gives guards problems, as evidenced by his two sacks on Sunday against Buffalo, and muddies passing lanes, especially for smaller QBs like the Bills’ Tyrod Taylor.
No 4-3 linebacker has been better the last two weeks than Vontaze Burfict. It’s axiomatic that the defense feeds off Burfict’s intensity and edge-of-the-law play. But he’s also simply a smart, instinctual player who closes like an Exocet missile when he sees a ball carrier who needs tackling. Anyone with eyes can see the defense has stepped it up a notch since Tez returned from suspension.
But perhaps the most salutary effect Burfict has had on the linebackers is allowing Nick Vigil to play to his potential. Unburdened from much of the formation diagnosis and weakside coverage responsibility he shouldered when Burfict was in street clothes, Vigil is freed to attack. It’s generally thought that defensive linemen can make a big impact as rookies, while it usually takes linebackers until Year Two, and defensive backs (cornerbacks, mostly) until Year Three. Vigil is a good example of this maxim. He’s much stronger and smarter than he was as a wide-eyed rookie, and isn’t relegated to spot duty as a result.
Secondary excellence and depth has always been a Bengals strength and point of focus, and they haven’t disappointed. Sunday proved the wisdom of stocking the shelves deep. Most teams that lose both starting corners, as Cincy did when Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones left with injury, would be in a world of hurt, but the Bengals just subbed in first-round draft picks William Jackson III and Darqueze Dennard (plus Josh Shaw) to do their thing. Jackson is showing he’s already the best corner on the team, which is amazing considering he missed all of last year and is for all intents and purposes a rookie, while Dennard has been (surprisingly) terrific, in particular against the run.
No, Buffalo’s wideouts don’t scare anyone, but this is still the NFL—it’s not as if those guys can’t catch the ball. When Derron Smith is healthy, Cincy also sports four good safeties (along with Shawn Williams, George Iloka, and Clayton Fejedelem) who play the Guenther Cover Two system without making many mistakes. DB depth is critical in this league, and because the Bengals have so many quality guys in the secondary, they will also always have a fighting chance against quarterbacks who aren’t Aaron Rodgers.
Heading into the bye week, and with the first-place (for now) Steelers looming, it should be comforting for Bengals fans to know the defense—the hallmark of the playoff teams—appears to be as good as ever.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.