NOTE: This begins a three-part defensive preview for the 2009 season
Last year, the Bengals finished a pathetic thirty-first in adjusted sack rate, getting just seventeen sacks total. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer tried to fix this chronic problem by incorporating many blitzes, but nothing really worked to get the quarterback down.
For this post, let's consider the defense's defensive line, and the pressure they should be expected to get. While Zimmer does like to blitz, not being forced to is always preferable, for obvious reasons.
The health of Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph also must be taken into account. When linebackers or other defensive backs blitz, the two are usually forced to play tight man-to-man coverage, which increases the risk of injury, especially for the brittle Joseph. The depth behind them is weak; no one here wishes to see David Jones in the starting lineup. Not having to frequently blitz would substantially lessen the chance of one of them getting hurt.
Lastly, neither Chinedum Nduke or Roy Williams (whoever wins the SS job) are strong at pass defense. Playing them in man-to-man and/or close to the line would most definitely lead to too many big plays from slot receivers, tight ends or running backs.
Signing Atwan Odom last offseason was a major mistake (who would have thought the Bengals were the ones making it?), as no sane front office could actually believe his 2007-production would be repeated. Whether it was because of extra motivation from a contract year, plain variance or playing alongside Albert Haynesworth (most likely the latter), Odom's 2007 was certainly not to be expected again. Still, are 2.5 sacks and 8 hurries the best he can do?
Probably not. Improved health and the addition of the three-technique tackle Tank Johnson should bump those numbers up slightly, albeit not enough to warrant the contract Mikey Boy gave him.
It's mostly the same with Robert Geathers, who performed slightly better than Odom in around the same amount of games. Overall, the two make for a mediocre starting defensive end combo, in terms of rushing the passer.
This is where Michael Johnson comes in. Johnson, the third round pick, compiled nine sacks at Georgia Tech last season and is expected by many to bring some production in his rookie season. His major weaknesses -- a low motor and poor run defense -- shouldn't come into play unless Odom gets injured (a real possibility), as he'll probably just come in on pass-rushing downs. However, don't expect much. 4-3 defensive ends typically do little in their rookie seasons, especially the ones taken in the first round. Ends drafted in the third round get a yearly average of around 2 sacks for their career, according to Brian Burke at advancednflstats.com. Johnson very well be a good pass rusher down the road, but to anticipate him providing a large boost to the line in '09 is foolish.
So basically, the front four won't be as bad at getting the quarterback down as they were last year, but they still will not be good enough. Don't expect to be seeing a lot of zone defense. Zimmer will be forced to send more than four men about as much as he did last season; we'll consider that in the next post.