CINCINNATI – There’s not a lot of oooing and ahhhhing that comes from watching the defensive line of a football team practice. Receivers get to make diving catches from quarterbacks who throw the ball 40 yards downfield. Defensive backs can make interceptions, and running back get to show off their speed and power.
Defensive linemen? They’re not allowed to hit the quarterback, and it’s difficult to fully simulate the play-by-play grinding and shoulder-pad smacking that goes on in the trenches. It’s tough to get a full appreciation for this Bengals position group, but watching them every day going through their drills helps give one a sense of how good they are. They are methodical, attentive and diligent about their work, whether anyone is watching or not.
“It’s the best in the NFL,” said offensive tackle Anthony Collins.
He’s admittedly biased toward his teammates from the opposite side of the ball, but they’ve earned their way to at least be part of the argument.
Three years ago, the combination of tackle Geno Atkins and ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap were dubbed the Fisher-Price package because of their youth and high-end talent. Those three, plus tackle Domata Peko, are the headliners of a position group that is the heart of the defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and line coach Jay Hayes has used a rotation of as many as eight lineman the past few seasons, and they figure to continue using that wave approach.
If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
“We all believe in each other, and we keep each other accountable,” said Peko, who is in his eighth season. “They know I’m going to be in my A gap, that Geno is going to be his B gap, Dunlap and Mike are going to be in their C gaps. When you play like that and can really trust in one another, you can get a lot done.”
The defensive line got a lot done last season. Linemen had 40 of the 51 sacks the defense produced, including 27 by the defensive ends. Sacks are sexy but there is more dirty work involved.
“I don’t have to worry about them,” said middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. “The guys up front make us that much better as linebackers. Vontaze (Burfict) making 170-something and I think I made 150-something (tackles), none of that would’ve happened without the guys up front.”
Atkins has been a Pro Bowl selection each of the past two seasons and earned first-team All-Pro honors last season. The Bengals thought enough of Johnson to make him their franchise player in free agency, complete with an $11,175,000 price tag for this season. Dunlap was signed to a five-year extension worth $40 million after the Bengals and Johnson couldn’t reach an agreement on a long-term deal.
Behind them are veteran ends Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry, second-year tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson and rookie Margus Hunt.
“Any time you can get people talking about you, it just means you’ve got to work even harder to keep that level of expectations high,” said Johnson.
Johnson was a third-round pick in 2009. At that time he was seen as a project, a 6-foot-7 athletic player with long arms and a knack for getting in the way of passes. He has grown into an every-down player.
“Overall knowledge of the game, understanding you don’t have to do a whole bunch of crazy stuff,” he said about his improvements. “Just work on a few things and be good at that and try to perfect that. You watch other guys and try to take in some things from their game and add them to your game, but just understand what you do best and work on that.”
Johnson might have been talking about himself at the time, but it’s a good theme for the entire unit.
“One thing about our defensive line that I really love, Coach (Hayes) really doesn’t have to push us because we push each other,” said Peko. “When we’re out there on that field, we try not to waste any snaps, we try to make the most of every play and try to get better one play at a time.”