Guenther expects better from self, Bengals defense

Paul Guenther is looking forward to applying some lessons next season.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — Paul Guenther has coached at different levels of football. He’s had multiple roles at those levels, including being a college head coach at the age of 25.

His first season as the Bengals defensive coordinator was a learning experience for Guenther. What he mainly discovered is that his unit has to get a lot better across the board, but particularly when it comes to getting high end performances from its high end players. Guenther was candid in his assessment of himself and his players during a 28-minute interview session with reporters Monday, one day after the Bengals’ season came to an end with a 26-10 loss at Indianapolis.

It was same message he had for the players when he met with them for a final time this season.

"When I took the job here I think in coaching when guys get promoted particularly from within you try to be someone who you’re not. My first year I wanted them to know my personality’s not going to change," said Guenther. "I’m a year on the job now. I’ve been through a year. I understand the groups a lot better. It’s going to be different as far as how I do things. I’m going to look at everything: coaches, players how we do things in practice, because you’ve always got to find a better way to do things.

"The season didn’t end like we wanted it to end so you’ve got to look for something newer and better to do and try to be more effective about it."

After finishing 2013 with the No. 3-ranked defense, the Bengals slipped to No. 22 this season. They were still ranked high in several categories, including No. 3 in opponent passer rating, No. 7 in third-down percentage and No. 10 in both red zone and goal-to-go situations but this wasn’t a unit that played up to its previous reputation.

The Bengals gave up 482 yards to the Colts, including 376 yards passing to quarterback Andrew Luck. It was the sixth time this season they allowed 400 yards or more and the fourth time in the last five games they had allowed 300 yards passing. The Bengals sacked Luck just once in the 47 times he dropped back to pass. Although they were credited with eight quarterback hits, there were many more times Luck had plenty of time to look around the field and find receivers.

The fact that the Bengals were last in the NFL in this season with 20 sacks sticks with Guenther. Sacks aren’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to judging the effectiveness of a pass rush but when they’re that low they are indicative of a problem. This season’s total is the third-lowest for a single season in franchise history; the 1969 team had 16 sacks in a 14-game schedule and the 2008 team had just 17 sacks. Sacks didn’t become an official NFL stat until 1982.

Nine different players recorded at least 0.5 sack this season but only defensive tackle Geno Atkins (three) and defensive end Carlos Dunlap (eight) had more than two sacks. Last season’s defense had 43 sacks from 14 different players, eight of whom had two or more sacks. In 2012, 14 players combined for 51 sacks, including six different players with at least two sacks.

The same four linemen started all 16 games: Atkins and Dunlap were joined by defensive end Wallace Gilberry and nose tackle Domata Peko.

"We need to infuse the d-line because we’ve got to get better at rushing the passer — period," said Guenther. "To have a wave of guys who could go in there where you could get some pass rushers in there, it certainly helps. As a play caller, when I see that we’re rushing four guys — like against Denver, when we were rushing four guys and we were getting home and making me feel pretty good that I could mix some of the coverages up or disguise some of the coverages. But in other games, when I feel like, ‘Hey, they’re dropping back to throw and the guy’s patting the ball back there, and we fought our asses off to get to the third-and-7, and the guy’s patting the ball back there and throws it for 10 yards,’ it makes me think twice."

Atkins is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and was named to the Associated Press All-Pro first-team in 2012 but he suffered a torn ACL in the middle of 2013. While he came back to play, he only showed glimpses of playing like his former self. It might be as simple as Atkins needing more time to fully heal and strengthen the knee, something he should be able to do this offseason as opposed to last year when he was in the rehab process.

"We need to get him back to where he’s playing, where he’s one of the best three-techniques in the game because this year he was just three-technique No. 20, in my mind," said Guenther. "He was just a guy out there. We need to get him back to where he was, being that game-wrecker there inside. If he gets back to that it makes my job a lot easier."

It’s a similar issue with cornerback Leon Hall, who returned to play 15 games after suffering a second torn Achilles in three seasons in 2013. Hall was okay but didn’t play at the same level he has in the past.

Bengals are one-and-done again

"Leon is a pro’s pro and he’s an absolute great guy to coach but I think he’ll be the first to tell you he wasn’t quite the same," said Guenther. "It’s amazing for a guy to come back from two Achilles. Being a corner it’s almost unheard of. For what he did, I give him a ton of credit but I think he understands the training he’s going to need to do to get him back what he once was."

Injuries hit the linebacker group the hardest. The Bengals had seven linebackers on their opening day 53-man roster: Starters Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur as well as reserves Vinny Rey, Jayson DiManche, Sean Porter and rookie Marquis Flowers. Only Rey and Flowers played in all 16 games and the playoff game at Indianapolis.

Those seven players missed a total of 36 games in the regular season. Burfict, who led the NFL in tackles in 2013 and is Guenther’s quarterback of the defense, missed 11 games with concussions and then a knee injury that eventually ended his season. Burfict left three other games early with injuries. Maualuga missed four games with a hamstring injury, the same injury that forced him to leave Sunday’s playoff loss in the first half. Porter suffered a season-ending knee injury on the only play he was on the field, the opening kickoff at New England in Week 5.

This taught Guenther his biggest lesson of the season.

"You’ve got to make sure in the spring and in training camp that you get the backup players involved with the first-team players," said Guenther. "I didn’t anticipate as many injuries as we got this year so you have to feel confident in Week Seven that a guy goes in there he knows exactly what to do. That’s probably the biggest thing. X’s and O’s, that was the easy part."

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