Over the past couple seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals' defense has shown signs that it is one of the best in the league. In fact, you could even go so far as to say that without the D, these back-to-back playoff appearances would not have happened.
While Mike Zimmer has done extraordinary things with this team, they still haven't been the very best. In 2013, it appears that things are rolling in the right direction and the team could definitely be the stingiest defense in the NFL.
There's one gaping hole in that theory, and I will address it at the beginning. As confident as I am with the defense as a whole, there's only one position that concerns me—the inside linebacker.
The man playing that position will be none other than Rey Maualuga, a man who has been the center of much controversy this offseason. He struggled mightily in 2012, being beaten in coverage across the middle and missing tackles consistently.
All I can say is that I trust Mike Zimmer. If he keeps him there, I can only hope that means Maualuga's game is improving and things will be better for the former USC Trojan this season.
Now, for the better 10. The front four for the Bengals is arguably the best in the NFL, led by Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins. Many opinions are that Atkins is the best defensive tackle in the league, and it would be hard to deny that. He collected 39 tackles and 12.5 sacks in 2012.
On both ends of the line will be Carlos Dunlap and the franchise man himself, Michael Johnson. Dunlap bounced back from a less-than-impressive 2011 season, gathering 33 tackles and six sacks. He played in 14 games in 2012, the most of his three-year career. After watching a lot of film on Dunlap, it's hard to find many ends who can pass rush better.
Luckily, one of those few men is his teammate. Michael Johnson has been an iron man for Cincinnati since being drafted in 2009, playing in every single game the last four years. In 2012, Johnson was a fierce defender, sacking the quarterback 11.5 times and gathering over 50 tackles. While Atkins is the leader of the front four, Johnson might be the most formidable.
These three alone will form quite the wall for running backs, and with Domata Peko and Devon Still serving as the fourth man, I don't see many offenses making fools out of these guys. Additionally, I'm huge fan of Margus Hunt as he rotates in and out with Johnson and Dunalp.
Across the middle to join Maualuga, newly signed James Harrison will be on the strong side, while rookie sensation Vontaze Burfict will cover the weakside. Burfict is the guy to watch—he made a whopping 127 tackles last season, and no one has any doubt that he's one of the biggest up-and-coming linebackers in the NFL.
Harrison may be on the back-nine of his career, but it's not unrealistic to say that he still has a good season or two left in him. He collected six sacks last year and nine and a half in 2011—and those weren't considered his better seasons. A qualified pass-rushing linebacker is what Cincinnati needed.
Finally, the secondary may have been the most questionable part of this team for the last two seasons. Nate Clements and Taylor Mays have been making a lot of appearances, thus dragging down what should be a talented crew.
Leon Hall should be 100 percent by the start of the season, and it's no secret that he certainly has the talent to be a top five cornerback—he showed that in the playoffs against Houston, as he was responsible for the only touchdown the Bengals had.
On the other side of the field should be 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, who essentially missed all of his rookie season with injuries. He played sporadically, but rarely (if ever) on defense. Kirkpatrick came out of Alabama with a lot of promise, and now that he's 100 percent, he should be able to be as much of a hassle as he was while under Nick Saban.
The safeties leave a few question marks—not so much the free safety, who will be Reggie Nelson, but the strong safety. It appears that rookie Shawn Williams is going to take the lead, as his main competition is the untalented Taylor Mays.
Williams is incredibly physical like Reggie Nelson, so I don't fear them missing many tackles. He's never been known to have great hands—he didn't record one interception in 2012 at Georgia. However, he's quick-footed and can turn to the receiver well, so if nothing else, he'll certainly break up the passes.
The pieces are all there is what this all boils down to. There are plenty of young guys looking to break out—Johnson, Dunlap, Hunt, Burfict, Williams—and a massive veteran presence to round out the group—Hall, Harrison, Newman.
Mike Zimmer has become one of the top defensive coordinators in the league and this season, the one which I believe will be his last in Cincinnati, the Bengals' defense will be at the top of the NFL.