Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Bengals defense, a unit that will likely be the biggest test for the Cowboys offense so far this season.
This group is anchored by 2-time First-Team All-Pro Geno Atkins at defensive tackle and Carlos Dunlap at defensive end. Atkins is one of the best and most explosive interior pass rushers in the league, and he finally returned to form in 2015 with 11 sacks, two years removed from a torn ACL in 2013. He gets great penetration in the run game and is very difficult to move, handling him will certainly be an all-day chore for Zack Martin and Ronald Leary on Sunday. On the outside, 2015 Pro Bowler Carols Dunlap does a great job against the run and the pass. He has excellent size at 6-6, 280 that allows him to play with power against the run but he is just as effective rushing the passer, with 13.5 sacks in 2015. Dunlap is truly one of the best and most consistent defensive ends in the league that nobody seems to talk about, but he will prove to be one of the toughest tasks of the year for whoever starts at offensive tackle for the Cowboys on Sunday
After Dunlap and Atkins the talent on the Bengals line starts to fall off a bit. Defensive end Michael Johnson (6-7, 272) is strong against the run but is limited as a pass-rusher. With his size he will be difficult to move in the running game but if the Cowboys can handle his power he shouldn’t be much of a threat in getting pressure on the quarterback. Next to Atkins on the interior is veteran tackle Domata Peko, an average starter, but generally you want more out of a player that is usually asked to play 45-50 snaps a game.
Defensive end Margus Hunt and defensive tackle Pat Sims are the primary backups who are rotated in to give the starters a rest. Both Sims (6-2, 330) and Hunt (6-8, 295) have great size and are tough against the run but are uneven in the way of pass rush. Former third-round pick Will Clarke will rotate in from time to time at end but usually doesn’t play more than about 15 or so defensive snaps a game. Clarke hasn’t done much up in his first few years in the league but he does have three sacks so far this season, so he must be accounted for off the edge. There isn’t much depth to this unit as the Bengals will generally rely heavily on their starting line to play about 70-80% of snaps.
In the offseason the Bengals signed veteran Karlos Dansby, who has shown no signs of slowing down and at 34 years old is still playing at a very high level. Dansby is versatile, strong against the run and the pass, and also poses a threat as a blitzer. He is a proven playmaker.
Vontaze Burfict returned from a three-game suspension against Miami and is a big boost to the Bengals run defense. He is known for playing out of control at times and committing nonsensical penalties but Burfict is an on-field difference maker as he is very physical against the run and underrated against the pass. On the weakside is Vincent Rey, the Bengals team leader in tackles over the past two seasons and perhaps their best coverage linebacker. Veteran Rey Maualuga rotates in behind these three and also provides a physical presence against the run, but he struggles in coverage.
Overall, this is a talented unit that is very physical against the run but is prone to struggling in coverage from time to time.
This is a unit that has seen some turnover as long time Bengals veterans Reggie Nelson and Leon Hall signed elsewhere this past offseason. The headliner of this group is a familiar face in former Cowboy Adam Jones. At 33 years of age Jones has aged like a fine wine, developing into one of the league’s top corners later in his career and finally capitalizing on the potential that made him the sixth-overall pick in 2005. Despite his talent, Jones, like Burfict, can be a bit of a hot head on the field and it wouldn’t be surprising if he commits a penalty or two out of emotion if matched up with the equally hot-headed Dez Bryant.
Across from Jones is former first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, who in his fifth NFL season looks like a bit of a bust. Kirkpatrick has impressive size at 6-2, 185, but he has never put it all together to live up to his billing as the 17th-overall pick in 2012. Splitting nickel duties behind the starters is second-year man out of USC, Josh Shaw, and the 24th-overall pick in 2014, Darqueze Dennard. Kirkpatrick missed their last game against Miami and may may miss Sunday’s game, if he does expect to see Dennard starting opposite Jones. This is not a formidable unit aside from Jones, as Kirkpatrick and Dennard have not lived up to expectations, while Shaw is a replacement-level player.
At safety, George Iloka and Shawn Williams can combine to create a difficult combination. At 6-4, 225 Iloka has great range for a player his size while he also provides a physical presence against the run. The three-year starter is one of the better young safeties in the league that nobody really talks about. Next to Iloka is Shawn Williams, a player who has played significant snaps over the past few years, but only stepped in as the full-time starter with Reggie Nelson leaving town. He is a physical hitter who will generally play closer to the line of scrimmage than Iloka but he does a reasonable job in coverage.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Over-aggressive linebackers could be attacked in pass coverage with tight ends and backs out of the backfield. Play-action may be especially effective here against a group that loves to attack the run downhill
- Weak cornerbacks behind Adam Jones, this could create opportunities in the passing game if Dez Bryant is able to play
- The Bengals are overly reliant on their starting defensive line, if the Cowboys can sustain drives and run the ball their line should wear down
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Two All-Pro caliber talents on the line in Atkins and Dunlap, this is the best defensive line the Cowboys have faced to date
- Aggressive linebackers that could bottle up the running game, especially behind a physical defensive line that is strong against the run
- Versatile safeties that can both stop the run and play tight coverage
Veteran kicker Mike Nugent is more or less the definition of an average league-wide kicker. Over 12 years in the league Nugent generally makes field goals at about an 80% clip, he has never converted at a 90% or better clip over a full season. Adam Jones is one of the most dangerous returners in the league, averaging over 11 yards per punt return in 2014 and 2015. He must be accounted for on every punt and kickoff as he has the potential to turn a game as a returner.