Marvin Lewis took over as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003. At the time, most believed the club's defense would eventually rise to the ranks of NFL elite, like the Baltimore Ravens did for six years under Lewis as defensive coordinator.
While the Bengals haven't been as dominant a force as those turn-of-the-century Ravens teams, Lewis has fielded some strong units the past 10 seasons. Yet this year's group, which is loaded with young talent, could be his best yet. Last season, the Bengals finished sixth in overall defense, eighth in total points allowed and third in sacks, due mainly to the emergence of a formidable front seven.
For the Chicago Bears, who will be debuting Marc Trestman's brand new offense this weekend, facing Lewis and the Bengals isn't an ideal matchup.
"Yeah, we sure wish we could play a team that wasn't quite as good up front," offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said today. "But you know what, it's a good challenge, it's a good opportunity for the guys to see where they are."
Cincinnati's success on defense starts with defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is considered by most to be the best DT in the league. Atkins is relatively small for the position (6-1, 300) yet no interior defensive lineman in the league can match his combination of size and strength.
"Geno Atkins inside, he's a forced to be reckoned with, no doubt about it," Trestman said yesterday. "It's tough to single up. You've got to move your protections around. You've got to move your quarterback's passing spot. So he's not able to tee off, we'll try to do what everyone else has tried to do in the tape that we've looked at. It won't be easy, he's a very good player."
The majority of his snaps, Atkins will be lining up across from right guard Kyle Long, a raw, inexperienced rookie.
"I'll be lining up against him a lot," Long said. "You grow up watching guys like Geno Atkins, so to get an opportunity to play against him, obviously it's a little test for our offensive line. It will be a good opportunity. Luckily we have great guys we practice against every day and it gets us ready to go for Sundays."
Long has a point, as Henry Melton is one of the few defensive tackles in the league who can even compare to Atkins, who just signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension. Yet Atkins is a different beast all together, one who will be salivating at the chance to exploit an offensive line breaking in two rookies on the right side. Just slowing him down will be a major challenge in itself, yet there are playmakers all over this defense.
"Their front is fast. They're long, " said Trestman. "They're really strong on the edges. They've got long, high-motor guys."
Atkins picked up 12.5 sacks last season, the most of any defensive tackle in the league, yet defensive end Michael Johnson had 11.5 sacks of his own. On the other side, Carlos Dunlap added 6.0 sacks, while NT Domato Peko has proven to be one of the better run stoppers in the league and led all Bengals defensive linemen in tackles last season. With weapons all over the field, it's going to be tough for the Bears to key on just Atkins.
In fact, it's hard to foresee any NFL offensive line matching man-for-man with Cincinnati's pass-rush group, so teams are going to have to find other ways to combat the rush. For the Bears, that will include plenty of three-step drops to get the ball out of Jay Cutler's hands.
"We're going to get rid of the ball quick," Cutler said. "You don't really want to give [Atkins] or any of those other guys a lot of time to work into their second moves because they get to the quarterback. They get to the quarterback a lot and they show you a lot of different fronts, which makes it more difficult, trying to figure out who's who. So we've got to be on it with our protection game and then on the outside guys have got to be open quickly."
Using tight end Martellus Bennett, who is an accomplished blocker, to support the edges will be another way the Bears will combat the Cincinnati pass rush.
"One of the reasons we got Martellus is because he is a three-way player," said Trestman. "He's a very good blocker at the line of scrimmage. He'll have to do it in both the run and the passing game."
Beyond their defensive line, the Bengals also boast one of the better linebacker corps in the AFC. Rey Maualuga is the leader of the group, yet Vontaze Burfict led the club in tackle (127) last year as a rookie. As a downfield, punishing linebacker, Burfict is a load to handle in the run game.
"[Our confidence] is very high," Atkins said yesterday. "I mean we've been playing together, especially on the D-line and linebacking corps, but we've been playing together for about a good three years now. And I mean it's rare to see that D-line, especially, to stay intact like that with me, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko, Robert Geathers. It's a very close knit [group] and having great leaders back there with Rey Maulalug, and Vontaze Burfict who's coming along, it's great."
And to top it off, the Bengals acquired five-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison this offseason. His intensity on the outside could take this group over the top.
"He has that little nasty streak about him that I think is going to give us an edge on defense," said Atkins.
The Bears will trot out four new starters along the offensive line on Sunday. In fact, Roberto Garza is the only lineman who was on the roster to start last season. It's going to take this group time to develop chemistry, which means Cincinnati could create a lot of problems.
So Trestman and the rest of his staff must be creative in their play call and play design in order to mitigate what could be the best front seven the Bears face all season.
"We've got to do different things," Cutler said. "We've got to hit them from different angles and you've got to move the passing point, move the pocket from time to time and we've got to get rid of the ball quickly. If you hang onto the ball, not only against these guys but really anybody in the league, every team has somebody that's going to be able to get to the passer."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.