Bengals' Front Four Has Earned Its Stripes

Cincinnati's defensive front four is one of the best in the business and will challenge the Packers, particularly with their pass rush. That group is led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap.

The last time the Green Bay Packers faced the Cincinnati Bengals, back on Sept. 20, 2009, Aaron Rodgers was under siege from the start.

At the end of a long, miserable day, Antwan Odom had sacked Rodgers five times. The Bengals sacked him six times en route to a 31-24 upset at Lambeau Field.

Fast forward about four years, and the Bengals will host the Packers on Sunday. The names are different — Odom hasn't played in a game since 2010 — but the challenge for the Packers remains the same.

Priority No. 1 must be protecting Rodgers against the Bengals' powerhouse front four.

Powered by All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Michael Johnson, the Bengals tallied 96 sacks in 2011 and 2012. That was tops in the league. A whopping 77.5 came from the defensive linemen.

"As is the case with any great four-man pass rush, it's a combination of strong guys inside who get a push and guys outside who can set the edge and rush with speed or power," Rodgers said. "Their front four is an excellent front four. Obviously, some of the names that jump out, or one of the names, is Geno Atkins, and he's one of the top guys at his position, gets a lot of notoriety. But the guys that can rush outside and the guys they can bring in — they're eight deep on the line, are all high-energy, high-effort, tall, athletic, strong players. Anytime you can get a great inside push like they can give you, with an outside rush that complements it, makes it very difficult."

Of last year's franchise-record 51 sacks, the defensive line recorded 43. Atkins had 12.5 sacks — 4.5 more than any interior lineman in the league. Johnson added 11.5. The other starting defensive end, Carlos Dunlap, had six sacks last year. On the bench, Wallace Gilberry contributed 6.5 sacks last year. A second-round pick was invested in Margus Hunt, who was a potential target with Green Bay's first-round pick.

"We've got some guys that were gifted with some ability," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said during his Wednesday conference call. "We've got to continue doing a good job of playing together. When you're great is at the end of the year. We're just getting better right now."

The Bengals didn't record a sack in Week 1 against Chicago. Against Pittsburgh on Monday, Atkins had one sack and Dunlap and nose tackle Domata Peko shared the other. Johnson, however, had eight quarterback pressures, according to film review by the Bengals' coaches.

Coupled with San Francisco in Week 1, the Packers are getting two of the top three defenses to start the season.

"San Fran's probably bigger and more stout inside," Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton said in comparing two of the top units in the league. "They're talented. The biggest comparison, I think, is the experience. I want to say the youngest guy (among their core defensive linemen) is four or five years in. They've got that experience, just like San Fran."

Dunlap, a second-round pick in 2010, is the starting left end in the Bengals' 4-3 scheme and will battle right tackle Don Barclay. Johnson, a third-round pick in 2009, is the starting right end and will test rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari. Peko (2006) and Atkins (2010) entered the league as fourth-round picks.

Atkins and Dunlap are signed through 2018; Johnson is playing under the franchise tender. So, this is a group that has a chance to keep the Bengals on top for years to come.

"They're big up front and they like to use their length and their front seven to their advantage," said Bakhtiari.

Atkins is the player who makes everything go. He's a two-time Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro last year. Not only did he have a big season in sacks, but he forced four fumbles and added 17 tackles for losses and 21 quarterback hits.

"His ability to get into the guard and kind of shut them off real quick" is what stands out to Bakhtiari. "He's a helluva player. The guards, they have a good task this week, but I'm confident in what we have and I'm very confident in Josh. He might be freaking out but I have confidence in him."

Bakhtiari isn't just a budding comedian with the dig at Sitton, but he has fared well against the length and freakish athleticism of Aldon Smith in Week 1 and the brute power of Brian Orakpo in Week 2. This week, it's another big challenge against Johnson.

"He has the body of Aldon with the mentality of Orakpo," Bakhtiari said. "He's a guy that wants to either drive up field, get off and beat me with speed, or come at me. That's what I've seen so far. I've seen a good amount of film of him but not enough to feel confident and go ‘I know what he's going to do.'"

With a dominant front four, the Bengals' linebackers are free to pile up tackles and aren't asked to blitz much. On the outside are Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison. Burfict led the team with 174 tackles as an undrafted rookie last year and has 25 to start this season, and Harrison is a five-time Pro Bowler. In the middle, Rey Maualuga had 152 tackles last year, including 12 last week.

"It's a good defense and are coached very well," center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. "Their front seven is very good. We've got to go out there and play our game. It's the same every week. We can't let a defense dictate how we play. We've got to make sure it's the other way around. That's what you strive for as an offense: Put the defense in a bind and put the offense in favorable situations."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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