Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals were able to compile a very good team, but, for a variety of reasons, they as a defense were not overly successful in getting after the quarterback. This year, in just six games, they are looking even better on both sides of the ball, and have already outdone their sack total from 2014.
The catalyst for this change? No, it’s not the re-acquisition of Michael Johnson, nor a resurgence in the career of Carlos Dunlap, who leads the team with 6.5 sacks. The bread and butter of this pass rush is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is finally back healthy and looking like his Defensive Player of the Year-caliber self from a couple of years back.
For his part, Atkins has four sacks on the year for himself, a number that includes a couple of split sacks, which he has shared with Dunlap. Playing next to each other, in fact, Atkins has had quite an impact of Dunlap’s improved pass rushing numbers by creating opportunities for him.
So where is all of this leading us to? Of course, it leads us to the fact that it is paramount for the Steelers’ interior offensive line, center Cody Wallace in particular, to step up and perform. We saw back in Week Three what a similarly dominant defensive tackle could do to a high-powered offense, as Ben Roethlisberger was able to lead the team to just three field goals in three quarters before he left with the injury that kept him out of the past four games.
As he returns to the field today, donning a knee brace, it will be all the more imperative that the interior holds firm, as Roethlisberger is going to lack much of his usual mobility, which has gotten him out of a number of tight spots over the years. Facing Atkins with a backup center is not the ideal scenario for his first game back.
It was Atkins who made David DeCastro look every bit the rookie he was back in 2012, after returning from missing most of his first season with an MCL tear. Of course, he has made great strides since then, but his progress will be tested going up against a player of this caliber.
Wallace has noticeably been the weakest link along the offensive line all season, at least up until last week, which should be expected, as he was the only one starting who was supposed to be a backup.
His run blocking in particular has been at issue, but the Steelers run so much away from the A gap that it has not been a substantial impediment to them running the ball. He has, however, given up a number of pressures and a few sacks in the passing game, in spite of having made some progress in that area over the course of the season.
As the Steelers fight to keep their aspirations for a division title alive, Wallace and the interior offensive line pitted against Atkins will be front in center as they try their best to keep an immobile Roethlisberger on his feet.