Bengals’ defensive line is one of the NFL’s best
CINCINNATI — Michael Johnson towers over blockers at 6 feet 7 inches. At 6-1, Geno Atkins often gets dwarfed on the line. Domata Peko is gregarious. Carlos Dunlap tends to cut off interviews after a few questions.
The Bengals’ defensive line is an eclectic mix of players from far different backgrounds with very different personalities and body types. Together, they formed one of the NFL’s best units this season, one of the main reasons Cincinnati is in the playoffs again.
The Bengals set a team record with 51 sacks this season, 40 of them coming from a line that is more of a melting pot than anything else.
‘‘We’re very different,’’ Dunlap said. ‘‘Mike’s from Selma, Ala. I’m from Charleston, S.C. Geno’s from Fort Lauderdale. You’ve got a whole bunch of guys from miles and miles away from each other, probably a 10-hour drive to get to each destination.
‘‘But when we’re in this locker room, we’re a few feet away as we are on the field and in synch with one another. I hope this young group can stay together and go on for a long time and be part of something special.’’
They’re having a special season, one of the main reasons the Bengals have reached the playoffs as a wild card for the second straight season. It’s also one of the main reasons they think they can knock off the Texans on Saturday in Houston and get their first playoff win since 1990.
These guys know how to get to the quarterback.
Atkins led all interior NFL linemen with 12½ sacks and was voted a Pro Bowl starter for the first time. Johnson had 11½ sacks, giving Cincinnati its first pair of players with double-digit sacks totals since 1981, when the Bengals reached the Super Bowl for the first time.
The reserves have done well, too. Wallace Gilberry has 6½ sacks. Robert Geathers has 3.
The Texans’ offense struggled down the stretch, contributing to three losses in the last four games. Houston scored 16 or fewer points in those losses. If the Texans can’t slow Cincinnati’s front four, they’re in trouble.
‘‘They’ve been so good because they’re very talented up front,’’ Houston offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. ‘‘They can pressure well with the four guys or adding any number of guys to it. It’s a unique challenge for us.’’
It starts with four linemen who seem to have little in common except a commitment to getting to the quarterback.
Two of them arrived together. Dunlap was a second-round pick in 2010, while Atkins slipped to the fourth round because of his lack of stature. Atkins quickly developed into one of the league’s best, able to use his low center of gravity to push his way into the backfield.
Dunlap was more of a project, known for wanting to do things his way. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer made him understand the need to change.
‘‘I figured one of us was going to lose the fight and it wasn’t going to be me,’’ Zimmer said. ‘‘Carlos was a guy that had to be pushed, confronted, threatened at times, not let play at times.”
Johnson, a third-round pick in 2009, had a reputation for not playing hard the entire time. The Bengals moved him between end and linebacker earlier in this career. Once they decided to use his quickness and height at end, he began to blossom in his role.
It helps to have Dunlap on the other end, Atkins getting a push up the middle, and reserves who can spell them during the game and keep them fresh.
‘‘It’s not just one guy,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘It’s a collective effort of us being in our pass-rush lanes and being in the right place, and it just comes to you like that. And it comes in bunches. Let’s see if we can set some sort of playoff record for sacks. [We’ll] work on that next.’’
Peko is the oldest member of the line, finishing his seventh season. He’s also the leader — Peko organized voluntary workouts for the defense during the NFL lockout before last season.
The defense has given Cincinnati a chance to go to Houston for the second year in a row. The Bengals lost, 31-10, in the wild-card round last time in Houston. Zimmer thinks his crew is better this time.
The defense has scored a touchdown in each of the last three games on fumble or interception returns. Cincinnati has held opponents to 13 points or fewer in six of the last eight games.
Dunlap likes to think they’re just getting started after taking time to come together.
‘‘It can’t be sunny days all the time,’’ Dunlap said. ‘‘Right now, we’re on the better side of the rain and we want to keep that going and try to find that gold at the end of the rainbow.’’