The Cincinnati Bengals know that they have a problem, and they are hoping that they know how to fix it by thinking outside the box. They have posted low sack totals in two of the past three seasons, and generally have not been generating the sort of pressure that they are able to sustain.
While they did have 42 sacks during the 2015 season, they had just 33 a year ago, and in 2014, they somehow managed just 20. They have had a couple of reliable contributors over that span of time, but have not had enough pieces to complement their pass rush.
This season, they are looking outside of their norm when it comes to finding edge defenders in the hopes of changing up their fortunes. The Bengals generally rely upon tall, athletic ends who can play the pass both at the line of scrimmage and, if need be, in coverage.
But they have acquired a couple of players of a different model this offseason, shorter, quicker edge defenders, some of whom don’t really even fit the bill in a conventional 4-3 defense. One of them is Chris Smith, whom they traded for around draft time.
The fourth-year veteran has not been given a lot of playing time over the course of his career, partly because it is difficult to find him a role. At 6’1”, 266 pounds, he would profile more in the 3-4 as an outside linebacker than as a 4-3 defensive end.
He has played in just 19 games over the course of his career, none of them in a starting role, but he has managed to record four and a half sacks. And the Bengals like what they saw from him during his preseason debut in his new uniform.
While he did not record a sack in the game, he was a frequent presence in the backfield for Cincinnati, generating pressure off the edge. It is starting to get him more attention as he hopes to stake a claim on one of the spots along the defensive line when the team finalizes its 53-man roster.
That will not be the easiest of tasks, considering that at least three of the spots at the defensive end position are already secured. Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are entrenched as the starters, and Jordan Willis is a third-round rookie.
Behind them are veteran Wallace Gilberry and former third-round pick Will Clarke, who finally got some playing time a year ago. Marcus Hardison is yet another entry into the list. Add in Carl Lawson as somebody who might spend time on the edge as well.
All of this makes for a tricky situation for Smith, who might try to have to force the Bengals to keep six defensive ends, or to make himself more flexible. Or he can simply start racking up the sacks and force them to keep him, because that is what they need.