CINCINNATI — Michael Johnson towers over blockers at 6-foot-7. At 6-foot-1, Geno Atkins often is 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 club record with 51 sacks, 40 coming from the line. Cincinnati also has held opponents to 13 points or fewer in six of the past eight games.
“I hope this young group can stay together and go on for a long time and be part of something special,” Dunlap said.
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 121/2 sacks and was voted a Pro Bowl starter for the first time. Johnson had 111/2 sacks, giving Cincinnati its first pair of players with double-digit sacks totals since 1981, when the Bengals reached the Super Bowl.
The reserves have done well, too. Wallace Gilberry has 61/2 sacks. Robert Geathers has three.
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. “They’re much easier to mold the way you want them molded when they’re young rookies.”
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