- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 6, 2015

CINCINNATI (AP) - The Bengals’ defense is headed for a makeover.

A unit that ranked among the league’s best the last few years and steadied Cincinnati to four straight playoff appearances is showing some wear and tear. The Bengals kept it generally intact last season, and it slid from third to 22nd overall in yards allowed.

The starting cornerbacks are all in their 30s, and the line isn’t the same with tackle Geno Atkins struggling to return to form after a knee injury. Also, there are questions about linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who is expected to have a second knee operation soon.

It’s time for change. After a fourth straight opening-round playoff loss, the players sense it.

“I’m all for it, man,” tackle Domata Peko said. “Whatever can help our team get better, that’s what we need to do. This being one-and-done, there’s no good feeling in that.

“We’ve got to get better as a unit, get better as a team. And it starts this offseason. Hopefully we can pick up some guys in free agency or draft some really talented guys and that’ll help us out.”

The Bengals brought back most of their defense last season. The only significant loss was end Michael Johnson, who left as a free agent. It turned out to be a big setback.

Cincinnati got little pressure on the quarterback during many games - Andrew Luck was sacked only once in the Colts’ 26-10 playoff victory on Sunday. The Bengals managed only 20 sacks, fewest in the NFL and second-fewest in franchise history for a 16-game schedule.

The defensive line will be a main focus in free agency and the draft.

“We need to improve the guys who we have, the guys who are coming back here next year,” Guenther said. “We need to improve them and continue to improve, and we need to infuse some new players, to be honest with you.”

One main concern is Atkins, who was an average player - three sacks, 34 tackles - in his first year back from reconstructive knee surgery. Atkins led all interior NFL linemen in sacks when he was healthy, but didn’t get much pressure up the middle this season.

The question is whether he’ll be back in form next season.

“I sure hope so because we need him to be that way,” Guenther said. “Otherwise we need to go find a new inside rusher.

“He was just a guy out there. We need to get him back to where he was, being that game-wrecker there inside. If he gets back to that, it makes my job a lot easier.”

It wasn’t just the line. Cincinnati gave up 500 yards in a game a franchise-record three times. Indianapolis piled up 482 yards on Sunday, the sixth time the defense gave up more than 400 in a game.

Cincinnati missed Burfict, its top tackler and defensive leader. He had a concussion and a knee injury that prompted him to miss all but five games. He had surgery to clean out his left knee on Oct. 29 and was expected to return, but the knee gave him problems and will need another operation.

Linebacker Rey Maualuga also missed four games with a hamstring injury. Maualuga, who is a free agent, solidified the defense down the stretch.

There’s likely to be at least one change at cornerback. Terence Newman is a free agent, turns 37 next season, and is considering retiring. Cornerback Leon Hall returned from his second Achilles tendon injury and played well, though not up to form.

“It’s amazing for a guy to come back from two Achilles (injuries),” Guenther said. “Being a corner, it’s almost unheard of. For what he did, I give him a ton of credit but I think he understands the training he’s going to need to do to get him back what he once was.”


Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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