Bengals breakdown: Linebackers no longer a weak spot for defense

Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers, middle, is tackled by Cincinnati Bengals inside linebacker Logan Wilson, left, and outside linebacker Germaine Pratt during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

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Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers, middle, is tackled by Cincinnati Bengals inside linebacker Logan Wilson, left, and outside linebacker Germaine Pratt during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The linebacker corps for the Cincinnati Bengals last year ended up depleted by injuries, but Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt stepped up in big moments and played a key role in the team’s Super Bowl run.

Pratt had a game-sealing interception at the Cincinnati 2-yard line to secure a 26-19 win over the Raiders in the playoff opener. Wilson intercepted a pass with 28 seconds left against the Titans in the second round of the playoffs to set up a game-winning field goal for Evan McPherson.

Neither is a particularly flashy player, but they provide a solid enough base in the middle of the Bengals’ defense and will continue to hold down the fort in 2022 – ideally with more depth around them. This is a big year for Pratt going into the final season of his rookie contract, and Wilson is coming back from offseason shoulder surgery but looking to build on somewhat of a breakout 2021 season for himself.

Let’s take a look at the past performances of the Bengals’ current linebackers, and how they are expected to stack up in 2022 with help from some analysis and data from Pro Football Focus.

LINEBACKERS ON THE ROSTER

Projected starters: Logan Wilson, Germaine Pratt

Reserves: Akeem Davis-Gaither, Markus Bailey, Clay Johnston

Others in the mix: Joe Bachie, Keandre Jones, Carson Wells, Clarence Hicks

WILSON BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 100 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions, 4 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 sack in 13 games.

PFF grades for 2021: Wilson ranked 31st of 87 linebackers in defense grade (61.5). He was 36th of 86 linebackers in run defense grade (56.6) and posted a pass rush grade of 58.3 and coverage grade of 63.4, the latter of which ranked him 25th of 80 linebackers.

PFF ranking for 2022: Wilson was ranked among the “Tier 6: Young Ascending” linebackers and at No. 21 out of 32 players ranked.

PRATT BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 91 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 2 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries in 15 games

PFF grades for 2021: Pratt ranked 47th of 87 linebackers in defense grade (54.0). He was 45th of 86 linebackers in run defense grade (53.1) and posted a pass rush grade of 47.1 and coverage grade of 56.2, the latter of which ranked him 42nd of 80 linebackers.

PFF ranking for 2022: Pratt was not among the 32 linebackers ranked by PFF.

FURTHER ANALYSIS

The Bengals built up their defensive line and secondary through free agency the past few years, but relied on the draft to develop their linebackers. That made the unit somewhat suspect in the past and yet, they haven’t been the handicap they once appeared to be.

With Wilson and Pratt serving as the two starters, Cincinnati managed to win the AFC North while sweeping rival Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and the linebackers played a big role in stopping some talented runners within the division. That used to be a big weak spot in the defense that opposing teams would attack.

“Wilson showed in the playoffs that he could finally have answered a real problem area for the Cincinnati Bengals, showing up with multiple excellent PFF game grades and making plays in coverage,” PFF analyst Sam Monson wrote about Wilson in his individual rankings.

PFF considers the Bengals linebacker corps among the top half in the league, ranking them the 13th best unit, one spot behind the Browns and one above the Bills. San Francisco’s linebacking corps tops the list.

“Like the Chiefs, the Bengals also went into last season with a lot of unknowns surrounding the linebacker position but found a really good pair in Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt,” PFF analyst Seth Galina wrote. “Both players posted the highest grades of their career, helping the Bengals to a Super Bowl appearance.”

This is the sixth in a series of pieces breaking down each position group for the Bengals. Next up: Defensive backs.

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