What's wrong with Bengals? Aging defense worth a look

Cornerback Adam Jones has played close to 500 snaps for the Bengals this season. AP Photo/Gary Landers

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals have some tough decisions to make against the New York Giants on Monday night.

Do they continue on the path that led them to a 3-4-1 record, or make some lineup changes in order to reverse the trend?

The Bengals' defense has given up at least 400 yards in three of the last four games (losing two and tying one), the exception coming when Cincinnati played the winless Cleveland Browns.

While the Bengals' offense was inconsistent at best to start the season, the return of TE Tyler Eifert seems to have helped in that area. The Bengals went 4-for-4 in red zone trips against the Redskins.

Their defense? That's been an unexpected problem.

The 2015 defense ranked second in points allowed and 11th in yards allowed. The starting lineup that got them to the playoffs is mostly intact. The Bengals lost nickelback Leon Hall and safety Reggie Nelson (who has three interceptions this season with the Raiders) while adding Karlos Dansby at linebacker.

But the results have been drastically different at times.

"I don't know where it's falling off," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther told reporters during the bye week. "It's a different group of guys. Guys are a year older. We've got some new guys in there. Every year is different. So to me, we've got to stop thinking about what last year was. That was a different team, really."

Guenther has been as befuddled as anyone while he tries to correct the problem. The Bengals have not been riddled with injuries -- their starting lineup is almost completely intact, with the exception of linebacker Rey Maualuga, who will be inactive with a fibula injury.

Maualuga's absence could give the Bengals a chance to try 23-year-old linebacker Nick Vigil, who has played on special teams but not on defense.

Going younger might not be a bad option for Cincinnati.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals have seven defensive players at least 29 or older who have taken at least 200 defensive snaps this season, which is tied for the most in the NFL. At 35, Dansby is one of the oldest at his position in the league but is taking the same amount of snaps as his younger peers.

Pro Football Focus was not kind to some of the older veterans after the Bengals' draw with the Redskins, rating 29-year-old defensive end Michael Johnson 53rd of 54 4-3 defensive ends and rating Maualuga 50th among linebackers that week.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis cautioned against wholesale changes on defense on his weekly show last week, essentially putting a halt to some of Guenther's comments. Perhaps Lewis didn't want to reveal too much about the game plan, or he simply doesn't see the need for benchings.

But that doesn't mean Guenther couldn't bring in players in essentially "relief pitcher" roles. Vigil could be one of those, while cornerback Darqueze Dennard could be another. At defensive end, recently re-signed Wallace Gilberry will likely play in pass-rush situations.

"If it's a guy here playing 20 snaps in this package and so on and so forth, we can spread and utilize every guy we have up and dressed," Guenther said. "That's what we're going to do."

Bottom line: Don't expect more of the same.

"It's a production business, and there is a certain loyalty to the guys that have been here, that have been the core players for us, but at the same time, I have to do what's best for the team," Guenther said.

Added safety George Iloka: "This is a production-based business, and when you're not getting the results you want in any company -- and this is a company too -- you can expect that from the top down they're going to make changes. So yeah, that comes with losing."