CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals' defense improved steadily after a poor start last season, and they now believe the talent and experience exists to be among the top scoring defenses in the NFL.
"It's not like we changed anything or that it's broken," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said upon reporting to training camp this week. "We just need to get back to what we did as a defense. Get back to sacking these quarterbacks and get the ball back into our offense's hands and all these nice, beautiful, fast weapons we just drafted."
For Cincinnati to rebound from a dismal 6-9-1 season and get back to the playoffs, it will need to improve at the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.
The Bengals have a pair of Pro Bowlers on the defensive line - Dunlap and Geno Atkins - and another at linebacker in Vontaze Burfict. Defensive tackle Andrew Billings and cornerback William Jackson III are expected back after missing their rookie seasons with injuries.
"I learned a lot watching on the sidelines," Jackson said. "When you're playing you don't actually learn that much. Where the receivers line up and how they try to set you up for the big play. I'm not raw anymore."
There's also plenty of depth and experience to offset the offseason departures of linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Domata Peko.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther told reporters this week that the versatility of this group will allow him to expand the playbook and institute some new looks beginning in training camp. It helps, too, to have plenty of veterans to help the young guys grow into their roles.
"It's always the little things, making sure you do the little things," said embattled corner Adam Jones. "My job is to help the younger guys be the best they can be."
Cincinnati ranked 16th in total defense last season and 19th in sacks. They allowed more than 113 yards rushing, good for 12th worst in the league.
Veteran Kevin Minter was signed to help fill the void at linebacker left by Maualuga and Karlos Dansby, who also left via free agency. Second-year linebacker Nick Vigil has drawn raves for his conditioning and progress this summer.
Perhaps most encouraging is that for the first time since 2013, Burfict is expected to have a full training camp. Last year, he was limited in camp due to being suspended for the first three games of the regular season.
"He's done a great job and been very consistent this offseason," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "He's in a good place. In his mind, he's got a lot to play for."
ROOKIE TO WATCH
--WR John Ross was cleared to practice on a limited basis after recovering from a shoulder injury suffered at the University of Washington. Ross says he expects to be 100 percent soon, and his progress will be something to watch throughout training camp. Ross, who set a Scouting Combine record when he ran a 4.22-second 40-yard dash, was brought in to help stretch opposing defenses and take some pressure away from A.J. Green. Ross is considered a bright kid who's expected to grasp the offense quickly.
--Bengals running back Giovani Bernard has recovered fully from a torn ACL and was full-go for the opening of training camp this week. Bernard suffered the injury on Nov. 20 against Buffalo. At the time, Bernard ranked third on the team with 673 combined rushing and receiving yards.
"From the time of his injury, the medical people felt like his return should be without complication and he should have an early result," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "He's worked his tail off and has been really diligent in his rehab. He's stayed a little ahead of the curve."