Call the NFL’s top-ranked defense without a big name “The Uso Defense.”
Nose man Domata Peko, one of their leaders who anchors the stingy Bengals ground forces, prefers “The No Name Defense,” but history and the ’72 Dolphins have already taken that one. So “The Uso Defense” it is.
After all, Uso means “brother” or “friend" in Samoan and everyone on defense calls each other “Uce,” or “Ucie,” whether they are as Samoan as Peko, middle linebacker
“Where is Thomas Howard?” Maualuga asks. “He likes to spell it differently. He’ll go U-C-E hyphen and S-O. Uce-so. But it’s 'uso.' It means ‘bro.’ A relationship. And we are a brotherly defense. Camaraderie. Chemistry like no other.”
In fact, they call each other “The Brotherhood,” and had it stamped on their orange shorts they wear like a badge to every practice.
Try it on for size. “The Uso Defense.”
But the Bengals have been downright uncivil to offenses. They put the reins on Colt McCoy. They short-circuited the NFL-leading Bills scoring offense by giving them just a field goal in the second half. Last Sunday in Jacksonville the Bengals stoned Maurice Jones-Drew, the league’s second-most prolific rusher over the past three seasons, on two red-zone stands.
The Bengals lead the NFL in yards allowed per game and most possessions without allowing a first down. They are top 10 in every category but interceptions and marquee faces.
“I love it that we don’t have a big star or that people don’t think we do,” Peko says. “It’s just 11 guys working together and making sure they do their own job no matter who gets the credit.
"A good group of guys. We hang out a lot."
Bengaldom knows that Peko is a superb athlete that deftly plays the run and is such a stout leader that during the lockout he emerged as the defensive head coach. But even though NFL.com has him leading all DTs in the league with 25 tackles, how many NFL fans know him?
(NFL.com’s stats aren’t the ones the Bengals use on the team’s weekly stat sheet that goes by what the coaches chart on film, where Peko has 30. NFL.com has the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh at 199th in the league with 16 and Peko is the only tackle in the top 130).
“Go around the league and you can name guys on every defense,” Maualuga says. “That’s what makes us so unique. Ask people out of Cincinnati to name someone on our defense and they’ll go, ‘Oooooh…’ ”
Maualuga, who has been known to strum a ukulele in front of his locker for his ucies, can sing the chorus.
The second-ranked defense is Pittsburgh.
“Troy,” says Maualuga of Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.
No. 3 is Green Bay.
“Woodson and Clay,” Maualuga says of DB Charles Woodson and linebacker Clay Matthews, his college teammate.
“Baltimore is Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Detroit is Suh…”
Tied for fourth are defensive end Jared Allen’s Vikings and middle linebacker Patrick Willis’ 49ers. A Colts defense ranked No. 26 comes to town Sunday with a first-ballot Hall of Fame end in Dwight Freeney.
“We all want to get sacks and interceptions,” cornerback Leon Hall says. “But we don’t mind if we don’t and we win. I’m enjoying it. I can’t name it, or explain it, but when we’re on the same page, we play as one and no one cares who leads in tackles, sacks or interceptions.”
Hall may be the closest thing to their name. He’s the richest Bengals defensive player in history, but he’s also a superstitious sort that plays the most whimsical position and he prefers the down low.
“I Iike it the way it is,” Hall says.
This is the anti-stat defense. The team's leading sacker from last year, defensive end Carlos Dunalp, doesn’t have one yet. The defense’s only interception has cobwebs from Opening Day, when a wet ball slipped into the unlikely hands of defensive end
And yet they are still No. 1.
So they do it some other way.
“I think of it like this,” Howard says. “It’s a defense of young veterans led by the defensive line. Coachable guys. Guys with good coaches. Guys who want to be good that practice hard, play hard, and clean up things. It is Coach Zimmer’s style. Whatever he calls, that’s the style.”
Actually, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer isn’t very happy that none of his linebackers or defensive backs has a stat yet when it comes to an interception. In fact, it’s a big bone of contention this week. But then, Zimmer has been more miserable then usual since his team hit No. 1 in the rankings after the Oct. 2 Buffalo victory.
After practice Wednesday, he offered about 10 shrugs and five head shakes to the media.
“We didn’t play very well, so we’re not really No. 1,” Zimmer said of the game in Jacksonville the Bengals blew a coverage for a 74-yard touchdown pass and got knocked out of the per rush top spot when MJD went for 4.5 per.
That’s really the heart of Zimmer’s philosophy. Physical, grinding, tear the heart out of their running game so you can throw the kitchen sink at them on third down. That’s why the missed tackles of MJD and blown sacks of rookie Jags quarterback Blaine Gabbert had Zimmer steaming. Zimmer approached Maualuga on the plane home and told him he needed to play better.
“He’s not the only one I told,” Zimmer says.
If there is a name on this defense, it is Zimmer. An 18-year, old school NFL veteran that won a Super Bowl ring under Barry Switzer, became a disciple of Bill Parcells, and has taken the once Little Orphan Annie Bengals defense to at least a top 15 ranking in his three seasons.
“It’s Zim’s defense," Howard says. “We do what he tells us.”
What is Zimmer’s defense? That’s the beauty of it. He loves to blitz but doesn’t always. He hates to play eight men in the box, but they can. He prefers a 4-3, but he’ll throw a 3-4 look at offenses just as quickly. If “The Uso Defense” is anything, it’s versatile. Start naming the guys that can play more than one spot (Fanene, Maualuga, Hall, Clements,
“I guess we’re vanilla,” Zimmer says with a savage smile when asked about his varying calls. “We try to do what the situation calls for. Nothing has changed since the very first day I arrived. We want to play solid fundamental defense and make it a hard day for the other team. Whatever that means. Eight in the box, blitz every down, whatever it takes. And we try to do what they’re good at. Use the personnel the best way we can.”
Maualuga says the defense gets the no-nonsense, no-frills style from Zimmer. Illinois State roots with a Samoan nickname.
“The thing with the scheme," he says, “is that you have to make plays within the defense.”
Maualuga got the message. He says he played better in the second half.
“No shortcuts,” Maualuga says. “No going around blocks or trying to cut underneath them.”
That’s the cutline for The Uso Defense.
“It fits,” Hall says.