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Setting the tone

Posted Sep 15, 2015

“We owe them. They knocked us out,” said defensive tackle Domata Peko of the Chargers team that opens up the Paul Brown Stadium season Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12). . “A lot of guys here went through that."

Domata Peko hopes his defense set the tone for this season with the fourth-and-one stop in Oakland.

Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther loves the horses enough that he’s been known to show his men thoroughbreds bolting down the stretch of history to make a point.

One time he showed them the clip of a horse breaking stride leaping over the shadow of the spires on the track, an example of getting lost in the moment.

During a play-off chase a few years back when the Bengals started the season 3-5, he dusted off the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Mine That Bird, a 50-1 longshot, trailed almost the entire race, until the announcer started shuffling his papers to find out which horse was about to win the Run for the Roses.

He may be rolling that one out again this week when the Chargers come cantering into Paul Brown Stadium Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12) for the home opener with the bewhiskered veteran Wild West gunslinger Philip Rivers in the saddle.

Forget that San Diego is ranked No. 1 in offense after unloading in Detroit last Sunday. These same Chargers came out of nowhere two years ago and came into PBS to knock the Bengals out of the playoffs when they delivered a 27-10 shocker that arguably stands as the most disappointing loss in the 13 seasons of the Marvin Lewis Era.

“We owe them .They knocked us out,” said defensive tackle Domata Peko on Monday. “A lot of guys here went through that. That’s on us. It’s on our shoulders. We’ll be ready for them. We know what to expect.”

Even when right end Michael Johnson re-signed with the club back in March, he referenced that Wild Card Game as one of the reasons he came back.

“I didn’t want to go out that way as a Bengal,” Johnson said.

It was the last game coached by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, the man who changed the culture of Bengals defense with top ten play before he became head coach of the Vikings. It was an uncharacteristic meltdown for a proud defense as San Diego rushed nearly five yards per pop 40 times in racking up 196 yards just 35 days after winning in San Diego.

Guenther, then the linebackers coach, didn’t hesitate showing that tape, either, in various big moments last year during his first season as coordinator to use as a motivator.

“I’ll use it this week,” said Guenther Monday, reminded of the number of rushing yards. “That’s a lot. It is a different year. I will use it some. I won’t harp on it. It’s a week-by-week deal. This is No. 2.”

It’s not like most of these deals, where much of the current team wasn’t around to experience some of these previous matchups. For instance, when the Bengals won their first game ever in Oakland Sunday, only eight of them played in the last game out there in 2009.

But this is about as fresh as it gets.

More than half the players on this year’s 53-man roster (27) played in that Wild Card Game. But even more remember it. Two were out with injury, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall. Plus, running back Rex Burkhead was inactive. And, WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, now on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), finished his Pro Bowl season that day.

All the defensive line starters and secondary starters who lined up on Jan. 5, 2014 as heavy favorites are back.

“They beat us up pretty bad,” recalled safety George Iloka. “The score was close, but we didn’t play our brand of football. They were a little more physical than us.  I remember that.

“It’s a new season. That year we beat them at home so it was no factor going into the play-off game. New season. I know they’re not thinking about that game. It was two years ago. They’re a good team. We’re a good team.”

The Bengals are attempting to resurrect that intimidating 2013 defense that finished No. 3 in the NFL and in Oakland they showed they’re trending more that way than 2014. Even before quarterback Derek Carr got hurt late in the first half, they held him to 61 yards passing, delivered some big hits, one by Iloka, and sure tackling.

Plus, the defense furnished the game's turning point when the Raiders gambled on fourth-and-one from their 44 down 10-0. Peko, defensive tackle Pat Sims, and all the rest forged a stop that turned into a TD three minutes later. 17-0. Game, set match.

"That was a big play for us," Peko said. "Just the way we started out on defense this first game. It sets the tempo of how we're going to play this year,. We started out great. We just have to make sure we do it every week."

The Bengals also flashed 2013-like depth when the indestructible Iloka hurt his foot in the second quarter and ended up playing just 19 snaps. A tough loss since Iloka’s aggressiveness helps the attacking mindset and it’s one they’re used to having. Since he became the starter in 2013, he’s played nearly all 2,000-plus snaps.

But Guenther’s decision to play his backups more in the spring and summer paid off Sunday with safety Shawn Williams filling in nicely for Iloka. Iloka’s not sure he can go this Sunday, but he tried last Sunday.

“I came back and made a tackle. I knew it was a matter of time,” Iloka said. “A guy broke a long run. I was running.  Wasn’t full speed. There was another play back side and I tried to plant. I was like, ‘Yeah.’ We were up. I always want to be out there trying to help the team. But at the point, I was more of a liability.”

This week’s debate is centered on aggressiveness and finding a middle way. Both Lewis and Guenther spoke to their players about it Monday Keep the same aggression but don’t let the emotion bubble into penalties. The Bengals did a great job matching the Raiders’ home intensity and countered Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio’s linebacker mentality with one of their own.

But they raised some flags. Guenther warned them they’re now on the officials’ “Bad Boy Reel.” Cornerback Adam Jones escaped ejection when he ripped the helmet off Raiders rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper. Iloka got flagged for taunting after his big hit on Cooper when he stepped over him. But it looked worse than it was since they got their feet tangled. Iloka certainly noticed the pace of the game.

“I was just playing my game. There were a couple of things I saw out there,” Iloka said. “It’s the first game of the season. Everyone is physical. Everyone is trying to set the tone for the season. You don’t want to go out there flat and get your butt kicked in the first game. We tried to come out physical. They tried to come out physical. Stuff like that happens. . . . Say it’s the first round of a boxing match. You don’t want to get beat up in the first round, it’ll be in your head the rest of the fight. So you got out and set the tone early.”

That’s the way Iloka plays. He says if you play passively, that can also spawn negative things. He says he’s just going to keep tackling and keep trying to help his team set that right tone.

“I think I’ve hit the fair share of people that I’ve needed to hit when the opportunity came,” he said. “People will think I’m a big hitter physically no matter what I do from this point on. I just try to go out there and make the tackle. Sometimes it’s going to be a shoe-lace tackle. Sometimes I’ll try to wrap up his legs. Sometimes I’ll get whacked like yesterday. I’m all about tackles. Just getting the guy down.”

Iloka has emerged as a leader on a defense that plays at its best when it plays exactly like that. Tough and fundamental. It’s the way they didn’t play against the Chargers the last time.

It’s the way Guenther needs them to play Sunday.

“Listen, when you are playing defense in the NFL you can’t be nice. But at the same time you can’t be stupid,” Guenther said. “I told the team we don’t want to back down to anyone but we got to be smart. We made the thing last year about being smart bullies. You got to be physical, you got to be violent. That’s what this game is; it’s a man’s game. Especially when you’re a defender. There is a difference between being physical and violent and tough and being stupid.”

Guenther has a picture on the wall in his office that might get some play this week. He bought it when he was at Saratoga this summer and it is one of the most iconic photos in sports history. Jockey Ron Turcotte, who signed the photo, is looking back at the rest of the 1973 Belmont field from his perch on Secretariat near the end of a 31-length victory that gave him the Triple Crown.

“Finish.”

There are enough of them around that remember they never got started against the Chargers.

   

 

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