11-15-04, 5 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
LANDOVER, Md. _ The Bengals defense has now officially gone from beleaguered to brilliant after throwing the Redskins around FedEx Field Sunday with a season-high five sacks and three interceptions to cap a month Cincinnati has allowed just six touchdowns in four games.
"The defense as a whole is playing well. Starting with the D-line and going all the way back to our secondary," said cornerback Deltha O'Neal after the Bengals picked off three balls for the second straight week in the 17-10 victory. "Everybody feels comfortable with the game plan. We're all one heartbeat."
"One Heartbeat," became their slogan last year during the 6-1 run following the bye week. The Bengals are now off the machine and breathing on their own at 3-2 following this year's bye (4-5 overall) and are savoring their first back-to-back wins in nearly a year since last Nov. 23-30.
But last year they never had a defense like this one that now has forced as many turnovers as it did last year with 24, is just one interception shy of last season's 14, and saw its streak of eight straight quarters without allowing a touchdown end with just 2:22 left in Sunday's game.
They kept Washington out of the red zone until seven minutes left in the game, off the scoreboard until 5:46 left, hemmed in ace running back Clinton Portis enough so that his longest run was just 11 yards, and began to talk and play like a untit with momentum and purpose.
And, last year they didn't have a defense able to drive a hostile crowd of 87,786 into booing the home quarterback off the field after the Redskins' Mark Brunell misfired on seven of his first eight passes and Patrick Ramsey came on halfway through the second quarter.
"That was awesome,' said cornerback Tory James, the leader of the pack with his NFL-best sixth interception Sunday. "They were chanting for the other guy. That was awesome. We really fed off that. We've got guys that are playmakers, that are proven guys who make plays. It's contagious back there. We're all working together. It's a family back there. We like each other and hang out together, and it's showing up on the field."
It showed up right away Sunday, which is what the Bengals wanted their defense to do in order to take away the NFL's loudest crowd in the league's biggest stadium in an effort to win their first road game in six straight tries dating back to that Nov. 30 game in Pittsburgh.
And, it took a hometown guy to do it. Part of the biggest regular-season crowd to ever watch the Bengals included rookie safety Madieu Williams' 15 family members and friends, some who work at the stadium.
Williams, who came into the game with two interceptions in the last two weeks, almost had a third on the second series when he bolted in front of wide receiver Rod Gardner in the middle of the field and ended up tipping the ball for weak-side linebacker Brian Simmons' second interception of the season.
With the ball suddenly at the Redskins 47, the big crowd turned surly and silent. Less than five minutes later with 5:37 left in the first quarter, the Bengals added to what is believed to be their NFl-leading points off turnovers (now 83) on running back Rudi Johnson's one-yard touchdown run.
"We were playing quarters (coverage), my man stopped in front of me, and I just broke in front of him," Williams said. "I thought I had an interception. I was getting ready to score. But I tipped it and Brian Simmons does what he always does and runs to the ball."
Simmons, playing in his 87th game as a Bengal, added another stat to what may be the finest of his seven seasons.
"The first couple of series with the three-and-outs, that's big on the road," Simmons said. "If you can go out and get on them early and get the crowd out of it, that's got to be to our advantage.
"This game, a lot of it is based on confidence," Simmons said. "Look at teams throughout the league. They win a couple of games and they think they can win every game. It's no different on either side of the ball. We're a work in progress."
But what a piece of work. In the first five games of the season, the Bengals had seven sacks, forced 10 turnovers, were allowing 160 yards per game on the ground, 25.8 points per game, and were allowing foes to convert third downs at a 41.5 percent clip.
In the last four games, the Bengals have 11 sacks, have forced 14 takeaways, are allowing 120 yards per game on the ground, 12.2 points per game, and have shut down their conversion rate to 29 percent after stuffing Washington on 12 of 16 third downs on Sunday.
And how good has the secondary been? The Bengals have gone 13 straight quarters without allowing a wide receiver a catch longer than 27 yards. The longest touchdown pass since the 59-yard Lee Suggs breakdown in Cleveland Oct. 17 has been a 13-yarder to a fullback.
"We had a lot of injuries early on and a lot of the guys are healthy and are able to play better,' said right end Justin Smith, one of five Bengals with a sack Sunday. "We're getting a lot of picks from the defensive backs. You're going to build a lot of momentum like that. The defensive coordinator (Leslie Frazier) knows what they have to do. . .We focused on stopping Clinton Portis so we could get them in second-and-longs and third-and-longs."
The amazing thing about the pressure the Bengals brought is that a lot of times the Redskins used "maximum protection," for their quarterback by sending out only two receivers on routes and keeping in two tight ends to block. And, a lot of times the Bengals rushed just three defensive linemen and dropped eight into pass coverage in those situations.
"You figure you're not going to get there anyway with the max protection, so you might as well drop them into coverage,' said defensive tackle John Thornton. "But I know at least one time we got a sack just by rushing three."
The Bengals got gut-check games out of Smith and the other end, Duane Clemons, even though they weren't sure either could last with sore shoulders. Each had a sack, and each should have had an interception when Frazier called zone blitzes and dropped them into coverage. But they dropped them.
"Have to get on the jugs machine this week," Smith said.
James doesn't need it. He now has a career-high six interceptions in his ninth season, nabbed when he followed wide receiver Laveraneus Coles across the middle, and sensed a Ramsey throw at the sideline at the Bengals 35 in the middle of the third quarter. Since it came less than a minute after Washington recovered a Rudi Johnson fumble, it was huge.
"I cut underneath where I thought the throw was going to be," James said. "And when I turned my head, it was there."
The only things that weren't there for the defense were two 15-yard roughing the quarterback calls on Smith and Clemons on which Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis quietly fumed. But Smith went off.
"It was B.S. and (Clemons' penalty) was B.S.," Smith said. "The ref must not have played football. You're getting pushed into guys."
If the defense is a work in progress, Frazier has to love the progress of his first-year players. Williams has to be bidding for AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year with Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson and Denver linebacker D.J. Williams. Rookie end Robert Geathers came up with his second sack in as many weeks, first-year tackle Langston Moore got his first career sack, as did middle linebacker Landon Johnson on a zone blitz.
Johnson, the 225-pounder playing the middle for the first time in his life in place of the injured Nate Webster and Caleb Miller, led the team with a fast and rangy nine tackles.
"There are adjustments to me be made, but playing linebacker is playing linebacker," said Johnson, drafted in the third round as an outside backer. "Playing linebacker is fun no matter where you play."
How much fun? They were shaking their heads thinking about how many potential picks they could have had if not for drops. The working number is five or six.
"I've never seen a game like that where we had so many guys get their hands on the ball," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle. "Everyone is playing with such confidence, and the front guys are getting pressure. Everybody got involved today."
A linebacker (Simmons), a nickel corner on third down (Williams) and a safety (Kim Herring at the end of the game on Ramsey's heave) had the picks. Safeties Kevin Kaesviharn and Rogers Beckett didn't start, but covered incomplete passes in the end zone. Anthony Mitchell also had a hand in making sure the longest Washington pass went 27 yards.
How well is it working out? With the Bengals' next road game in three weeks in nearby Baltimore, Madieu Williams didn't have to buy all his tickets in one fell swoop.
"Too expensive. We were able to split it up," he said.