You can talk about the quarterbacks and Neil Rackers and the running game and the streak of seven straight scoreless quarters and the 4-6 record. But you really can't talk about the Bengals defense.
Spikes, Simmons & Co. Inc. have surged to 10th in NFL total defense and the guys who do talk about them are the guys from '89. That's the last time the Bengals finished in the top 10, when they never gave up more than 30 points and allowed an average of less than 20 (17.6) in finishing seventh overall.
"When I go into that locker room, I spend a lot of time with the linebackers. Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons," said Solomon Wilcots, one of the free safeties on that 8-8 team who now covers football for CBS. "I love Steve Foley. And (backup middle linebacker) Adrian Ross could have started for us. He could start for a lot of other teams now.
"I tell them they're the best front seven I've seen around the Bengals from back even when we were winning," Wilcots said. "This is a very good defense and once they get some coverage on the outside, it will be a break-out year."
The '89 team had no such problems on the outside. Not with Pro Bowler Eric Thomas on the right corner and Lewis Billups, who could have gone to the Pro Bowl, on the left corner. Throw in Pro Bowl strong safety and leading tackler David Fulcher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme thrived with playmakers in a secondary nicknamed "The SWAT Team."
"The only marquee guy we had in our front seven was (nose tackle) Tim Krumrie," said Fulcher, a Bengals analyst for WLW-700 AM. "If we had guys like Spikes and Simmons, I would have finished third or fourth in tackles. It's really the opposite. Our strength was the secondary and this team has got the front seven."
Simmons, the soul of the defense at middle linebacker, is finally hitting his stride the past few weeks after knocking off the rust of a knee injury that wiped all but three quarters of his 2000 season. Spikes, the heart of the defense at right outside backer, is playing the way a Pro Bowl hopeful is supposed to play as the first-rounders from the 1998 draft continue to do what they're supposed to do.
Simmons leads the team with a career-high 4.5 sacks and last week in Cleveland had 12 tackles and forced a fumble. Spikes is working on a career-high four sacks and is coming
off two monster games in which he racked up a club season-high 15 tackles against Tennessee and followed up with 17 tackles last week.
"Take it how you want to take it," said tackle Oliver Gibson. " You play a lot of defense around here. Brian Simmons and Takeo Spikes have probably played more snaps than a lot of guys that have played. We hid behind that we were young for a few years, but we're a veteran group now.
"I used to make fun of (former Bengals end) John Copeland," Gibson said. "He's only one year older than me, but John looked physically a lot older. I got to thinking about it and you play a lot of defense playing for Cincinnati. We've had a lot of snaps."
Spikes, critical of the secondary in the past, and others have gone out of their way to praise an overachieving defensive backfield. But what makes Wilcots more impressed with the current defense's numbers (17th against the rush and 12th against the pass), is the injury-riddled state of the secondary in a zone-blitz scheme.
Although these Bengals run a 4-3 defense, Wilcots knows they can't come near using the full complement of blitz schemes his Bengals did in '89 to force 37 turnovers.
"You talk to Bill Cowher and Tim Lewis this year in Pittsburgh," said Wilcots of the Steelers head coach and defensive coordinator, "and they will tell you the only way they can blitz the way they do on defense is because of the coverage they get from (cornerbacks) Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington. The coverage has to hold up in that three-step (quarterback drop). So you know this front seven is really doing a good job bringing some pressure."
Which is what the '89 secondary did for an undersized line and average linebackers. While Thomas and Billups blanketed receivers, the rush schemes could go to work and help a linebacking corps of Carl Zander-Leon White-Joe Kelly-Reggie Williams. Much like a front seven of Spikes-Simmons-Gibson-Tony Williams-Justin Smith bails out a secondary of Mark Roman-Robert Bean-JoJuan Armour-Cory Hall that is decimated by injury.
"They were good role players," Fulcher said of his front seven. "They weren't supposed to make plays, but they were always looking to make something happen and help us make the big play back there. The only guy up front who made big plays consistently was Tim Krumrie. What Timmy did for our defense was unbelievable at nose tackle. He ran all over the place."
In fact, Wilcots says what Gibson and Williams are asked to do as a tandem is what the Bengals asked Krumrie to do by himself: Penetrate, tie up at least two blockers, and keep lanes free for Fulcher and the backers.
"Not may players like Tim Krumrie come along," Wilcots said, "and I think that's a big reason why you don't see the 3-4 that much any more because those nose tackles are so rare."
The Bengals are getting rare play out of their high-priced tackle-tandem of Gibson and Williams in the middle. In fact, not since Krumrie retired after the 1994 season have the trenches been in such good hands. Gibson leads the line with 40 tackles despite double teams, which Williams took advantage of last week in Cleveland with 11 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
"When are they going to start double teaming Tony?" Gibson asked. "He's quicker than I am. A better pass rusher. I've been waiting on a game like that from him."
Williams missed virtually all of three games with a mid-foot sprain from the Oct. 7 loss in Pittsburgh and just seems to be rounding into form after returning three weeks ago against Jacksonville. Simmons hasn't missed any games, but that's about the time he began to feel like his 1999 self.
"Physically, I was here, but I was little out mentally from missing a year," said Simmons, who tore cartilage off his kneecap in the 2000 opener. "I could tell I was half a step slow. I just wasn't getting reads right away. Now I feel like it's coming. I feel like I'm at a point before I got hurt."
LeBeau is now the head coach and has left the signal calling to new coordinator Mark Duffner. Duffner, who molded the linebackers into the strength of the team as their position coach, has tried to simplify things for a defense that in the past few seasons had a tendency to line up wrong.
"You can tell they are understanding it and getting in the right place," Wilcots said. "That's what we could do. Say what you want about our linebackers, but Carl Zander could get us lined up."
Spikes was particularly impressed with the play of the secondary in Cleveland after losing starter Artrell Hawkins on the game's first play with a high ankle sprain. When Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson beat Roman early in the first quarter on a 47-yard bomb, Spikes got in Roman's face.
"I told him he could fold it in right then, or come back and hit somebody in the mouth on the next play," Spikes said. "He was tough. He kept going and that's how they're playing this year. Tough and coming back after they get beat. They've been getting a lot of heat from fans, media and I've given them some constructive criticism. But they keep going hard."
Which could describe his unit, which in the years following 1989 averaged a No. 24 ranking in the league.
"I like watching them," Wilcots said.