Even though the Bengals are venturing out of conference, expect another AFC North grind job Sunday in Carolina against Panthers defensive-minded coach John Fox and his NFC East pedigree.
A week after their defense won a 15-10 tractor pull with the Ravens, the Bengals are bracing for the NFL's top rushing duo even more emphasized behind a rookie quarterback in the person of Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen and a desperate 0-2 hole. But even before Matt Moore got shelved, head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer knew what they would be facing from Fox.
Lewis is close friends with Fox and spent a week with him back in July on a USO tour of Afghanistan that included Eagles head coach Andy Reid and Vikings head coach Brad Childress. Their defenses faced off against each other in the Super Bowl. Lewis' Ravens kept Fox's Giants out of the end zone save for a kick return, and Zimmer's No. 1 NFL defense in Dallas got rolled out of the first round of the 2003 playoffs when Stephen Davis rushed for 104 yards.
"He wants to run the ball; they've always been a run-first type of deal," Zimmer said. "And (quarterback Jake) Delhomme was pretty damn good when he was there."
Now the running backs are DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and they are coming off a season they each gouged out more than five yards per carry with nearly the same amount of work. The 5-10, 235-pound Stewart had 5.1 on 221 carries and the 5-7, 217-pound Williams checked in with 5.2 on 216 carries, lugging it 100 more times than the departed Delhomme threw it and Fox would no doubt like to get back to that ratio.
His untried quarterbacks (Clausen is 7-for-15 off the bench) have thrown 18 more times than Williams and Stewart have run and the club's rushing average is down to 3.6. You know they're going to play defense. The Panthers finished eighth overall last year and are only giving up three yards per rush despite a struggling offense that has scored just two touchdowns this season.
"They're a very good running team, efficient with the football and play good, sound defense," said Lewis in his Monday news conference. "They're impressive to watch. And they have two great backs, one of the best receivers in football (Steve Smith) and an offensive line that has a lot of good players in it.
"They're a team with talent, and they were a playoff team in '08. They're a well put together football team, probably a little bit of a transition to some younger guys. They have a young guy playing quarterback right now. They play good, sound football and a couple games last year they ran for a whole bunch of yards."
So the battle is joined. The Bengals defense has to do what it did last week and stop the run, which it didn't do the week before in New England. But then, the Bengals were a different defense against Baltimore.
The defense responded to Zimmer cutting back the packages and being more aggressive blitzing, but cornerback Leon Hall isn't assuming that he's going to blitz more with a rookie quarterback.
"Knowing his style, we may or we may not; you never know," Hall said. "I don't know how advanced he is in their offense. They'll still have the same plays that they had with Matt Moore in there. They have the two backs. Obviously they'll give them the ball lot this game. That's one of the quarterback's best friends."
Zimmer was relatively pleased with an effort that stoned the Ravens on 11 of 15 third-down tries after giving up nearly 70 percent against the Pats.
"They played good, they played hard," Zimmer said. "We weren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. There were two or three plays that we got a little bit lucky on. When you play fast you get lucky on a couple plays, when you're playing slow you're unlucky."
Zimmer expects the same kind of concepts the Ravens fired at them with Clausen's arm. But he's still studying him. While the Bengals blitzed more on Sunday, Zimmer thought they were just getting back to their normal amount. He liked what he got out of the four-man rush, which is how they got interceptions from Hall and safety Chinedum Ndukwe on Sunday.
"Offensively they want to run the football," Zimmer said. "They have two great backs and they will take some shots with this kid. Baltimore started max protecting a lot, which is why I backed off blitzes. We rushed four which is not very many."
But with ends Robert Geathers and Michael Johnson getting good pressure off the edge and rookie tackle Geno Atkins coming up the middle, four was enough once the Ravens were one-dimensional.
And then there were picks when Zimmer didn't have to worry about how many he was rushing. When the Ravens went five wides late in the game, defensive tackle Pat Sims came up with one of the huge plays of the day with less than five minutes left. Knowing it would be a quick pass, Sims concentrated on a good first step and getting a hand up as soon as possible, and that's how his tipped pass got plucked by WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson.
"It was good to get Pat on the field. He was disappointed when we sat him down last week," said Zimmer, opting not to play the run-stopper against the passing Pats. "We played him a little bit at end, too. We were trying to cut the number of reps down on some of the guys (with Jon Fanene out). Still, we had a few too many plays. It's like everything else; it's a work in progress. We tackled better than we did the week before."
Zimmer has plenty of fodder to make sure the defense keep its edge against a quarterback making his first NFL start. His Bengals debut was spoiled by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's NFL debut in the 2008 opener. And as a Bengal, Zimmer is 1-4 against rookie quarterbacks.
"Every quarterback that has played in the NFL, I promise you, has won a lot of games in college and thrown for a lot of yards," Zimmer said.
Bruce Gradkowski wasn't a rookie last year, but he's a little-used guy that beat the Bengals in the last two minutes last year and Zimmer is still mad he didn't blitz him on a fourth-and-12 completion that kept the sticks moving in the winning drive.
"I forgot about that game," Hall said. "It shows you have to be careful, you have to be smart defensively every week. If we play within the game plan, we'll be all right. Anytime you play outside the game plan, you mess up the other 10 guys and that's never good."
Gradkowski is a shining example that anyone throwing a ball is dangerous. In 2006 in Tampa, Gradkowski was a rookie and beat the Bengals in one of his first NFL starts. Yes, he needed a touchdown pass in the final seconds following a roughing the passer call to get a 14-13 win, but he won.
Under Lewis, the Bengals are 6-7 against rookie quarterbacks and 1-2 against guys making their first NFL start. They lost to Flacco and the Niners' Shaun Hill in 2007 and beat the Rams' Brock Berlin in 2007.
So, all signs would seem to point to Zimmer staying simple.
"We weren't simple this week, but we were simpler; much simpler," Zimmer said. "We were more like what we usually are. And we definitely weren't overloaded. And we're never going to be so simple that we're not prepared to play. But against New England we had checks for this, checks for that, checks for this. I overdid it. They were thinking about checks instead of playing football."
Hall agrees that with the Panthers at 0-2, they'll play as desperate and as hard as the Bengals did Sunday.
"Very true, very true," he said. "(Monday's meeting) was 10 times better (than last Monday). Last week it felt a lot worse but in this meeting we had the same mentality. We've still have to play well this week. We have to focus on Carolina ... they're not going to lie down and give it to us."
Bengals against rookie QBs under Lewis
2003: Win vs. Ravens Kyle Boller (2 TDs, 1 INT)
2004: Loss vs. Steelers Ben Roethlisberger (1 TD, 0 INT)
2004: Loss vs. Steelers Ben Roethlisberger (1 TD, 0 INT)
2004: Win vs. Giants Eli Manning (0 TD, 1 INT)
2005: Win vs. Bears Kyle Orton (0 TD, 5 INTs)
2005: Win vs. Browns Charlie Frye (1 TD, 1 INT)
2006: Loss vs. Bucs Bruce Gradkowski (2 TDs, 1 INT)
2007: Win vs. Rams Brock Berlin (0 TD, 1 INT)
2008: Loss vs. Ravens Joe Flacco (0 TD, 0 INT)
2008: Loss vs. Ravens Joe Flacco (2 TDs, 0 INT)
2009: Win vs. Lions Matthew Stafford (1 TD, 2 INT)
2009: Loss vs. Jets Mark Sanchez (0 TD, 0 INT)
2009: Loss vs. Jets Mark Sanchez (0 TD, 0 INT)*
*Wild Card Game