Backer bookends give Bengals AFC North edge with December left


The Backer Bookends. Big Game James and Tackling Tez.

If you want to know where the Bengals get this new brew of take-no-prisoners resiliency, you can find it in all corners of the locker room. Even rookie special-teamers making their NFL debuts in the middle of a division push.

But start with the adjoining lockers of The Backer Bookends.   

For the third straight game the Bengals crawled back from a deficit of at least 13 points, yet for the first time they went on to win Sunday against the Browns when two linebackers with mirror-image passion from two different generations willed them to their biggest win of the season.

No matter what happens next week during their bye, the Bengals will be in first place when they take the field in San Diego on Dec. 1.

SAM linebacker James Harrison, 35, a five-time Pro Bowler who dominated the AFC North of yesteryear as the fierce face of Pittsburgh's two Super Bowl defenses, put his new team on the brink of this AFC North title when he turned a 13-0 abyss into an avalanche of 31 straight points.

It wasn't a replay of his iconic 100-yard Super Bowl return of five years ago, a veritable marathon of determination and desire. Indeed, Sunday's 21-yard touchdown return got called back on defensive tackle Brandon Thompson's block in the back on left tackle Joe Thomas.

But this was an obstacle course of necessity compared to the Super Bowl, a smashmouth journey that was something to watch. Especially when Harrison took on center Alex Mack inside the five and drove him into the end zone, sending a jolt through his teammates and the sold-out crowd.

"I felt that once the offense went out there and scored a touchdown that was a big momentum swing for us. We were able to really build on top of that and push it all the way through," Harrison said.

"It was just a power thing. They were trying to stop me and I really wanted the touchdown to be honest with you. I felt like we needed to score because they had just had one. I felt that would even things out and tilt the momentum in our favor."

Minutes later the Bengals had their first touchdown on tight end Jermaine Gresham's 25-yard catch on the first play of the second quarter.

"He wasn't going down easy; that play set the tone," said left end Carlos Dunlap. "Gresham's touchdown set the tone, then James's play."

Then Vontaze Burfict, the second-year WILL linebacker who leads the NFL in tackles and the Bengals in fines, turned it into a rout with a ferocious shot on a checkdown pass to running back Chris Ogbonnaya, forcing a fumble, picking it up, and racing 13 yards for his first NFL touchdown and a 28-13 lead with 2:45 left in the first half as he bids for his first Pro Bowl.

"Yeah, I think he's playing at a Pro Bowl level," Harrison said after the Bengals 41-20 victory at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium. That's the type of thing where he's compared against guys on other teams. But I think he's playing at an exceptional level."

Or as left end Carlos Dunlap said, "He's playing like an All-Pro linebacker. He just has to stay on top."

Harrison, the man who put NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's face on the $20 bill when he was the most heavily-fined man in the game, offered a small postgame smile when asked if he sees Burfict in himself.

As he sat on the stool in front of his locker, he turned his head so Burfict could hear.

"He's an aggressive player. That's something you've got to have at times. Yeah, I think I see a little of him in me," Harrison said. "Especially with all these fines he's getting."

Burfict, who has picked up acupuncture treatments from Harrison along with other elements of his exhaustive training methods, thinks there is something to be said for that.

"Sometimes he rubs off on me. I take the same supplements he does and sometimes I feel like I'm in his element," Burfict said. "I take the same energy that he does and sometimes he makes me play crazy on the field."

Burfict had another 15 tackles Sunday to go along with his touchdown, but that didn't stop him from flirting with another fine after already racking up more than $50,000 to the league. He got his team-leading ninth penalty of the season when he was called for unnecessary roughness with the officials appearing to rule he hit Mack after the play. It cost his team a first down, but he insisted he's going to stand up for his teammates and that it fueled the ensuing goal-line stand that gave the Browns a 3-0 lead instead of 7-0 just 10 minutes into the game.

He said Dunlap did the same thing last week when Ravens tackle Michael Oher pushed him.

"I like to play with a fire. One of our linebackers was getting pushed. I've got everybody's back on defense, and if someone's pushing me, they've got my back," Burfict said. "I retaliated and pushed him, and I think that set the tone. Everyone was like, 'OK, let's go. They want to play like that?' We stopped them, they got three points, and I think that set the tempo. If they push my teammate, I've got their back."

Harrison had the offense's back when he stopped the 13-0 bleeding and since the season-ending injury to the club's best inside rusher, two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, Harrison has been invaluable. He has now been pressed into service in the nickel package as well as playing his SAM spot in the base and he calculated he played his most snaps as a Bengal on Sunday.

"I'm playing anywhere to a two technique to a six to a nine, he said of his spots up and down the line when he swings down from SAM. "It's cool. It's an expanded role because we had guys that went down. I've been here a little longer. I'm starting to get more comfortable in nickel defenses so I can understand what I need to do and I feel more comfortable out there."

During most of the season Harrison has been on the bench more often than not. He says he's surprised teams have attacked the Bengals with three-receiver sets more than two backs on first and second down. But now the snaps are piling up because he's playing in nickel.

Yet the interception actually came out of base and he made a play people didn't think he could make as a 4-3 SAM backer making the transition from 3-4 outside backer.

He dropped in coverage, saw that right end Michael Johnson tipped Browns quarterback Jason Campbell's pass, tipped it himself, and caught it before setting sail.

"A linebacker is a linebacker," Harrison said. "The difference is where you're lining up and the reads you have to get. Once you understand the reads and you've been in the defense, then you can play it. If you're a true 3-4 backer that rushes constantly and is basically an end, then I can see somebody having a hard time transferring to a 4-3. But we did a lot of dropping in Pittsburgh."

Harrison has been here before. An AFC North stretch run. Last week in Baltimore he had two pressures and a huge fumble recovery. Now this, the play that just might have won another division.

"I told him, 'That's a momentum changer,' " Burfict said. " 'Hopefully the offense can get something rolling,' and they did."

While preparing for the Browns last week, Burfict talked about Harrison still being a great player because he's still fueled by being undrafted all those years.

"The thing that drives me is to go out there and compete and try to impose my will on another guy who has a job to do and I want to come out on top," Harrison said. "That's the thing. It's just competition. It's something you've got to have if you want to continue to play this game. I've probably got everything that I need. I won't have to worry about anything. But I enjoy playing this game. I enjoy putting my will up against somebody else's to see who will come out on top."

If that sounds like this 7-4 Bengals team, then it probably does. They have a bye, a 2.5-game lead, and three of their last five games at home. The AFC North playoff vet knows what that means.

"The only thing you can hope for going into the ending month of the season is that you have the opportunity to control your destiny. And right now we have that opportunity," Harrison said. "It's real big. It's in conference. It's guys we see twice a year. It's a game you definitely want to win, especially right now in the middle of November when you want to roll out and continue to stack wins. Hopefully we'll stack enough wins that at the end of the year we'll go into extra innings."

Big Game James and Tackling Tez. The next time they appear, it will be December, the month that bookends the stretch and the playoffs.

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