Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga approached outside linebacker Thomas Howard in the near empty Bengals locker room Sunday and put an arm out.
"Dynamic duo," Maualuga said after he and Howard stabilized another steel-belted effort by the Bengals defense that this time claimed the NFL's highest scoring offense in a 23-20 last-snap win over Buffalo.
The Bengals defense rose to No. 1 in the rankings, now giving up 275.5 yards per game and stayed first in allowing yards per rush at 3.1.
With the Bills spreading out their offense to take advantage of the brains and mobility of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the height and athleticism of their receivers, the Bengals responded by starting and sticking with a versatile nickel package of Maualuga and Howard at backer backed up by three safeties and two cornerbacks. One of the safeties, Chris Crocker, slid to corner in the slot and another one could have in the person of the speedy Reggie Nelson. The other safety that started, Gibril Wilson, offered some bulk.
"I've played with Zim for a long time, so I'm always ready to do something different," Crocker said of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "You have to be multiple with Zim."
How good was Zimmer's third-rated defense on Sunday? Maybe good enough to go up a couple of notches after yielding just 273 yards to the NFL's third-rated offense in total yards. The Bills, averaging 38 points per game, scored just one offensive touchdown. They came in with 15 plays of at least 20 yards and had just three, one a fluke 28-yarder that bounced off double coverage by Maualuga and Crocker into the hands of wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt. The Bengals gave up one play over nine yards in the second half.
Take a bow Thomas Howard.
Many times he was entrusted with keeping an eye on the man many Bengals players and coaches feel is the best player on the Bills, running back Fred Jackson. If Howard, a 6-3, 240-pounder that can cover, wasn't chasing Jackson on a pass route, Maualuga was gumming him up in the running game with 11 team-high tackles.
"They did some different stuff, but not anything out of the ordinary," Fitzpatrick said. "I think it was more that we didn't execute and they made more plays than we did."
There were times the backers also found themselves matched up with dangerous running back C.J. Spiller split wide, but they gave up only one play of plus-20 to a running back and that was Jackson's 21-yard run at the end of the half.
"The points off emphasis were to get No. 14 off rhythm, tackle No. 22, and no deep balls," Maualuga said. "I think we did a pretty job executing."
The Bengals kept Fitzpatrick off rhythm, holding him to a 75.5 passer rating (20-of-34 for 199 yards, no picks, no touchdowns), nearly 30 points below his season's total. If the ubiquitous Crocker didn't blitz, the Bengals got decent pressure with the front four while No. 22, Jackson, came in averaging 6.4 yards per carry and had just 3.9 on 17 carries Sunday.
"Maualuga just made some plays for them, and I think that was one of the things they wanted to do — shoot gaps, and when he got that read, he was able to do that and make some plays for them today," Jackson said.
Howard is one of the free agents that have helped season this defense with locker room professionalism. He was huge Sunday in helping to hold Jackson to five catches for 32 yards. Jackson, who came into the game third in the NFL yards from scrimmage, had 98 after three weeks of averaging 139.
"I'll keep saying it: the defensive line is phenomenal and they make our defense go," Howard said. "Both their backs are explosive players and they run every route. Wheel routes, seven routes, they run multiple routes. Burst routes. Fades. And Fitz will throw it to them. We're lucky we have a bunch of good backs that run good routes. Bernard Scott runs fabulous routes; Cedric Benson. They get you ready to play on Sundays."
The Bengals refused to give up the big play in the second half. They gave up 17 plays, 75 yards, and 9:04 in the guts of the third and fourth quarters in a drive that only got a field goal. The philosophy was clearly visible on first down from the Bengals 12. Fitzpatrick couldn't find wide receiver Donald Jones, Maualuga and end Robert Gathers (playing his first game since the opener) dropped Jackson for no gain, and on third down Fitzpatrick had to go underneath to Jackson for a seven-yard gain that forced a field goal and only a 20-13 lead.
"We tried to make them go away from what they do and make them do something else," cornerback Nate Clements said of the checkdown passes.
The defensive series of the game came on Cincinnati's last one in a 20-20 game with 2:51 left. Maualuga bench-pressed Jackson for a two-yard loss on second down and on third-and-five from the Bills 37, Fitzpatrick took a shot at Jackson deep down the sideline and, like he was all day, Howard was there and the Bills couldn't exploit the matchup right down to the last snap. It helped that Zimmer didn't have to blitz on that play, but still got a big pass rush from tackle Geno Atkins that forced Fitzpatrick to throw under duress.
"We're a very disciplined defense," Howard said. "We set a high standard for ourselves. The scary thing is we can get better."