Posted: 1:20 a.m.
MarvBall is a brand of the formula Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis learned in Pittsburgh and Baltimore and Sunday he gave the Ravens a double shot of the hard stuff at Paul Brown Stadium as his team virtually knocked the Ravens out of the race to set up next Sunday's steel cage match for first place in the AFC North in Pittsburgh against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Before 64,313 delirious fans drenched in an Indian Summer sun catching the first whiff of the burning leaves of a playoff hunt, running back Cedric Benson's 34 punishing runs and three consecutive sacks of quarterback Joe Flacco on what amounted to the Ravens' last three plays left the Bengals 17-7 victory over Baltimore with an AFC North stamp of approval.
While Benson's 117 yards set up another Carson Palmer masterpiece against the Ravens and five different players were in on sacks to counter the loss of Antwan Odom, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph took center stage with such superb play that no Ravens wide receiver on the NFL's seventh-most prolific offense caught a ball longer than 15 yards and Baltimore's third-down juggernaut failed nine out of 10 times.
"I don't know of a better tandem. The two guys in Green Bay are really good, but I don't think I would take either of those guys over our guys," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "Our guys are young, fast and physical and they both have been working on their hands to make big plays. Johnathan Joseph was always getting his hands on the ball, but he worked hard in the offseason and he is converting tipped balls and interceptions. I don't think I would take any two corners over our guys."
They had some help from defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who blitzed a little bit more than in the Bengals 17-14 victory over Baltimore last month but not all that much, and according to the locker room was pretty much impeccable with his play-calling as he backed in and out of coverages on third down to confuse quarterback Joe Flacco.
"Zim is like a mad scientist," said defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who played a nice game with a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit. "He wants to get everyone in the right spots and he takes advantage of their disadvantages. We didn't have to blitz. Our secondary is good. You don't have to do anything when you've got a Pro Bowl secondary."
A month after the Bengals frustrated No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason by blanking him in Baltimore, they held him Sunday to just three catches for 31 yards, all in the second half.
Take two snaps in the second half.
On a third-and-20 in the third quarter and the Bengals protecting a 17-0 lead, Joseph cleanly ran step for step with Mason down the right sideline as Flacco fired up one that appeared to be a desperate bid for pass interference.
Then, with 6:17 left in the game, moments after Joseph briefly left with a hyperextended knee, the Ravens were making it interesting. On a third-and-four from the Bengals 20, Joseph broke on an out route at the 5 to bat the pass away from Mason and force a missed 38-yard field goal.
It was Joseph's fifth pass defensed of the day to go a long with a sack and four tackles. Combined with Hall's interception and two tackles, and two passes defensed, it was certainly Joseph's best game of the season and probably the most complete game by the duo since they became a tandem in 2007.
"They're playing great," said safety Chris Crocker. "It allows me to do a lot. It allows Chinedum (Ndukwe) to do a lot. Roy (Williams) to do a lot. It allows Zim to put those guys on an island out there. That's why we're so good in the run defense because we can play a lot of eight-man fronts and teams can't run the ball against us.
"Guys are going to catch balls from time to time, but those guys resilient on the outside. You catch a ball on me, OK, I'm going to come back next time and you won't catch that same one."
With the Bengals holding the 10th-best rushing team in the NFL to 55 yards on 3.2 yards per pop, the corners were in a comfort zone on third down because the Ravens were usually third and long. And when it wasn't, like the first one, a third-and-three, Hall read the slant to Mason step for step and Mason had to play DB to slap it away from Hall.
Or, like on a third-and-five at the end of the first quarter on a checkdown to running back Ray Rice, rookie nickel corner Morgan Trent stopped the elusive one a yard shy of the stick.
"They mixed up coverages; they do a good job of that," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. "They mixed them up on third down, and they have a nice pressure package when they get you to third down, especially third-and-long."
This was a defining game because the Bengals played one of their best defensive games in the Lewis era against one of the AFC's most dominant defenses of the decade.
"We've got a lot of pride on defense," Hall said. "Zim said all week when you play a great defense like the Ravens, the best defense on the field that day is going to win. Obviously when you play the Ravens (we) focus on their offense, but you kind look on the defensive side of the ball and try to play better than they are."
Cornerback is supposed to be the diva position on defense, but these two guys are as quiet and reliable as stage hands. Joseph, the first-round pick from South Carolina in 2006, is blossoming into a top-flight corner after two seasons of battling a broken foot. Hall, the first-round pick from Michigan in 2007, is emerging into an elite corner with both brains and brawn.
"(Joseph) is starting to come into his own," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle, with the reminder that Joseph came out early after only one year of Division 1. "Now he understands concepts better. He sees formations. He's able to anticipate things. To his credit he's really worked on the mental phases of it.
"Give Leon Hall credit for making Johnathan better. Leon is a cerebral guy. An intelligent player. And they're tied at the hip in meetings, next to each other, talking to each other, and I think they feed off each other. They're real competitive. One guy gets an interception and the other guy has to go out and get one."
Coyle couldn't get over Joseph's interception on the goal line on the first series of the second half, which was a nice tone-setter on the fourth play of the half as Joseph vaulted over wide receiver Mark Clayton.
"He had to go up over top of him," Coyle said. "It was well thrown. He timed it and showed really good poise to just run and at the last second elevate and catch the ball at the highest point."
Hall looked over at Joseph's locker with both now tied for the team lead at four interceptions and offered, "Somebody has to separate sooner or later. Somebody will, I'm sure."
The AFC North formula has to have corners that hit and, as Coyle said, "We don't have 'cover' corners around here ... we want them to be complete."
This is why head coach Marvin Lewis covets corners in general and these two in particular.
"They are playing both fundamentally sound and smart, and I put a big capital on 'Smart.' That's key to playing cornerback in this league," Lewis said. "Both guys have tremendous athleticism, speed and ability to play the ball in the air. What gets you in trouble at that position is when you try to do too much. Today those guys played a nice, clean game. They were able to play the coverages to their advantage and execute back there."
Hall may be cerebral but he doesn't like to talk about himself, so instead he pointed to Zimmer's schemes as the reason for the third-down success.
"Just playing hard. Zim makes great calls in the right situations," Hall said. "We did a little bit of everything. We rolled up. We played a little bit of one-on-one. Trying to keep them confused. We're playing pretty confident. We always work hard in practice. Trying to compete with each other in practice week in and week out and it just follows over into the game.
"It definitely helps that (Joseph and I) are both healthy and we're able to be on the field. And talk to each other and relate to what we see on the field and feed off each other, really."
Joseph thought the key on third down was the pressure from a front line that has really banded together with the loss of Odom, the team's leading sacker. His replacement, right end Jon Fanene, might have thrown his helmet as he ran off the field to celebrate the sack he shared with rookie end Michael Johnson to get a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty with 1:50 left, but he had the Ravens throwing their hands up.
Twice in a three-play span late in the third quarter left tackle Jared Gaither was called for holding Fanene, with one wiping out a Flacco first-down scramble on third down.
"I would say pressure," Joseph said. "The guys in the back understand what's going on. How long he's holding it for the snap count, get a great jump and they're getting a great rush off the line.
"Earlier in the year we had a tendency when the quarterback got out of pocket (receivers) would run free. Now the guys kind of have learned if he breaks the pocket and runs, it's not our job to go for the sack. We've got to cover the guys in the back and I think we did that and we got the pressure."
Starting with 2:32 left and the Ravens desperate, the Bengals got the pressure from guys like Ndukwe and linebacker Brandon Johnson, who blitzed on second down from the Ravens 44. That was a sack. Then left end Robert Geathers chased down the bobbing and weaving Flacco for another sack on third down. Fanene and Johnson finished him off on fourth down for Johnson's first NFL sack.
Even if it was a half. With Fanene moving into tackle, Johnson lined up over Gaither and beat him on the edge even if it was a bit awkward.
"I went low and fast around him and by the time I got there, I was almost crawling on all fours," Johnson said. "It was a great feeling. You know with that you've won the game and any win in the division is big."
Just before his sack, Geathers had to come out of the game after getting hit in the head and he still was a little woozy in the locker room.
"Yeah, I got hit in the head. Was that a legal hit?" the normally mild-mannered Geathers asked. "As defensive linemen, we live for that, to be up at the end of the game and they have to throw the ball. Zim always talks about it all the time about closing the game. We did a good job today. When everybody's getting pressure across the board up front…"
Geathers said the crowd noise was a big help for the sacks: "About to win a game like that, you get a little extra push."
Middle linebacker Dhani Jones also saluted Zimmer along with a little friendly dig. "He called the plays when he was supposed to and we executed like we were supposed to," Jones said.
"Everyone thinks with Odom down we don't have people to (replace him. Fanene did a great job. Frostee (Rucker) did a great job. It was a collective effort by the defensive line to provide a fair amount of pressure at the same time that caused certain amount of coverage to occur, especially the way the defensive line played."