Ever since the Bengals defense melted down in the last minute against Cleveland back on Oct. 25, they keep putting together their best stretch of defense in four years with a group that is perhaps the franchise's version of the No Name Defense.
No Geno Atkins. No D.J. Reader. No Trae Waynes. And yet in the last seven games they've held foes to less than 21 points five times. That hasn't been done here since the Bengals finished 2016 doing that six times in the last seven games.
"We were just out there doing the things we love at the highest level and really just playing for one another. Playing for the name on the back of your jersey," said safety Vonn Bell Monday night after making the signature hit in their signature performance. "Guys come from different stories and they were just telling that story tonight and just making plays."
The defense is the story after Monday night's 27-17 victory over Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium as the Bengals pitched one of their defensive masterpieces of the century. Right there with holding the Steelers to 226 yards and no touchdowns in The War of 18-12 back in that long ago tale of 2009.
This time it was 244 yards for the third fewest yards they've allowed Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for his fifth worst passer rating against them. When they held the Steelers to 86 rushing yards it's the first time in this century they've held the Steelers to less than 100 yards rushing in both games. When they sent Big Ben packing on the first five series of the game, it marked the first time since 1986 the Steelers hadn't had a first down by that point.
"We just have to believe in ourselves. We have a relentless group and we stepped up to the plate tonight," Bell said. "Monday Night Football the biggest stage we went out there and hit it out of the park."
Since someone name Donovan Peoples-Jones of the Browns caught a 24-yard touchdown pass to beat the Bengals with 11 seconds left, the defense has had more hits than whiffs. They're holding teams to 35 percent on third down since Nov. 1, they've allowed six touchdowns in the last 17 quarters and they are holding passers to a 74.5 passer rating in the last five games. They're ranked 22nd, which would give them their highest rank since No. 18 in 2017.
"I've said this all season. They get paid too. Their guys are going to make plays, and that's why they are in the position they are in now," said middle linebacker Josh Bynes of the 11-3 Steelers. "And that happened. They were able to make plays, but even throughout all that, we can't let momentum swing their way.
"We've just got to come up with a play, come up with a stop or something like that to knock the wind out a little bit and give us back the ball to settle everything down, and I just think defensively we did such a great job today and guys played their butts off."
That's exactly what Bynes did Monday night on the biggest third-and-one of the game. It came late in the third quarter and the Bengals were bleeding. The Steelers had scored 10 straight, the Bengals had been six and out in the quarter but there was Bynes busting up the middle.
Bynes, the nine-year pro, didn't blink on a motion across the formation and with tackle Xavier Williams and Sam Hubbard standing up their linemen, Bynes barged through the hole to grab running back Benny Snell, Jr., by the ankles to force the punt. When the Steelers got the ball back, it was 24-10.
"It's just something we practice pretty much all week, and there's nothing like when the stuff you practice all week shows up in a game and you watch film and stuff like that," Bynes said. "I just made a good read and was just trying to make a great play for the team, and obviously it was a great stop for our team and actually a good kill for them and keep that thing going our way. I was just blessed to make that play, but yeah, that's it -- film study, practice, it all just came in that play."
The Bengals are chalking up those kinds of plays to just getting some kind of consistent lineups out there.
When the Steelers beat them, 36-10, back on Nov. 15, they were down three defensive coaches and had three cornerbacks for much of the game. Mike Daniels and Chase Covington have started the last eight games at nose tackle and defensive tackle, respectively, after three different combos started the first six weeks. And none of them was Atkins-Reader.
It was that familiarity that allowed defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to show Big Ben a bevy of different looks. They only blitzed him 10 times, about right for a team blitzing about 30 percent of the time. But they showed a variety or pressures, particularly loading the linebackers up in the A gap, before dropping people back. When slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander caught an interception basically thrown right at him over the middle, Roethlisberger seemed surprised eight men had draped across the field.
It was as befuddled as Big Ben has ever looked against the Bengals. His 52.6 completion rate is quite glaring for a guy that has 23 games of at least 60 percent passing against the Bengals.
"We've been doing what we've been doing all year. We really were just executing at a high level," Bell said. "We didn't have any mistakes, no dropped coverages or anything like that. Communication was on point. We were just doing what we were supposed to do. We really just kept playing our game. Like I said, we were all dialed in on the same accord, on the same page. We just executed tonight."
Probably because they have been together a little bit now. It was no coincidence that the guys leading the charge Monday night were three of the new players they added over the offseason. Bynes, Bell and Alexander seem to be hitting their stride after going through the 2020 pitfalls of signing with a team during a pandemic that wiped out spring ball and pre-season games as well as a chunk of training camp.
They were particularly cohesive in the back, where Roethlisberger has traditionally tortured the Bengals deep. But he only completed one of 12 passes longer than 10 yards and the DBs, led by cornerback Darius Phillips' three passes defensed (he could have picked the first play of the game and nearly had another), Alexander's two passes defensed and cornerback William Jackson III allowing just two catches for 12 yards on five targets.
Again, Bell alluded to a comfort level with his mates.
"Reading keys. In the formations, you know what they was giving us. Really just playing top down and don't beat yourself," Bell said. "That's the biggest thing in this league. Playing with great eyes, especially as safeties and reading the keys and seeing what the situation is and going out there and just playing. Communication."
Throw in edge rusher Carl Lawson's sack to add to his perpetual six-hit harassment of Roethlisberger, and the defense kept writing its story.
"Those guys going to the playoffs. It shows the world tonight we can play with anybody," Bell said. "We played all phases of the game. We played great team football. Hand in hand football, offense and defense. Put them in position to make points, plays. Taking the ball away just letting loose and having fun. That's one of the most complete games we've played at the highest level."