BALTIMORE - Marvin Lewis admitted he had to get used to pushing the right buttons and left end Carlos Dunlap admitted giving up 265 rushing yards was just too many and linebacker Hardy Nickerson admitted he'd like some snaps back on another day the Bengals allowed half its 16 third-down conversions
But after Sunday's 24-21 loss to Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson making his first NFL start, the Bengals defense felt like Lewis' poise and simplicity helped them gather some of its sea legs back and is a little bit more ready for the final six games of the season than it was a week ago.
It better be now that they're tied with the Ravens and three other AFC teams at 5-5 for that sixth and final play-off spot.
"It was clear and evident we looked like a different defense out there," Dunlap said. "We were getting off the field. We were getting stops when we needed to. We just didn't finish the game the way we want.
"(Lewis) did really well. It's like naturally in his DNA to have those reins at D-coordinator. He seems to be motivated and inspired and it sparks something in him. We definitely played better. We definitely have enough to build on. Have to go do it."
This defense is coming off a historically prolific three-game stretch that got coordinator Teryl Austin fired last week after New Orleans scored on every drive it tried and convinced Lewis to be both head coach and defensive coordinator. And in the fourth quarter Sunday it almost seemed to find itself with Lewis streamlining the playbook and not calling a lot of different plays and coverages. With new assistant coach Hue Jackson keeping pulse on game management elements rather any nitty-gritty of the defense or offense, Lewis concentrated on stopping Lamar Jackson. After the Ravens never threw the ball on the first drive, killing them on Jackson's third-and-four draw through a middle of an empty field for a 21-yard run that accounted for most his 64 yards on that drive, Lewis kept hammering leverage.
"As we settled down on defense and began to play leverage, we did a much better job of attacking him," Lewis said. "He runs a little differently and basically makes it 11-on-11 football. We just had to understand that and run for leverage and get him on the ground.
"A couple of times we had the first guy there and made the tackle. But when we started to run the leverage with him and not wait for him, then we got him on the ground. We can't wait. We have to run and go take the leverage with him and get his legs down. It's option football, and everybody has to stay sound in their responsibilities all the way through. That's what matters. But, he has a big run on the quarterback draw. Probably the biggest run all day. We just had to get guys understanding the change at quarterback."
There was a technical glitch. Lewis was pushing the button on his headset that he's been pushing for 15.5 seasons and not the defensive call button to Nickerson, wearing the communicator helmet.
Poor Hardy had it tough early on, no doubt. He's standing there looking at me, and I'm pushing the wrong button," Lewis said. "After the first drive, it kind of settled down a little bit. But there were a couple of times, even with the timeouts, he's looking at me, and I'm wondering why he's looking at me."
Images from the week 11 contest as the Bengals face the Ravens.
They got it squared away so that during that fourth quarter Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins made a diving tackle on Jackson on third-and-four for a two-yard loss that forced a Justin Tucker chip-shot field goal that broke a 21-21 tie with 8:12 left. Then on third-and-four from the Ravens 48 in a game still 24-21, Nickerson dropped Jackson a yard shy of the first down, setting up a very odd and very costly illegal formation penalty on fourth-and-one that forced a Ravens punt.
Never mind. With the game on the line the defense got the ball back for the offense. Twice. They didn't cash either time. The closest they came to scoring is when Randy Bullock missed a 52-yard field goal. But...
"We got off the field. We made stops," Dunlap said. "We got the ball back to 'em. As a defense that's what we want to do. Give our ball back to the offense."
Even if the rookie Jackson played and not the old Super Bowl hero Joe Flacco, you knew this might get ugly. Maybe you didn't expect undrafted rookie running back Gus Edwards to come bashing out of anonymity, not to mention Rutgers, for 115 yards on 17 carries, two more lugs than he had all season.
But you also knew the Bengals had a nightmare scenario poised to blossom against a running quarterback they're calling Michael Vick-like. Cincy didn't have two starting linebackers and the other one, Vontaze Burfict, is hurt, too, and playing on guts pretty much. Two key role players on the front line, Ryan Glasgow and Carl Lawson, are long gone with torn ACLs.
And Lewis, calling plays for the first time since Michael Vick was just coming off his rookie year, was back in the building where he became famous calling plays for the 2000 Ravens defense that allowed an NFL-record 970 rushing yards. Lewis's defense now has given up 833 in the last month, but they feel like they beat back a few demons.
Even Lewis, who'll never win Miss. Congeniality after a loss, was damn near chatty. Almost upbeat, even, despite Jackson's 17 yards on 27 carries.
"They played hard. That was important. I thought they played better and did a good job with assignments. I thought that was good, and the tape will show, but I thought that was much better," Lewis said. "I thought we did a good job with understanding that, and when they came to the sideline, they understood the corrections that were made before they went back out there and handled it well. We made some revisions and so forth on the sideline and at halftime; and they came out and played them."
Remember, the last time we saw them last week they were lost in space and pointing at each other as the ball was snapped instead of eying the Saints. Nickerson, a second-year player making his fifth start relaying Lewis' calls to the defense to the head set, recalled the feeling after the fourth-and-1 stop of Jackson at the Ravens 45 with 9:15 left in the third quarter of a game the Bengals had the lead,14-13. Linebacker Vincent Rey was credited with the stop, but it was the proverbial "host of tacklers."
"We anticipated the quarterback sneak. We stayed in our lanes and went downhill," said safety Shawn Williams, very active on the play. "I don't know if I got him. I think I helped push Vinny or Hardy and that's all it is."
Nickerson felt a surge following that snap.
"We got that energy we hadn't felt in a long time in terms of guys flying around and having fun," Nickerson said. "We just have to finish it now."
Rey, the nine-year vet, felt something change on the sidelines. Remember how the sideline demeanor of last Sunday was one of the reasons Lewis pulled the trigger? Rey said when they came in at halftime down 13-7 after giving up two brutal field goals in the final 1:46 of the half, some players did the uncommon thing of talking emotion instead of adjustments. He agreed with Lewis they learned something Sunday.
"We had guys on defense who came in and said some words that really brought us together," said Rey, who wouldn't name names. "When you're out there playing for yourself and not playing for somebody else, you're not going to do great … When someone says play as a team, it gets you going."
Rey said he wanted to win this one for Lewis and guys like Burfict played like they wanted to win it for him.
"It's one of those things where I think he's going to be more comfortable next week. But, to not do this since 2002, and to come out and call plays, I thought he did a hell of a job," Nickerson said. "He's always leaned toward the defense in making our adjustments, but, today, it was a step up in terms of him being in my ear, literally, alerting me to stuff pre-snap, giving me the play calls and all that stuff."
No, like Nickerson said, it didn't look good in the book But Lewis knows they're still writing chapters.
"Now it's a race," said Lewis, after Jackson ran the Ravens into contention down the stretch. "We know where we are, and now it's a race to the finish. And they are in the same position we are. And now we've got to go.
"We know that we can do that, and we have guys who can do that. We'll get some guys back and healthy, and that will make us better. And that will lift us up."