JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The skeptics can talk about how the Bengals are 8-1 over the past two seasons against losing teams after Sunday's 27-10 thrashing of the Jaguars, but the fact remains that the defense made inactive four first-round picks from its secondary and was still able to produce its best defensive effort in 20 games.
After head coach Marvin Lewis flashed the depth of his roster with a no-frills bulldozing of defending NFL rushing champion Maurice Jones-Drew with 38 yards on 13 carries, he had to admit it's the deepest of his 10 seasons.
"I believe we have a better group of guys who can make football plays … who understand it," Lewis said. "I think they do a great job of seeing the next guy up and the fact guys are getting an opportunity (to play) and going in and doing it; you've got to credit our coaches for getting these guys ready to play."
The defensive depth chart may look like a Who's Who of the last decade of NFL Drafts, but its philosophy is defined by the unwanted and the unchosen. At least on Sunday when safety Chris Crocker came off the couch to seal the win with a fourth-quarter interception of Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert and undrafted rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict made one of his team-high eight tackles his first NFL sack.
"You don't have to be a superstar; just play within the scheme and we're able to make a bunch of plays," Crocker said. "We're able to get pressure with our front four and we just do what we're supposed to do the back end."
Crocker, clearly savoring a moment he has been aching for since the Bengals cut him April 6, smiled.
"That's the third ball I've caught since Houston," he said of January's playoff game, his last action since no team signed him until the Bengals asked him to come in Thursday.
But that front four made things a whole lot easier for the undermanned secondary. For the first time since Dec 2-9, 2001, the defense came up with back-to-back six-sack games, which just shows how important left end Carlos Dunlap is. In his second game back from a knee injury, he had a sack and his constant bull rushes and right end Michael Johnson's perpetual speed rushes collapsed the pocket and led to, among other things, tackle Geno Atkins's two sacks.
How deep are the Bengals?
Johnson, the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week, didn't make the stat sheet on a day the Bengals gave the Jags 212 yards, their best outing since the Ravens got 199 yards in the 2010 finale.
"Stop the run and get some sacks and you're going to win a lot of games," Peko said.
Old friend Bob Bratkowski, the new Jaguars offensive coordinator, chose to test the secondary right away, throwing on his first three first downs even though the NFL's 31st-ranked run defense was pitted against Jones-Drew a week after he had blitzed the Colts for 177 yards.
The three snaps showed what was to come. Tackle Domata Peko and outside linebacker Manny Lawson rung up sacks, and Gabbert had to scramble on another as the young Jaguars receivers never really got it together. Gabbert's longest completion to a wide receiver was Laurent Robinson's 19-yarder.
"Our defense went out and had fun today," said Peko, who celebrated his sack with what he called a "Gangnam Style" dance. "We came in with a chip on our shoulders. We haven't been playing good defense and I think our best defense is in front of us."
Lewis loves those chips.
He may also have an offensive depth chart that is stud central with the Pro Bowl connection of wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton having another redhead letter day again when Green racked up the first back-to-back 100-yard days of his career (six catches for 117 yards) and Dalton kept his season's triple-digit passer rating intact with a 96.7 effort of two touchdowns and a pick of 244 yards.
But Lewis has always been wary of how his teams respond to success, so he likes to identify them with the us-against-middle-and-bottom-of the-roster guys like slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (another big 30-plus-yard third-down play) contributing so much after playing two years in Canada and center Jeff Faine coming off the street and anchoring four games of a 3-1 run despite surfacing 10 days before Opening Day.
"They understand they have to be ready to play when they are called on," Lewis said. "You look at Orson Charles, you look at Marvin Jones on offense, you look at what (Devon) Still and Brandon Thompson are giving us on defense. You've got Burfict; I could just go on and on. There are a lot of guys who weren't going to be in the thick of the plan who are out there playing a lot of football."
Crocker and Burfict were the face of this win. With cornerbacks Leon Hall (hamstring), Nate Clements (calf), Jason Allen (thigh) and Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) all out, Crocker was plucked last week from his Atlanta home, where he had been ever since the Bengals cut him April 6.
The Bengals eased him back in as he played about half the snaps juggling the nickel corner with safety Jeromy Miles and rotating in the base defense with Taylor Mays.
With Crocker providing some glue, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was able to dial up some pressure and Burfict got his first sack off one of those, a blitz in the A gap.
"No one touched me; I'll never have an easier sack," Burfict said.
Burfict, undrafted out of Arizona State after showing up overweight and unresponsive at the NFL scouting combine, has been anything but in Cincinnati. Sunday was his second start at WILL backer, a position he didn't play until the Friday before the Cleveland game two weeks ago.
It's OK. Crocker played two positions Sunday after playing none for eight months.
"Everybody who plays for us are trained to do other things; that's what the NFL is," Lewis said. "If we can't dress them all, we have to have other guys. You have to have a contingency plan behind guys who play because I can't just make them reappear."
The Bengals bid for roster versatility showed up in the secondary Sunday. Yes, it was a good week to be hurt back there since the Jags can't throw the ball from here to there, but depth got them through. Despite the injuries and Crocker showing up at the last minute, the Bengals survived and Lewis had to admit he was holding his breath with Hall and Clements out.
"You have to have versatility because injuries are going to happen, you're going to be playing a position you haven't played all year," Crocker said. "You have to be more than an in-the-box safety or more than a cover safety. You have to be a lot of different things.
"I've played a lot of ball. I've had lot of experiences that can carry when you don't have the preparation. That's why I'm here because I can do lot of things and help a lot of guys and take pressure off them."
The buzz in the locker room Friday had been about Crocker's fresh legs and his battered knees seemed to respond to the rest. The popular Crocker has been welcomed back like a long-lost relative, from his teammates to the coaches to the flight crew on the team's charter that in the past has handed out holiday cookies baked by Crocker's mother.
"So many people are cheering for me because they know what I've been through," Crocker said. "There have just been so many ups and downs injury-wise. (Sunday) was a little overwhelming. But once that whistle blew … ."
Crocker came up with his first pick since the Oct. 25, 2009 win over Chicago and this is why he's back: Right place. Right spot.
"It was an inside breaking route. I just trusted my instincts. I've played this game a while, so I've seen it before a couple of times. We were expecting pass and we were ready to react," said Crocker, dropping into a zone as a safety. "I got a good break on it."
So did Lewis when he had that heart-to-heart with Burfict before he became a Bengal.
"I've got to credit Vontaze for chiseling off the weight that he showed up in Indianapolis with or even in his senior season," Lewis said. "And from the day I was there on campus at Arizona State, I guess, even though I didn't think it did, he took some of what I said to heart. And even though I left there upset with him and others were upset with him, he took us to heart."
That's why Lewis liked that one Sunday. Not very pretty. But a lot of heart.
Not to mention depth.