The old heads and kids of the Bengals defense commiserated together Monday as they pondered the surprising new status of their unit heading into Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Washington.
While the Redskins defense got rocked Monday by season-ending injuries to their top two sackers in end Adam Carriker and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, their counterparts in Cincinnati were also dealing with issues after watching tape that put them 30th in the league's defensive rankings. The unit that came into Opening Day big and fast with 14 first- and second-rounders has played for some unforeseen reason "tight" by head coach Marvin Lewis's observations.
The nice part for the 1-1 Bengals is they were able to savor a 34-27 victory over Cleveland while the 1-1 Redskins were picking through the 31-28 loss to the Rams.
But the next week comes fast. It's believed the Bengals were going to work out some defensive ends Tuesday in the wake of what appears to be a season-ending injury to backup end Jamaal Anderson. But one of the two lone healthy ends reamaining, Robert Geathers, is looking for more than depth from a defense that has never been ranked lower than 15th at the end of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's four previous seasons.
"Honestly, from watching the film we're not the same defense; we're not flying around," Geathers said. "We're not rallying six, seven hats to the ball. That's what we have to do better. We can control that. We can't control what the offense is running and all that, but we can control how hard we work."
Geathers just came off playing his 120th Bengals game from scrimmage, most on the roster, and linebackers Vincent Rey and Vontaze Burfict just came off playing their first. They split the WILL backer duties in the wake of last week's season-ending knee injury to 1,000-snap man Thomas Howard, and got the same reviews everyone else did.
"We have to do better," Lewis said.
Rey, who played 19 games on special teams before Sunday, has spent three seasons practicing, watching and listening before he got the start when Cleveland lined up in a pass set. He played 45 snaps, mostly when the Browns went with three receivers, and Lewis wasn't happy with the overall pass defense with five plays of plus-20 yards in the passing game that mainly came over the middle.
"I learned I just have to focus in pressure situations and make the plays you know how to do and what to do," Rey said. "You have to get it done. Just learning and getting better."
Zimmer put them all on notice Monday and said he won't stop making lineup changes after he replaced Opening Day safety Taylor Mays with Jeromy Miles.
"It starts with us," Geathers said. "Zim's not out there playing. I think everybody is tense right now instead of focusing on just doing their job. I don't know what it is. It's hard to put a finger on it."
The biggest difference from this year to last is the relentless rotation the Bengals had on the defensive line. Last year at this time they had to seven to eight guys not playing more than 30 snaps.
But left end Carlos Dunlap (knee) has been hurt for five weeks, Geathers missed all of training camp with a knee scope, tackle Pat Sims (shoulder) is on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and it looks like Anderson is done for the year with some type of leg injury.
(How much do the Bengals miss Sims as they give up 5.5 yards per carry on the ground?)
Even end/tackle Jon Fanene, a guy the team lost in free agency but is now available after getting cut by the Patriots last month, is apparently not ready to play yet with a knee issue so the Bengals wouldn't have had him, either.
For instance, Geathers played 75 percent of the snaps Sunday while right end Michael Johnson played 90 percent. Until Dontay Moch is eligible to come off suspension Oct. 1, the Bengals need some bodies at end, although they're hoping Dunlap is back this Sunday. But they're unsure how long he'll be able to go. They could also put SAM backers Manny Lawson and Dan Skuta at end on some passing downs.
"We don't have the rotation, but when you go through the season there are times that's going to happen. We're just going through it early in the season," Geathers said. "We benefited from (the rotation). Fanene was a true swing guy. He can play (tackle) and end and we're kind of missing that.
"But it's no excuse. There a lot of things we can fix to make us better. It starts with effort. We're not flying around. That's everybody. Just not up front."
While the buzz is about lineup changes, one of the biggest surprises of training camp, Burfict, quietly made his NFL debut from scrimmage Sunday when the rookie out of Arizona State took 22 snaps at WILL, a position he never played before in a game. He's always been a middle backer, but this outside thing is growing on him.
"I kind of like it because at Mike you have to deal with the center and stuff like that," Burfict said. "At Will you make your read, you get the blocker. And you can also blitz off the edge. That's always a plus. I feel comfortable out there. I just want to learn it so I can play faster and get to the ball faster."
Burfict worked primarily on first and second down against "regular" packages that didn't feature extra receivers and he didn't feel like there were any surprises.
"I had two mental errors, but it can be fixed," Burfict said. "I'm happy we got the win, but I'm not going to be satisfied until I have to fix what I did wrong."
Burfict is on the fast track because his savvy and instincts seem to get his physicality in the right place most of the time. There are those that believe he can be a solid NFL player for a long time, but what that means as far as lineup changes remains to be seen.
At the moment, it seems to be head games more than anything as Lewis hopes his defense loosens up.
"I know what he means; I can see that," Rey said. "I'm looking forward to practicing Wednesday, running around, making plays, getting our confidence back. I think at the end of the day it's about playing harder and smarter."
Geathers, the war horse still riding after 50 more snaps Sunday, is on the same wavelength as the guy that got his first 45.
"A lot of it is guys having to look in the mirror and ask if they're doing everything they can," Geathers said. "After the film session we just watched, I think we'll respond better."