The Bengals emerged from their Wednesday morning team meeting with their theme of the week for what has become Sunday's referendum on their season (1 p.m.-WLW-AM 700) at Paul Brown Stadium against the Texans.
The best defense is going to win a game started by two rookie quarterbacks pitting Houston's No. 3 rush offense and defending NFL rushing champion Arian Foster vs. Cincinnati's No. 6 rush defense trying to hang on in another spate of December injuries.
With new shirts hanging in their lockers and last Sunday's Steelers dominance on the ground still in the laundry, the Bengals defense is trying to prevent a rerun of the 2009 stretch run.
"The Texans I think have the best defense in the league and we were talking about it in the team meeting," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "The best defense will win this game. So we have to show up and play a lot better than last week."
It wasn't very long ago the Bengals were where the Texans are, jockeying their defense between the two top spots in the NFL rankings. It was only two months ago they were No. 1 and even heading into the Pittsburgh game at PBS on Nov. 13, the Bengals led the NFL in allowing 3.3 yards per rush.
In the four games since, all in the AFC North, the Bengals have allowed 3.97, as well as total highs in the last two games with the Steelers putting 136 on them Sunday in Pittsburgh. Until the first Steelers game, the Bengals were giving up an average of 84.5 yards per game on the ground and had allowed a total of 100 rush yards just once. In the last four games the fewest they've allowed is 105 and they're giving up an average of 120.
"This is the month of December. Teams that play really good defense will win a lot of ballgames," said safety Chris Crocker. "We need to win out this month because it is not easy when you are giving up scores on defense. Offense may not score each time. We have to minimize that and play better than we have played in the red zone."
And things got even tougher Wednesday when the Bengals put one of their bigger bodies and best run players—defensive tackle Pat Sims—on season-ending injured reserve with an ankle injury.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer won his guys over after their unimpressive preseason opener in Detroit when he soothed them instead of ripping them and he's going there again.
"He just told us the last game we got whooped. Just forget about it. Move on," Peko said. "He was just telling us that we didn't get (bad) overnight. Last week you're a good player and then all of a sudden you're the worst player? It doesn't work like that. Just have confidence in how you play. Remember your technique. And that's what we're going to do. Play with technique and play relentless, but with discipline.
"We know we're a good defense. Zimmer told us that we have to play like it. We kind of stepped off the last couple of weeks, but there are a couple of plays we can run to get them back in there. We're going to clean up all of our mistakes and we have got to tackle better and we have to get better in our perimeter run force, too."
But cornerback Leon Hall, arguably the team's best tackler, is done for the year and the other hard-hitting Bengals cornerback, Nate Clements, didn't practice again Wednesday with a hamstring injury. Hall goes 195 pounds and Clements 200 while their replacements, 185-pound Adam Jones and 180-pound Kelly Jennings are willing but not nearly as big.
And the eight-man rotation on the Bengals defensive line that forged those early season numbers takes a big hit with the loss of the 330-pound Sims.
With no long-standing defensive lineman on the practice squad, the Bengals signed a veteran defensive tackle in Nick Hayden that doesn't figure to help right away since he hasn't been on a team after the Panthers cut him just before the season. The 292-pound Hayden, Carolina's sixth-round pick in 2008, isn't near Sims's big body, but he has experience with 26 games and 12 starts, 10 of them coming last season.
Without Sims last week in Pittsburgh, the Steelers were able to maul the Bengals up the middle at times for a 4.1-yard average.
Peko knows all too well what happened two years ago. While he sat out the last five games to get ready for the playoffs with a knee scope, Sims (broken forearm) and SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga (broken leg) also went down. A Bengals team that had allowed 82 yards per game and 3.8 yards per on the ground coming into December gave up an average of 140 and 4.2, respectively in a 2-4 finish.
After six seasons his teams have been perched at some point in the first week of December at .500 or better, head coach Marvin Lewis is seeking that elusive strong finish. The December home record is nice at 12-5, but the club's overall December-January record of 18-22 hasn't gotten it done in the AFC North.
Hence the new long-sleeve black T-shirts in time for Wednesday's practice, courtesy of equipment managers Jeff Brickner and Adam Knollman and straight from the Lewis lexicon in orange Bengals lettering: "Finish strong" on the back with the 2011 motto "All In" on the front.
This is the motto matchup of the game as the Bengals go head-to-head with a Texans team that has adopted "Next Man Up" in the face of their devastating injuries that have claimed its top two quarterbacks, its Pro Bowl receiver, and its best pass rusher.
"The back of Kyle Cook's shirt: Finish strong," said right guard Bobbie Williams of his center. "We can't let this slip away. We have to finish these last four in a strong pace."
Williams was there when the Bengals lost their last three games in both 2005 and 2006 and warns, "If you don't know your past, you're bound to repeat it."
Only six guys are still here from the '06 collapse and only three were here in the '05 Wild Card game. Crocker wasn't here then, but he was here in 2009 when he was also fighting injury down the stretch.
"I think we were unhealthy, we had a lot of bad luck toward the end of the season with guys being hurt," he said. "But it's a new year, each year is different. This is what we have to deal with, these are the injuries we are dealing with at this particular time. We don't go out there thinking that we have issues and, 'God, we need to stop this.' We just collectively try to practice well and focus on what an offense does."
And he knows stopping the run is of prime importance.
"You have ups and downs and that seems to be one of the issues we're having right now," Crocker said. "A few weeks back it was the play-action passes. You don't want to let one area of defense falter and sometimes you don't focus on one area until you get hurt in it and that's what happened last week."
And, like '09 when the Bengals played their last two games against the top-ranked Jets running game, the Bengals get one of the best Sunday in Houston's smartphone-precision zone blocking scheme that unleashes the cutback abilities of the 229-pound Foster along with a 214-pounder in Ben Tate, who has quietly produced four 100-yard games.
"We faced a different offense last week," Crocker said of the Steelers running game. "It was more power, more downhill. But this week it's more zone. Their offensive line is very athletic. They're going to run all day and give us a lot of misdirection and play-action pass off it."
With the Houston backs' one-cut-and-go mentality, the Bengals are going to have to be more disciplined than ever. Peko talked about it Sunday in Pittsburgh after the Steelers backs slithered out of the scrum a few times and he reiterated it Wednesday.
"I just think we're trying to be a little too over-aggressive sometimes in our gaps," Peko said. "When the ball's not in our gap, trying to get to the ball too quick and actually bouncing back into our gaps. So we have to be more disciplined. That's one of the things Zim was talking about is discipline in our run game. We're going to clean that up this week and work hard. It's Wednesday so we have just a couple of days to get that technique down and get back to where we were."
Peko calls Foster and Tate "a two-headed monster."
"(Foster) can do it all. He's a downhill runner. He's big, he's 6-2. He also can cut back. He has the speed to get it and we've seen him go over 200 yards on a couple of teams. He's a hell of a runner and Tate's a great back. We're going to have our hands full. That's what this game is about. It's about competition and trying to beat people up and we're excited about this week."
The Bengals are also emphasizing tackling this week. It hasn't been nearly as good as it was in the first couple months of the season.
"We're an aggressive defense and if someone is running it to the left we're going to try and get off blocks and get over there," Peko said. "But it seems like sometimes in the game last week we were too fast leaving our gaps and he was finding that extra hole down there and cutting it back. But we can fix all that and tackling too. We had a lot of missed tackles last week. We have to clean all that up if we're going to make this run and I believe we are."