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Bengals Seek To Streak Back To The Future

Vonn Bell makes one of his big plays from the second half of this season and plucks a fumble.
Vonn Bell makes one of his big plays from the second half of this season and plucks a fumble.

Andrew Whitworth, who had Joe Burrow as a house guest in Los Angeles when they watched the Bengals play the Cowboys a few weeks back, was also watching them the next week when they beat the Steelers and he saw some things that reminded him of his 2008-09 Bengals that bode well for Burrow's 2020-21 Bengals.

When Bengals safety Vonn Bell blew up Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for that game-changing fumble a week ago Monday night, Whitworth can be forgiven if he flashed back to a November 2008 primetime game in Pittsburgh when safety Chris Crocker of the 1-8-1 Bengals knocked the helmet off of Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes in a hellacious hit that didn't win the game but set a tone.

"Looking at some of the similarities watching the Pittsburgh game and seeing the veteran presence at safety and the physicality guys played with in that game," Whitworth says. "There was a point where guys put their foot in the ground at the end of that ('08) season and said there has to be a different standard and I think that led to the success of 2009."

After pulling back-to-back upsets the past two weeks and trying to end the season with a third straight victory over the Ravens Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), the Bengals are talking about funneling the momentum of a lost season into the next.

Crocker and Whitworth and former Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson can tell you it's been done before in these parts. They were apart of the three straight season-ending wins for the 4-11-1 team of '08 that helped set the table for six play-off runs in the next seven seasons and the 2009 sweep of the AFC North.

"That's the whole thing," Anderson says. "When guys are keeping the momentum and playing hard, it's a good sign for everyone. They came to play and they came to win."

There were some similarities to 2008 to 2019 that were mused about last season. But, like everything else, 2020 takes the cake:

- Their overall No. 1 franchise quarterback sidelined for a large chunk of the season giving way to a young backup who had moved on from the team that drafted him kept the Bengals in games with his smarts. In '08, it was Ryan Fitzpatrick relieving Carson Palmer for 12 games. As the Rams left tackle Whitworth was also a teammate of Burrow reliever Brandon Allen, making his fifth start of the year.

"B's got a great attitude to him," Whitworth says. "He's a tough kid."

- With their left tackle (Whitworth-Jonah Williams) joining the quarterback on injured reserve, the defense also took hits all year.

The 2008 season ended with starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph, starting defensive end Robert Geathers, starting safety Dexter Jackson, starting linebacker Keith Rivers and rotational defensive end Frostee Rucker on injured reserve while their most expensive free agent in history, defensive end Antwan Odom, was limited to eight starts.

Fast forward to 2020 and their three defensive tackles on injured reserve, including their perennial Pro Bowler Geno Atkins and their most expensive free agent ever, nose tackle D.J. Reader. And starting cornerback Trae Waynes never got on the practice field.

"Defensively, we were still pretty stout," says Crocker of what was then and now. "We were playing our butts off. Even though our record wasn't very good, we were out there kicking butt. We were having a lot of fun on defense. That's the one thing I remember. That was the mentality. Forget the record, just go out and beat people."

With the '20 defense forcing four huge turnovers in the last two games and holding teams to 20 points or less four times in the last six games, sound familiar?

- And if that doesn't, what about the added burden of the '20 team playing without two-time 1,000-yard rusher Joe Mixon for the last ten games? How about in '08, when the Bengals didn't have a bell cow running back until Cedric Benson signed Sept. 30 and the running game didn't get warmed up until that December he ran for 100 yards in each of the last two games? The Bengals prep for the ravenous Ravens pass rush with running games of 152 and 169 yards, respectively.

"We had a lot guys come back that '09 season. Carson. J. Joe. All across the board, guys who were hurt," Crocker says. "When you looked at Cincinnati, they had a lot talent with those first-round picks and at some point it was going to show and we had that, from '09 to (2015) a run. We had to build it up, but once we got it going we got going.

"We had a lot of guys who played (in '08) that benefitted from that experience. Those guys ended up being very, very good backups. Very, very good role players. Going into '09 and '10 and after that, we had a lot of depth in those positions."

Whitworth, who has missed the last six games with a knee injury, won't play again Sunday. But he's hoping for a Rams' win so he can return for next week's Wild Card. Back in '08, he was the Bengals left guard who moved to left tackle when Levi Jones went down and then he went down himself for the last six games with an ankle injury.

It will be recalled that rookie Anthony Collins finished out that that season at left tackle and became a valuable backup tackle on those early play-off teams. But Whitworth saw something else that was familiar the other night against the Steelers.

"You saw all night the speed and effort the defense played with. You could tell they weren't there to try and hope they could beat the Steelers," Whitworth says. "They were there to send a message.

"There's a difference between a team trying be there and win a game to really push their will on another opponent. At the end of the year it was about forcing our will on the opponent. It was about physicality and I think that poured into the next season. It's more about just momentum. It's about guys realizing and seeing someone else is playing that way and it becomes infectious. Guys get to say, 'Forget about thinking how bad our year is, just keep playing.'"

That's why Bengals head coach Zac Taylor loves players like those safeties, Bell and Jessie Bates III. Or left end Sam Hubbard and tackle Mike Daniels on that tattered defensive line. Or those gutty 1,000-yard wide receivers A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd who have been timed up with three different quarterbacks.

Veterans showing how an NFL season is to be played out.

Jim Anderson, who coached the Bengals running backs for 29 seasons, had one of those infectious guys in the late Cedric Benson. Benson, a former top five pick coming off the street in the second month of that '08 season, put his head down and ran with the ferocity of someone running for his life. And he was. For his professional life. And his vibe ran though the offense.

"With Cedric, you knew we weren't going to have to rely on a young quarterback," Anderson says. "Fitzy's turned into a really good play-action passer, but he wasn't back then. When you look at it, he was just learning and with Cedric we didn't have to lean on the passing game. We had that balance.

"You have to put your hat on what's there and they're finding out they've got some pretty good players. No. 34, he didn't make an easy run when he scored that touchdown. That's a big-time run breaking those tackles and getting in the end zone. You've got guys getting the opportunity to play and it shows that they can play in the league and it shows their stock goes up."

Anderson watches every week, so he knows that No. 34 is running back Samaje Perine and he took note of that 46-yard touchdown run, their longest bolt from scrimmage in two years.

And he likes what he's seen the last two weeks, especially last Sunday in Houston when the defense came up with the last minute sack-and-strip of Deshaun Watson.

"They're still buying in. Next man up. Even the veteran guys are really doing a good job," Anderson says. "They're still in it. They're making plays. They're not shying away."

Crocker, like Benson, arrived off the street that season and helped change the mentality of the defense with first-year coordinator Mike Zimmer. Crocker, too, was playing for his professional life and was able to assert himself quickly because he had been in Zimmer's system once before.

But there are similarities back there at safety.

Bell didn't come off the street, but arrived this year as a high-priced free agent well known for his leadership. Yet given there was no spring ball or pre-season games, it was almost just like showing up in mid-season.

Bates is a second-rounder playing at a Pro Bowl level in his third year now that he's been in the same system for two years. Bell has been a beast since the bye as he's become more and more in tune with the defense. Bell and Bates are leading from back there and Crocker knows what that can mean.

"I did have a lot of experience in that defense. More than any guy at that time and that helped my credibility with those guys once they saw that I could play and my football IQ," Crocker says. "The biggest thing you can do when you're a quote unquote leader is be a guy they can lean on. Help pull other guys along. You're only as good as your weakest link. If you don't help other guys, that's the one thing about a team sport. You're going to suck as a whole."

Whitworth is also familiar with the versatile, interchangeable offense he's watching. He enthusiastically endorsed Taylor and the Rams scheme when the Bengals hired the Sean McVay assistant.

"The offense is a mentality more so certain formations and groupings," Whitworth says. "It's the mentality you make teams defend every blade of grass. It changes over time, but you make sure you don't limit yourself in one area."

And then, there is that overall No. 1 quarterback getting ready to run that offense in 2021.

"With Burrow," Whitworth says, "it's like you're playing with house money."

If it seems like the Bengals have held a pretty similar hand, they have.