Pat Sims held on to a leg. Rashad Jeanty held on to a gaze. Corey Mays held on to the ball and the Bengals defense held on to the storyline that the mindset of their coordinator, Mike Zimmer, along with a healthy Carson Palmer, are the two things this franchise can hang its hat on in the coming offseason.
Even in the good old days, when did a Bengals defense literally steal a game for the offense? It happened Sunday in the middle of town in the middle of the third quarter in the middle of broad daylight at Paul Brown Stadium with the Redskins a quarter of a yard away from tying the game at 17.
After the line stood up 280-pound fullback Mike Sellers on third down and he tried to reach across the goal line one last time, Mays swatted and batted at the ball and then took it out of his hands for a recovered fumble in the end zone and the killing play in a 20-13 victory.
"Call it what you want," said WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson after his relentless 10 tackles. "We got the ball. No points."
For the seventh straight game the Bengals held their foe to 3.7 yards per rush. Only this time against the seventh-best rushing team in the league and third-best running back, their offense backed them up with their fourth 20-point game of the season. And they didn't give up a yard three times while answering muscle against Redskins-NFC East muscle. Zimmer, a former long-time Cowboys coordinator, wanted to bring his own brand of NFC East toughness here.
This is why head coach Marvin Lewis liked this roster composition even though it is 2-11-1. It has old pros like defensive tackle John Thornton, who injured quarterback Jason Campbell's wrist late in the quarter on a robust third-and-nine rush. And young pros like SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty not missing a game despite torn tissue on the bottom of his foot. And pros that just got here like safety Chris Crocker.
Sure, the Redskins were missing their starting tackles. But the Bengals were missing two of their starting ends.
"Everybody was relentless to the ball. Running around, excited," said defensive tackle Domata Peko of the energy on both sides of the ball. "We were playing with emotion. We've missed that this year, but today we kept it going."
The defense hit back without six starters, one (safety Chinedum Ndukwe) on the inactive list and another (right end Antwan Odom) hobbled enough to play limited snaps. Safety Chris Crocker, picked up off the street back in October, continued to tune up for next week's encounter with his old team in Cleveland with hard-hitting football and 10 more tackles along with the big forced fumble on the game's first series. Cornerback Leon Hall continued to play as a blossoming Pro Bowler in holding Redskins fleet receiver Santana Moss to 10 yards per his seven catches and just one ball of 20 yards. And cornerback David Jones came back from an injured knee to pick up Crocker's forced fumble as well come up to help on a big tackle in the red zone late in the game.
But this one belonged to the front seven. All the guys that stopped the Redskins three times from the 1 starting with 6:33 left in the third quarter, ending with Campbell's short incompletion to tight end Fred Davis with 5:52 left in the third quarter and Mays' steal with the Bengals leading, 17-10.
Mays, a third-year backup middle linebacker best known for his nine special-teams tackles that were good for third on the team, has played in the goal line package off and on this season. A reliable, relentless player popular with special teams coach Darrin Simmons because he's like a coach on the field and in the weight room because he does whatever is asked, Mays lined up as an outside linebacker pinched inside with Jeanty at middle backer.
On second down here came Sellers rumbling right up the middle and Mays, playing one of his three or four snaps from scrimmage Sunday, pushed him back. When the refs called it a touchdown, the Bengals had to survive a challenge that showed Sellers' knee had hit the ground about a quarter of a yard before the goal line as Mays and the line shoved him back.
"Everything is happening so fast and it's so crowded, you never know," Mays said. "But when I heard the crowd, I figured we stopped him."
On third down, Jeanty wasn't surprised the Redskins tried the same thing.
With Peko and Sims standing up the line, Sellers got pushed back and then tried to jam the ball over the bodies and the goal line. The play might have looked over. But the refs didn't blow the whistle and Mays didn't stop swatting.
"The ball was out like this," Mays said holding out his arm. "It happened so fast. Everybody was just grabbing at it. Once it crosses the plane (of the goal line), it's a touchdown. We were scratching and digging for the ball."
Mays ended up just taking it. It had happened to him once before. In college at Notre Dame "but another linebacker got the fumble," he said.
It was Sims, the rookie 320-pound tackle, who also had a hand on Sellers with some key penetration.
"I had him by the left thigh and I was holding on for dear life," Sims said. "I feel like in a situation like that, nobody is going to score on us. I think positive. I just got underneath and kept pushing."
The Bengals survived Redskins coach Jim Zorn's challenge, but there were still 20 minutes to play and the Bengals needed to swarm Portis after he had gotten off the mark with 63 yards on 10 carries in the second and third quarters. But note these two plays:
Early in the fourth quarter, after Portis had just got loose for a first down at his own 21 to get the 'Skins out of trouble, Brandon Johnson combined with linebacker turned defensive end Darryl Blackstock to force Portis to the sideline for a two-yard loss on first down on a series that ended in a punt.
This is why Lewis likes these guys. Johnson, a backup starting in place of Keith Rivers, was momentarily stunned after a shot in the head and had to leave. But he came back for the next series. That turned out to be the Redskins' first-down snap from the Bengals 13 with 2:07 left right after an 87-yard kick return making the 20-10 game that much tighter.
Johnson, with help from David Jones, stopped Portis for no gain on the perimeter. Known primarily as an excellent cover man, Johnson had made his presence felt in the run.
"We made an adjustment. They kept getting to the edge on us," Johnson said. "We were fitting it wrong. Everybody was picking a side, but the ball kept going outside. They tried it again and David Jones did a great job getting up fast and I just scraped off what he did."
Nothing special, Mays said.
"We're just trying to run the defense," he said, which is having a pretty good run.