Posted: 6:30 a.m.
The Bengals insist they are what they are and right now they are the stingiest defense in the league when it comes to points and 36 shots of Cedric Benson to the solar plexus.
Benson came off the inactive list Sunday in the 23-13 win over the Lions at Paul Brown Stadium after two games on the shelf and reminded everyone just how important he is in this playoff run that has reached 9-3 and basically put the Bengals one win away from clinching the AFC North title.
After getting a 10-point lead on the Lions with a balanced attack in the first half (16 passes, 16 runs), the Bengals turned to Benson for 22 of his 36 carries in the second half that hogged the clock, stole the heart of the Lions, and cushioned concerns about a struggling passing game.
"I was glad we finally made a statement with the running game in order to open everything else up," Benson said after tying a franchise record with his fifth 100-yard game of the season with 110 yards. "Because that's how we've been successful up to this point. I think at times we shy away from that. And we have great receivers and a great quarterback. I guess it's natural to execute in another phase. We know what we're good at. We know what makes us great."
Behind an offensive line that rotated in all its players that were dressed as if they were getting coached by Rick Pitino at the Final Four, Benson got the tough yards at the tough times. Locked in a 7-7 game with the woeful Lions in front of the uneasy murmurs of the faithful with 10:13 left in the second quarter, Benson carried four straight times for 23 yards behind the massive tackling substitution.
One run went for nine yards behind the unbalanced line of left tackle Andrew Whitworth moving next to rookie right tackle Andre Smith. Left guard Evan Mathis also came off the bench in the second quarter in a rotation with Nate Livings in which Livings played the first and third quarters and Mathis the second and fourth.
"It may give the defense a little bit more of a different look if they're game-planning for one guy," Mathis said. "And it gives us a fresh guy."
The pounding set up the only Bengals touchdown, a 36-yard play-action pass from quarterback Carson Palmer to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco with 5:55 left in the half that gave the Bengals the lead for good. That's when Benson feels he's at his powerful best.
With the lead.
If Bengaldom is a bit apprehensive about Benson getting all those carries so soon after rehabbing the sore hip and Larry Johnson only getting two carries after his 100-yard day last week, Benson says there are no worries.
"I always feel great after these games," Benson said. "I love carrying the ball that much. It usually means we're just putting a team away. I love putting teams away. You've got to put the hay in the barn. That's what my old high school coach used to call it.
"They know I don't need a break. They know I can run all day. I could have played last week. They gave me an extra week, so I was coming off 100 percent."
Benson returned behind an invigorated line that is suddenly looking like a democratic student forum with everyone getting a voice. Smith, the No. 1 pick, looked to play much more than the 10 snaps he had last week in his NFL debut and he was also in there on some pass sets. Starting right tackle Dennis Roland gave up a sack for the third straight game, but he continued to be a big factor in the running game in a variety of ways as a tight end and as the largest man in motion since the Michelin Man.
In the last six games that Roland has started the Bengals have averaged 162 rushing yards.
"We're excited that everyone we're dressing is playing," said Whitworth, who has noticed that Smith is getting more time. "No. 71 is playing now and doing well."
Whitworth bristles a bit when he hears the gripes about the lack of scoring and how ugly the wins are.
"I would say they're 9-3 and they were 1-11-1 at one point last year and all they're worried about is winning; all that matters," Whitworth said. "The last two weeks we came in and said we're going to run the ball down someone's throat and win the game. That's what we're coming in to do.
"We're not looking to show off with fireworks and explosions and have people doing cartwheels out there. Just win."
Then Benson is the team's kind of no-nonsense-blue-collar-north-and-south runner. His longest run was 11 yards Sunday. He averaged 3.1 yards per carry. But tough yards at tough times. On fourth-and-one from the Detroit 15 near the end of a 17-play slog he carried nine times, he bulled for seven yards behind right tackle.
At four yards per carry, he is 31 yards away from his first 1,000-yard season and he's on pace for 1,300 yards.
"Anytime we're carrying the ball that much, I think we're putting the hay away," Benson said. "We know what makes us great. Every opponent does. We've just got to stick with our guns. That's our offense. That's what we do."
Asked if he thought the smashmouth game is enough, he said, "I think so," because he thinks the coaches have been able to keep defenses guessing.
"Only (the) times we've shied away from it (is) when we've stubbed ourselves in the foot," Benson said. "There are a lot of creative ways, they've found quite a few so far, to make the way we play as an offense work without it being the same thing every week."
Even though Larry Johnson went for 107 yards on 22 carries in Benson's absence last week, Benson never thought he was being usurped as the No. 1 back. Head coach Marvin Lewis said it 36 times that Benson is still his No. 1 back.
"The last thing they want to do is make it a competition," Benson said. "I know they want to keep me fresh. It's good to have him to relieve me or throw another angle into it. That's how we've been using it."
After 36 bolts, he looked fine. He let Bengaldom know all is well. Don't worry about him getting worn out, he says.
"This is what I signed up for. I'm fine," Benson said. "I do everything necessary through the week to make sure I'm as fresh as I need to be on Sunday. Sunday is the day they keep the stats and wins and losses are determined. So every day prior to Sunday I get ready for Sunday."