After the Bengals vacuumed the top five Giants passing game in Sunday's 31-13 victory at Paul Brown Stadium, cornerback Leon Hall said it all started with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's game plan.
But all Zimmer used is the blueprint that started the year in an all-purpose strategy crafted during the offseason. A relentless four-man pass rush that cut down on gambling blitzes. A sure tackling corps of linebackers. A seasoned and versatile secondary that could adjust to any game plan and injury.
The Bengals stifled future Hall of Fame quarterback Eli Manning on four sacks, 20 quarterback hits, and two interceptions. A Giants offense that came into November fourth in the NFL with 29 passes of at least 20 yards didn't get one longer than 16 on Sunday. A New York passing that game that feasts on yards after catch got stoned in the middle of the field with 19 of Manning's 29 completions going for nine yards or less.
"We should have done that in some of these other games," Zimmer said Monday. "It's what I expected all year long. I expected us to be like this … I just expected us to play like we played (Sunday)."
Zimmer was talking about the pass rush, but he could have been talking about everything else.
Hall was the linchpin of double coverage that held Giants leading receiver Victor Cruz to three catches for 26 yards. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's game-high 12 tackles combined with rookie WILL backer's Vontaze Burfict's eight kept the middle clear even though the Giants surprised Zimmer and tried to spread the Bengals defense out by running more nickel formations than he anticipated. After 35 career interceptions as a cornerback, Nate Clements got his first as a safety.
Start where it always starts: up front. And start with the guy that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis says makes the defensive line rotation go.
Lewis is always trying to get under left end Carlos Dunlap's skin to motivate him out of patches like the recent four-game stretch he had no sacks and very few plays. On Sunday it worked with one of those games you think the enormously gifted Dunlap can always have with 1.5 sacks, three hits of Manning, and a fumble recovery.
"He played a lot better. We changed a little bit of what he was doing. He had success in practice with it and it carried over into the game," Zimmer said of technique and scheme changes.
"Both maybe. We tried to get him going a little bit more. He's becoming more mature. He's still going to have little issues here and there, but he's 100 times better than he was he rookie year."
And then there was the old newcomer. Defensive tackle Pat Sims, the 327-pound run specialist who hadn't played in nearly a year because of nagging injuries and logged 24 snaps for 33 percent playing time. Sims showed why his teammates call him "The Dancing Bear" because of his big-man athleticism when he grabbed his first NFL interception off a Manning harassment. Lewis noted how natural he looked hauling it in.
With Sims a visible presence backing up Domata Peko and Geno Atkins, Zimmer has a pleasant dilemma. Second-rounder Devon Still went to the bench to make room for Sims, but Still has had an impressive enough rookie year the Bengals don't want him going very far. Known more as a pass rusher when he got here out of Penn State, Still is making people think he can be a lot more than that.
"We thought (Sims) might help more in the running game, which he did; on some things he helped," Zimmer said. "On the base blocks when they blocked him one-on-one he was pretty good, but he's got to do better on the double teams. He didn't do as good on those.
"I don't know how it's going to shake out the rest of the way, how much he plays. It will probably depend on who we're playing that week, and what is necessary for the defensive linemen. Maybe it was good for Still to sit down for a week … it's about the time through a college season. I don't know, it just might be. We'll see."
At linebacker Maualuga played his best game of the season and the Bengals got another big-time effort from Burfict.
Don't look now, but this rookie is the guy that seems to be leading the team in attitude and actions. Burfict played 85 percent of the snaps even though he was clearly limping around as the Bengals were aggressively mauling the short passes. After leaving briefly in the second half with an elbow injury, he returned to finish wearing a pad. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks saw him. Nicks came in averaging more than 14 yards per catch but barely got eight Sunday on nine catches after the backers got through in the middle.
"We've had really tight coverage the last couple weeks. When we played Denver we just weren't getting the ball out," safety Chris Crocker said of the Nov. 4 loss to the Broncos. "We went back to practice and said let's keep what we're doing, let's just get closer to the receivers and make the quarterback put it in tight windows. And Eli for some reason didn't want to try to put it in those windows. Kudos to the defensive line. I think they hit him 20-some times. Any time you get hit that many times in a ballgame, it's going to be hard to keep your eyes downfield."
Crocker, who made his second straight start since coming off the couch Sept. 30, said it was Cincinnati's best tackling game of the season. An art, he says, that simply comes down to want-to and he says the Bengals are playing with a lot of want-to at the moment.
"I think we tackled well also; and just the effort," he said. "We've been playing really hard ever since I got here, we just haven't been making those critical plays and finishing. Finishing was a really big negative for us."
Crocker is here because, as Zimmer said Monday, he's calmed the defense down and given it stability. Plus, he's allowed Zimmer to move Clements between corner and safety for whenever the situation calls, and it helped the defense survive the deactivation of starting safety Reggie Nelson (hamstring) on Sunday. Zimmer filled with Taylor Mays on run downs and Clements on pass downs, and since the Giants deployed more passing formations than running downs, Clements played 84 percent of the plays.
"It shows we've got experience back there," Crocker said.
And versatility. Cornerback Adam Jones played only three snaps the week before against Denver when Zimmer moved Clements into the slot on wide receiver Brandon Stokley. But with Hall shadowing Cruz in the slot, Jones resurfaced to play 54 snaps and was all over the place knocking down two third-down passes as well as forcing a big red-zone fumble.
"Zim went with a different matchup up with (Stokley) in the slot knowing Nate could get his hands on him a lot," Jones said. "I respected that and I was with the game plan. It made sense and this week we had (Cruz) in the slot and speed-wise it was better for Leon to guard him.
"I've been playing pretty well when I'm getting my snaps. I'm the hardest on myself and I think I'm playing pretty well."
"He's got a bunch of little technique things he's got to keep working on, but that was probably the best he's played yet," he said.
It was Hall who carried the day with his work on Cruz. Zimmer says the three balls Cruz caught weren't Hall's responsibility.
"He was on him most of the day and had some inside help depending on what we were doing," Zimmer said. "Other guys were locked up pretty good too. Some of the zones we play are not as man-oriented. What we were playing a lot of yesterday was man-oriented. We did a better job of matching up the routes."
For one day, the blueprint matched the stat sheet. Zimmer wants seven more copies.
"It's only one game. We played decent last week. The intensity level has picked up the last couple of weeks and the urgency," Zimmer said. "The cohesiveness has picked up the last two weeks. We just have to keep it going. If we want to do anything, we have to."