11-23-01, 10:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For Bengals tackle Oliver Gibson, three turnovers in a game is the Holy Grail for a defense crusading for the playoffs as it prepares for arguably its biggest game in 11 years.
"It's as obvious when Corey (Dillon) rushes for 100 yards," Gibson said Friday. "It has to be automatic. You have to think 'Strip (the ball).' In the playoffs, every team becomes aware of it. It's like that fourth quarter attitude."
How big? The Bengals are 3-0 when Dillon rushes for 100 yards, 2-0 when they get at least three turnovers and 2-5 when they don't. In the 0-2 post-bye, the Bengals have forced just two turnovers. Probably because they've only had the lead for 8:34 of the 120 post-bye minutes.
How big? It has made Cleveland contenders. If there is one thing that separates the 4-5 Bengals and the 5-4 Browns by more than the one game, try turnovers.
The Bengals head into Sunday's 57th Battle of Ohio with a higher ranked offense and defense and a convincing 24-14 victory over the Browns themselves.
And when was the last time you saw a Cincinnati defense not only ranked in the upper half of the league (13), but also rated an underdog against a team ranked last in NFL offense?
Which team is over .500 here?
The Browns, mainly because they have generated nine more turnovers than a Bengals' defense that has improved everywhere but trying to hit their goal of three turnovers per game.
With 15, they are on pace for 27, six more than last year but 21 less than the goal of 48. With 24 already, the Browns are on pace for 43 turnovers, spurred by a NFL-high 20 interceptions.
"They've got our goal already for interceptions," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who has two of the Bengals' six picks. "I'd like to see their tape. They've got solid players, but they don't have any Deions over there. They must be getting good pressure on the quarterback."
They've got four sacks more than the NFL average of 22. Solid, but not Fearsome Foursome stuff. Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons
knows where true pressure on the quarterback comes from.
"What comes first?" Simmons asked. "Wins or turnovers? It's kind of like the chicken and the egg. When you're leading, teams have to throw the ball. They press. That's when you get turnovers. When you're down in points, they're running the ball and you don't get as many chances for the turnovers. You have to get points on the board early. You have to keep it as close to a 0-0 game as you can."
That's something the Bengals haven't been able to do. They've scored first in just two games, have two first-quarter touchdowns, and have been outscored in the first quarter, 33-17.
The Browns? They've scored first in seven games and outscored foes, 43-9 in the first quarter. If the pressure is on the offense to get the lead early so Dillon can get his magical 22 carries, then it's also on the offense to score and get the defense in a pass-rush mode.
Look how Hawkins got his second interception of the season last week. As Gibson and Vaughn Booker converged on Titans quarterback Steve McNair, McNair hurried a swing pass too high for running back Eddie George and smack into Hawkins' chest.
"That's where it comes from," said free safety Darryl Williams, the Bengals' career interception leader with 31. "You get him throwing off his back foot or looking at the rush."
Gibson thinks the Bengals were focused on turnovers early in the season, helped by the six in the 21-10 win over the Ravens in the second game of the season. But he thinks the focus has slipped a bit lately despite the constant urging of new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner
"It's getting more hits on the quarterback. That's why you count hits on the quarterback because they're just as important," Gibson said. "They lead to turnovers. It's a matter of making up our minds. We have to have resolve. You also need to be ahead. The (pass rush) defense isn't going to be on the field when you're down two touchdowns because they'll run the ball. It goes hand in hand."
The Bengals are on pace for 11 interceptions, two more than last year but quite low considering the NFL average at this point in the season is 10. Hawkins isn't looking to make excuses, but he doesn't think teams have gone down field all that much on the Bengals and haven't given them many chances on balls hanging in the air because they are throwing quicker, shorter routes.
"I think you'd rather have offenses go 70, 80 yards on them because not many offenses can do that without something happening to stop it," Williams said. "That puts you in position to make a play and if you get three turnovers, it puts you in position to win."
While the Browns' secondary has responded to the aggressive schemes of new defensive coordinator Foge Fazio, the Bengals' secondary is producing improved numbers with cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle teaming with secondary coach Ray Horton. The Bengals are rated 13th against the pass, compared to 23rd last year.
Hawkins admitted his interception came on a similar pass he has dropped in previous seasons, particularly one against Jay Fiedler near the Jaguars' goal line two years ago.
"We urge it every day," Duffner said. "We coach it every day. Make a play on the ball. Anytime the ball is in the air, we have to come down with it. There are all sort of reasons for turnovers. Pressure, mainly, but a guy makes a great break on the ball, or he makes a nice catch. We need to pick it up and we talk about it all the time."