Posted: 7:10 a.m.
PITTSBURGH - Jon Fanene had no apologies Sunday.
The Bengals defensive lineman who suddenly has five sacks on the season in place of Antwan Odom's eight, celebrated Sunday's culture-changing 18-12 victory over the Steelers with two sacks, two quarterback hits, six tackles (two of them for loss) and a pass defensed.
Fanene is just one of those faceless guys who plays just solid enough to help the Bengals win but not flashy enough to get noticed. All that is changing now for guys like Fanene, running Brian Leonard (a 17-yard catch and four carries for eight yards in the last two drives that produced the winning field goals) and WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson (four tackles, two passes defensed).
And while the Bengals cornerback tandem of Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph is now getting their well-earned pub after stalking the receivers so well in the end zone Sunday, rookie cornerback Morgan Trent is now coming out of the shadows as well with another solid effort as the nickel cornerback.
So now maybe even the Bengals draft class will get some love, too, even though No. 1 pick Andre Smith has yet to be activated. On Sunday, Morgan and running back Bernard Scott acquitted the sixth-round more than well by producing the game's only turnover and touchdown, respectively. Fifth-rounder Kevin Huber had a huge punt out of the end zone late in the third quarter and third rounder Michael Johnson had some big rushes from right end and was draped on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the last play of the game.
The Bengals invisibility cloak officially disappeared when Patriots coach Bill Belichick's common sense escaped into midair Sunday night. New England's loss and the Bengals win give Cincinnati a 7-2 record that is second best in the AFC behind the undefeated Colts.
"Not bad," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, starring for his own under-the-radar group. "Not bad for a thrown-together offensive line that couldn't block anybody."
It was Fanene's hustle and grit that symbolized a Bengals defense that held four times in the red zone for field goals and where Fanene had one of his sacks of Roethlisberger rushing up the middle on third down.
"We know what Ben can do. He's big, strong and you have to keep him in the pocket," Fanene said. "He's so strong, 6-4, 250 pounds, you have to take out his legs. Or you just grab his legs and hold on until your buddy gets there. I was nervous on one of my sacks I just had him by the leg and I knew he could still throw, but thank God he just went down.
"The reason we got the sacks was because we got pressure up the middle from the tackles. We were able to keep him in the pocket. It's the stuff we worked on in practice."
Fanene and Mike Johnson finished off the Ravens last week by splitting the last of three straight sacks. But Fanene was so happy that he celebrated by taking off his helmet on the field, which is a penalty. It was the kind of effort in a win that Lewis could forgive.
"I've said many times, Jon is really kind of coming into his own," Lewis said. "He got the penalty last week and he must have apologized 170 times for taking off his helmet at the end of the game last week. He's one of those guys that's very conscientious, he keeps getting better for us, he keeps coming up big and he's making big plays in the run and the pass."
On Sunday, Johnson and Frostee Rucker had the distinction of not sacking Roethlisberger on the Steelers' last play but getting enough pressure in a four-man rush that they took him to the ground as he threw a duck to nowhere. Fanene, starting in place of the injured Odom, lined up at tackle on third down and Johnson lined up at end most of the time on third down, when the Bengals stopped the Steelers on their last 10 straight third downs.
"I thought defensively the key to the football game was once we could get Ben contained and corralled how we played on third down, which was big," Lewis said. "You have to give up some things in order to be conscious of him and don't allow him to make the plays out of the pocket that he made earlier in the football game. We played great red zone defense obviously today."
When it came to the red zone, the secondary credited the line and the line credited the secondary. The fact is, the DBs hung with the dangerous trio of Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward and rookie Mike Wallace long enough in the end zone to allow the line to get there while Fanene and right end Robert Geathers came up big with two red-zone sacks.
Take one third-down play there wasn't much pressure: Joseph saw one pattern develop and recognized it as the play Roethlisberger ran to hit Holmes with the winning touchdown in the last minute in last February's Super Bowl and leaped in front of Holmes in the right corner of the end zone.
"I barely scraped it," said Joseph of a finger that disturbed the flight of the ball enough that it went whizzing through Holmes' hands. "That's something we've been doing well the last couple of weeks. I actually think we've been doing it well all year. Not letting them score touchdowns in the red zone."
In the other corner, Morgan and Hall had their shots at Holmes and Wallace. Morgan batted away a third-down pass to Holmes that Hall nearly caught and on a ball to the speedster Wallace he ran out of real estate in the back of the end zone.
Morgan also took some regular snaps when Hall left briefly with an elbow injury (he played with it wrapped) and Joseph didn't appear in the last drive until third down after getting his back dinged covering the kick. Roethlisberger tried to pick on Morgan, but a Bengals blitz on first and second down wouldn't let him.
"It felt like they were going at me on every play," Morgan said. "I was just (thinking), play, play, play, compete and do your technique."
The Bengals offense came into the game No. 1 in red-zone touchdowns, but the Bengals defense was quietly No. 8 in allowing red-zone touchdowns and they may be challenging their offense after Sunday. Safety Chris Crocker talked about using the narrow confines of the red zone to the defense's advantage.
"You just keep the ball in front of you, and make them check it down and take the dink and dunk," Crocker said. "We knew that if it came to that all day, then we were going to win the ballgame. We just took what we saw on film and took it out there on the field. They do what they do, and we're going to do what we do. We out-executed today. All year we've been a very good red-zone defense. I can't really give you a reason why. Maybe it's because we know how important it is to make teams kick field goals. We're already giving them three points when they get down there – let's not allow them to get six. That's our mentality."
Meanwhile, the Steelers were just as stingy in the red zone and the Bengals were unable to punch it on three red-zone trips that also netted field goals. With the Pittsburgh secondary sitting on his receivers, quarterback Carson Palmer ditched trying to hit his wideouts in the second half and went underneath to generate four field goals.
And he had no apologies.
"If it takes checkdowns and field goals to win, I'll take them," said Palmer, who only got two balls to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco for 29 yards. "You can throw a long incompletion or get a tipped ball for an interception."
But Palmer found Scott on a 21-yard checkdown in the flat cleanly beating linebacker LaMarr Woodley with defensive end Brett Keisel about to sack Palmer on a play that set up a field goal that gave the Bengals a 12-9 lead in the middle of the third quarter.
"He's a really good running back, but if you get him on a 260-pound linebacker, they're not going to tackle him," Palmer said. "I don't think that guy touched him. If we're able to get him one-on-one on linebackers in different situations, he's going to win.
"Ced (Benson) is one of the leading rushers in this league and we've got a guy that comes in and we don't skip a beat in the running game. It was never too big for him. Being a rookie, coming from Abilene Christian, a school not many people know about, he's played a lot of football in his time, but no bigger stage as he's ever been against this defense and he shone like a star."
But not only did Scott beat Woodley in the pass game, what really impressed Palmer was how he took on all comers in the confusing Steelers blitz package.
"Just to come in against a defense that he's never played against, it's very confusing," Palmer said. "They do a lot of different looks, lot of different personnel groupings. And we had to leave him in the game and say, "OK, you have pick up LaMarr Woodley, and [James] Harrison, and [James] Farrior if you have to, and you're going to have to run the ball against those guys too. And he came in and it was kind of his coming-out party. He's a special player, he's going to be a special player, and he showed he's complete."
Scott shrugged, still not too big for him.
"Just looking for a chance and that's what you want to do when you get it," he said.
And now the NFL is starting to get to know them all.