SEATTLE — Defensive line coach Jay Hayes may very well have the most athletic group on the Bengals and he almost treats them more like a basketball team than the deepest group of ends and tackles anyone around the club can remember.
"You know what they say," Hayes said after practice one day last week. "If you're cold, keep shooting. If you're hot keep shooting."
Hayes has been the master manipulator this season in Rick Pitino-like fashion. Somehow he's giving all eight linemen at least 15 snaps per game as he juggles combinations during the game to meet the strengths of the offense and his players. The front's stinginess against the run (3.3 yards per carry) combined with their four-man pressures (the Bengals are 13th in sacks per pass) have been the spine of their No. 2 ranking among NFL defenses.
The Bengals D-line is going to be a big factor in Sunday's game here against the Seahawks (4:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) since Seattle's offensive line is the second youngest in the league. The Seahawks right side is rookies, left tackle Russell Okung is a second-year player, and center Max Unger is in his third season.
"I just try to get them all out there running at a high pitch. I just try to keep them flowing," said Hayes, subbing on feel and situations. "I've got guys I know can stop the run. I've got guys I know that can rush. I've got guys that can do a little of both. We try to mix them in there when we need them and let them go."
Third-year right end Michael Johnson has emerged as one of those guys that can do a little bit of both and leads the line playing about 70 percent of the snaps with a versatile stat line of 2.5 sacks, one interception, three passes defensed, and five QB hurries.
The next busiest at about 50-60 percent are defensive tackles Domata Peko (a unit-high 33 tackles) and Geno Atkins (2.5 sacks and a fumble return for a touchdown) along with left end Carlos Dunlap (a team-high 11 QB hurries). In the 40ish percentile are tackle/end Jon Fanene (a team-high three sacks) and tackle Pat Sims, a run stopper with a sack. Ends Robert Geathers—sidelined for two games with a shoulder injury—and Frostee Rucker have played the least with about 30 percent of the snaps, but Rucker still has two sacks and a forced fumble.
"That keeps everyone healthy and happy and all that stuff," Hayes said of the balance. "So they just have to keep that mindset.
"I wouldn't say they're always cheery, cheery," he said. "They are what they are. They're surly as a general rule and I don't mind that. They want to play all the time. All eight of them. They've all had their times (of playing regularly); they just need to get their reps."
Hayes says they'll give him the typical line to get into the game ("I can beat this guy," they say) but he says they're not as vocal as receivers about being open.
"They're not like that," he said. "They're workers. They put their heads down."
Although guys like Fanene, Rucker and Geathers have played a lot of snaps in their various stints, head coach Marvin Lewis thinks the rotation cools any hot feelings because they know they can go all-out.
"The thing they know is they're able to come out and get a blow so they play hard while they're in there and that's the key," Lewis said. "You can come out and we're not going to have a letdown and I know I can play my tail off for how long I'm out there, then I'm going to get a blow. Then a guy is going to be in here and I'm going to have a chance to come back."
The distribution of the snaps depends largely on what the offense is doing. Since the Seahawks are ninth in the NFL when it comes to snaps in three-receiver sets, look for the pass rushers to get a bunch of work and the challenge for them is going to be to stop 215-pound running back Marshawn Lynch.
"Jay does a good job rotating us and having a feel for how we're doing," Peko said. "For example, after the first drive we'll come to the sideline and he'll ask us, 'You guys OK? You ready for the next drive?' And if one of us is tired, they run out and someone comes in. He does a good job with that. If you're doing well, he'll keep you out there and that's good because you get a feel for the game."
Peko doesn't usually play on passing downs, but NFL.com has him and two others tied for the most stops among the league's defensive tackles. Yet if the Bengals have trouble stopping Lynch if he's running out of the spread with any consistency, Hayes would probably make sure he'd get Peko in the game at some point.
"How it starts doesn't mean it's going to end that way," said Hayes, who likes to find "who's hot," and stick with him.
The Bengals are hoping Dunlap is hot Sunday in his draft guru matchup with right tackle James Carpenter. Dunlap, a second-rounder who set the Bengals rookie record with 9.5 sacks last season, challenges Carpenter, Seattle's first-round pick this season. It hasn't always been pretty for the Hawks kids. Seattle is next to last in the NFL giving up sacks per pass and Dunlap is seeking his first of the season.
"He's been playing well. He doesn't have a sack, but he's doing other things," Hayes said. "He's had bunch of quarterback pressures and hits, and he's missed a couple where he didn't keep a guy inside, or he had a miscommunication. That's no excuse. It would be nice if he could get one and that would (take the pressure off)."
Dunlap believes he's a better player this year because he's more of a factor against the run and the play time reflects he's on the field more. His 35-yard fumble return for a touchdown at the end of the victory over the Colts showed he had plenty of juice left.
"Anybody can suck it up and do it, but if you want to keep guys fresh you just rotate them," he said.
Dunlap says the fact Cincinnati's leading sacker from last year doesn't have one yet and the Bengals have still been ranked first or second in defense this month shows "we're playing better team defense. It's not about the individual. When I start getting them, I get them. They seem to come in bunches."
He not only had all his sacks in the last eight games last year, but he began to shed his label of not having down-to-down intensity and Lewis points to the role of the two most seasoned players on the line in Peko and Geathers.
"He didn't have a reputation of having a very high motor," Lewis said. "He has really picked it up. He turned a corner. He keeps looking back, but he's turned the corner. Frostee's been the same way. Peko is unbelievable and Robert Geathers have been great mentors for these guys."
Johnson had the same kind of rap and his production and play time show how wrong the rap was coming out of Georgia Tech. He said the only time he's been gassed this season was on the opening drive in Denver as he adjusted to the altitude.
"I don't even think about it," Johnson said of his number of snaps.
Instead, he's thinking about something else.
"I tell them it starts and ends with us. We've got to have that mentality," Hayes said. "We've got to go about our business that way. If we don't play well, it's going to be a long day."