Defense and special teams (above) marked Friday's victory.
The Bengals' numbing line rotation that characterized their top ten defenses of 2012 and 2013 returned in style Friday night during the 23-10 victory over the Giants at Paul Brown Stadium.
Even without their prized pickup of the offseason and one of the main men from those defenses in right end Michael Johnson, who is trying to get back for the Sept. 13 opener in Oakland as he recovers from an MCL sprain. They still got huge plays from every level of their depth chart, from starters Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap to rookies Marcus Hardison and DeShawn Williams.
"We used to have a great rotation; hopefully, we can have it again," said Pat Sims. " When the season starts, we'll see how it goes."
Sims, the 340-pound anchor they call "The Dancing Bear," should know. Before he left for a two-year run in Oaklnd, he backed up the Pro Bowler Atkins on a line that ran through seven and eight players at a time. Sims chipped in Friday with vintage stingy play against the run that had two-time Super Bowl champion coach Tom Coughlin shaking his head.
Cincinnati Bengals host New York Giants at Paul Brown Stadium in their preseason opener 08/14/2015
"This is a good football team. They looked very good," Coughlin said. "They showed execution, they showed poise. They were good on defense. Their defensive front was difficult for us to handle. We didn't have much going for us in the pass game at all. It was protection breakdown. If it wasn't that it was our inability to connect or their coverage was good."
Coughlin couldn't have been surprised. His re-tooled offensive line, patched with rookies and moving pieces, never blocked those guys all week during practice and it showed up big time in the game.
Dunlap and Atkins blew up quarterback Eli Manning's first two series. Dunlap, the left end abusing former Bengals right tackle Marshall Newhouse, sniffed out a swing pass to running back Rashad Jennings for a five-yard loss to kill the first series on a three-and-out. On the second series Dunlap chased Manning into Covington on a bootleg play-action to force a second-down incompletion. It was second-and-10 because Atkins mauled right guard John Jerry to stone running back Andre Williams for no gain on the way to another three-and-out.
That brought the second wave on against the No. 1 Giants offensive line still trying to get something going for Manning, but they still couldn't get any points and even had a third straight three-and-out. Sims offered a replay and dumped Williams with a jarring two-yard loss before Manning left after four series and 14 fruitless snaps.
The beat went on against backups Ryan Nassib and Ricky Stanzi. Backup right end Will Clarke hit Nassib once and got his hand on a pass. Then on the game's last series, two rookie linemen flashed the quickness and versatility that has marked their impressive training camps when DeShawn Williams and Marcus Hardison racked up sacks.
Both Hardison, a fourth-round pick, and Williams, an undrafted free agent out of Clemson, have been playing end and tackle and on Friday they teamed up to get Hardison a sack.
"It was a game," said Hardison, who played tackle in the nickel from the second quarter on. "He picked and I looped off him. He's a great player…The veterans (fire us up). We want to pay up to par with them and they had some great three-and-outs."
Hardison, a 315-pound former high school quarterback out of Arizona State, had been penciled in to learn tackle this camp. But that went by the boards on the third day when Johnson got hurt and line coach Jay Hayes began giving him snaps at end.
"I love playing both," Hardison said and he played plenty Friday when he appeared at end with the second group. "That surprised me. I didn't think I was going in that early."
It all begins, says line leader Domata Peko, with Atkins, their destructive three technique who sucks the breath out of defensive lines from the center on out. Before Atkins tore his ACL 22 months ago, his frenzied play fueled top ten defensive rankings from 2011-13. As he recovered last year, the Bengals fell into the 20s.
"It's exciting for our defense. It's exciting for our team. It's exciting to have our guy back," Peko said. "Back at full speed. Out there balling. It just shows the hard work he put in this (off) season. It makes our defense go round. He's one of the biggest keys to our defense's success. It's great to have him back."
Peko, beginning his 10th season, looked a few lockers down and saw the second-year Clarke and maybe he began to think of those days in 2011 when Atkins, Dunlap, and Johnson were kids.
"They're learning from one of the best in the game," Peko said.
Atkins heard it all, but shrugged. He hasn't talked to the media yet this camp and on Friday he said simply, "We won. We won."
That's how it usually works around here. When the defensive line wins, so do the Bengals. Ask Tom Coughlin.