The Bengals were supposed to strike fast and strike first this year, but in a first quarter they have been outscored, 50-31, it hasn't happened. With the Super Bowl champion Saints at Paul Brown Stadium for Sunday's 1 p.m. game, they know they can't sleep through the wake-up call or else.
"A lot of teams are good on their opening drives with their script-type plays, but these guys are exceptional that way," secondary coach Kevin Coyle is counseling this week. "They don't start out slow. They don't start out trying to feel you out. They start out attacking you based on what you've done. You've got to really be on your toes. Everybody talks about playing fast. If you don't play fast early against them, they put you in a hole right away."
The numbers speak volumes. The Saints get up on opponents, 78-23, in the first quarter and the fourth quarter is their second-most prolific run with 71 points, all spearheaded by quarterback Drew Brees' 68.6 completion percentage, second best in the NFL.
"You just have to look at the Cowboys film to see that; or any film for that matter," said cornerback Johnathan Joseph of the Saints' opening assault on Thanksgiving. "From play one until the end of the game. Same offense. It doesn't stop. Get up on the ball. They snap it quick and spread it around."
If there is a game the Bengals need Joseph, their starting left corner, and the three other defensive backs that missed the Thanksgiving game, this is it. Joseph says he'll have a better idea on Wednesday if he can go on the ankle sprain he aggravated Nov. 21. His backup, Rico Murray, should be back from his own ankle injury. Safety Roy Williams (concussion) and cornerback Brandon Ghee (hamstring) also might be back.
The Bengals will definitely have cornerback Jonathan Wade, if he doesn't have a neck injury from his weeklong whirlwind. When he got back to St. Louis this past weekend after his magical mystery tour of Cincinnati and New Jersey, all that was left of the Wades' Thanksgiving dinner was a plate. It was well deserved. Just three days after surfacing last Monday off the street, Wade played 64 snaps against the Jets for a defense that allowed basically just 10 points on the road to a division leader.
A week later on this Monday, Wade and his new secondary mates returned to PBS studying Saints head coach Sean Payton's full plate of formations.
"It's going to be the complete opposite of what we faced last week," Wade said after Monday's 30-minute walkthrough. "Not probably. They will spread us out. They're just the opposite of what we just played. The Jets are a predominantly run team with play-action. These guys have a good running game, but they use it as a changeup."
It won't be a 58-mile changeup.
"They play a very up-tempo offense," Coyle said. "In my mind, having played a lot of these teams over the years I've always felt they were one of the most impressive teams to defend because not only of the talent level and their quarterback across the board, but they're an extremely efficient, high-energy tempo team. They come after you. Everything is fast. Everything is up-tempo. They put the full court press on you offensively. Boom, boom, boom.
"The ball gets out of (Brees's) hand fast, he knows where he's going, they're up on the ball. They're in and out of the huddle quick. There are certain teams in the league that are very, very good at setting the tempo and they're one of the better ones. You see them especially early in games, boom, take the ball down the field. This opening drive against Dallas, I just looked at it."
On Thursday, the Saints, on the road, jumped on the Cowboys, 17-0, on their first three drives. The last time the Bengals saw Brees and Payton for real was 2006 in New Orleans when the Bengals rode the antics of The Ocho to a win even though Brees threw for more than 500 yards. Joseph is just one of three defenders (linemen George Iloka and Domata Peko) that were on the field that day for the Bengals, but cornerback Leon Hall was a rookie the next August when they practiced against the Saints for two days at PBS before playing them in a preseason game.
"They were up-tempo when they practiced against us; we learned that early on," Hall said. "We know that firsthand coming in. They've got multiple threats at every position. They already spread you out with the exceptional athletes they have on the field. We're not looking to just hold up. We obviously we want to make plays out there. But you've got to make the plays that come to you. There are going to be some tight throws in there. You can't give them any easy ones."
The DBs came out of Thursday fairly unscathed and didn't allow quarterback Mark Sanchez to burn them deep, but like Wade said, that's not the Jets game. But it is what Brees does best. He's tied for the NFL lead in touchdown passes. The Bengals have already allowed three TD passes to co-leader Tom Brady, but they also blanked another co-leader, Peyton Manning. The other co-leader, San Diego's Philip Rivers, waits the night after Christmas. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, fifth in NFL passer rating, is on the menu next week. Baltimore's Joe Flacco, 10th in passing yards, ends the season.
"He's one of the better ones," Coyle said of Brees. "Still down the road we have Rivers and Roethlisberger and Flacco. There's no breaks. There's no time to sit back and … we have to go. We have to improve. We have challenges against us each and every week and this will be a major one. These are the Super Bowl champs that are now starting to play better than they have all year offensively and this will be a hell of a challenge for us."
SHORT STUFF: One of the biggest and most telling stats of the year is on the short stuff. The Bengals are 20-for-41 on third-and-two or shorter, and are 9-for-16 running and 11-for-22 passing with two sacks and a scramble. It was one of the biggest plays Thursday night. After the Jets had gone up, 17-7, with the aid of a botched punt with 4:09 left in the third quarter, the Bengals faced a third-and-two from their 40 and running back Clint Boling got stopped for a yard off the right side with converted linebacker Dan Skuta as an extra blocker. The Bengals offensive line is known as a group of maulers and that play should be their bread-and-butter.
"The Jets are big up front, too, and they're a good short-yardage team," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "But, yeah, we don't have any consistency doing anything, that's the biggest thing. We went into the season doing different things and didn't have as much success as we thought we'd have and now we're stuck trying to figure out what we're really good at doing."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Kicker Aaron Pettrey was at the walkthrough, but it's believed the Bengals are bringing in kickers to work out Tuesday. They may be in a competition for veterans like Kris Brown against, of all teams, the Jets. Head coach Rex Ryan went on the radio and gave a lukewarm endorsement of Nick Folk on Monday afternoon. Pettrey may have missed the 27-yard field goal in New Meadowlands on Thursday, but Folk also missed a 44-yarder and has missed five of his last 10.
» When the Bengals were looking for a kicker two weeks ago to replace the injured Brandon LaFell, they had Shaun Suisham on their list, but he ended up going to Pittsburgh. Suisham looks safe. On Sunday his 41-yarder with 2:14 left in overtime lifted the Steelers, 19-16, in Buffalo, and crushed Stevie Johnson.
» SAM linebacker Vincent Rey had the ball he intercepted from Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez for his first NFL interception on the shelf of his locker. "I'm going to frame it," he said.
» Running back Cedric Benson and cornerbacks Leon Hall, Morgan Trent and Brandon Ghee were hustling to get to the Toys "R" Us in Kenwood to oversee some children's shopping sprees Monday night for the Northern Kentucky Children's Home.