Wallace Gilberry is showing why the Bengals' No. 3 defense is continuing its stand.
When the lights snapped, crackled, and popped Sunday night in Arizona, Wallace Gilberry liked how the Bengals defense responded.
"We know how to hunt. It was a mid-season atmosphere," Gilberry said. "We executed our stuff and had to know where we're at with it. We did OK."
They had never been to the site of this year's Super Bowl, University of Phoenix Stadium, and across the way stood a formidable defense that led the league against the rush last season and a dangerous offense that had the added emotional edge of playing with one of the greatest Bengals of all time. Throw in that it was being beamed on the No. 1 TV show, Sunday Night Football, and Gilberry says it's a good thing the defense got off the plane in mid-season form.
"It felt like it was in midseason and you have to overcome that atmosphere on the road and win games," Gilberry said. "I feel like we did OK."
Even though it is just preseason, Bengals fans had to have the same sinking sensation early on that seems to have dogged them the past few seasons in big moments and prime-time games on the road. But while the first-team offense struggled to find its ballast in the first four series, the defense matched the intensity of the moment. By the time the offense kept the ball for much of the second quarter, the defense had staked them to a 7-3 lead.
"The good thing is we haven't given up a touchdown," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther of his first team. "But we still have corrections to make. We still know we're not there yet."
Guys like Gilberry and Guenther didn't get the memo that the Bengals' third-ranked defense is supposed to slip. Gilberry is starting in departed free agent Michael Johnson's spot at right end and Guenther is getting his first play-calling gig now that Mike Zimmer is the head coach of the Vikings.
Zimmer guided the Bengals defense to a top ten finish in the last three seasons and it hasn't looked all that much different. In 10 series, the Bengals' first unit has allowed no touchdowns, generated four three-and-outs and three turnovers while allowing only three field goals. And two of them came when foes got the ball at the Bengals 25 and 41. The longest scoring drive they've allowed was a 58-yarder against the Jets for a field goal.
Guenther, Zimmer's third-down specialist, hasn't looked up from the script that made the Bengals No. 1 in the AFC in third-down percentage. Only one third down has been converted this summer in 12 tries against the Ones.
"It seems like we're headed on the right track," said veteran nose tackle Domata Peko, heading into his ninth Opening Day. "But it's the preseason. You can't talk too much about it."
Emblematic of the transition has been cornerback Terence Newman, the ultimate Zimmer play. Newman, who learned his trade under Zimmer in Dallas 11 years ago, is beginning his third year in Cincinnati looking more like that player taken four spots behind Carson Palmer in the 2003 draft than a 12-year vet.
He heads into Thursday's 7 p.m. preseason finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the Colts (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) a week away from his 36th birthday with two interceptions this summer. He also had three tackles Sunday on a night he returned an interception of Palmer 54 yards for the game's only touchdown.
"Right now we're not trying to be a good defense. We're trying to be a great defense," Newman said. "The big thing was winning the game. We were 0-2 and we're trying to build momentum going into the first regular-season game. It was good to catch a rhythm and actually play a whole half. It was good for us."
As usual, Newman praised everyone around him for making the play. Cornerback Leon Hall initially held up Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage. The front four got a nice bull rush from left end Carlos Dunlap. When Fitzgerald kept going long and Palmer threw short, Newman said, "Right place, right time. I just got lucky I guess."
Guenther leaves little to luck. It's why Newman talked about what they have to improve between now and the Sept. 7 opener in Baltimore. Maybe why this defense has been so good is that good isn't good enough.
"Right now I would say we're not good," Newman said. "I would say we're all right. We still have a long way to go…We need to better tacklers, better in coverage, communication. There are a lot of areas where we need to get better."
Newman looked at himself and knows Palmer easily could have put the Cards up 7-0 if he hit back-to-back throws to wide receiver Michael Floyd on Newman's side. On the last one, no one was within five yards of Floyd.
"It was a bit of a (lack of) communication," Newman said. "It was one where I probably should have locked it. Luckily it didn't bite us in the butt. That's one of the things we definitely need to work on. Just understanding what each other is supposed to do."
Guenther has plenty of what head coach Marvin Lewis calls teachable moments. Starting with the longest play against them this summer, Fitzgerald's 43-yard run-and-catch off a slant.
"It was a coverage error. It's easily correctable and that's something that we can go in and tell them, 'Look, we don't have it all figured out yet,'" Guenther said. "I think the coverage has been pretty good, we've gotten decent pressure on the quarterback. We've given up some big runs, which is typical in the preseason. But we can't give up big throws."
But there has been more good than bad. Even though they've had two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins for only 13 snaps, all on Sunday. Up front, sophomore Margus Hunt has visibly improved, Robert Geathers has returned off missing last season with his usual solid play, and Brandon Thompson has become a starting caliber player at the nose or 3 technique.
NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth opined that Atkins lacked his old power as he starts playing for the first time since tearing his ACL Halloween Night, but Gilberry and Guenther disagreed.
"No. 97 looked like 97," Gilberry said. "Caesar does his thing."
Guenther didn't think Atkins played tentatively against the Cards.
"He's been practicing, which is different than real live football," Guenther said. "From my eye he looks fine. As he continues to take more reps with the team, he'll grow more confident."
Atkins himself said he felt comfortable to tee it up now against the Ravens Like the rest of his No. 3 defense, he's not saying much. Just grinding.
"Outside looking in, it looks good," Newman said. "We know we've got a long way to go."