The defense supplied another PBS masterpiece Sunday.
History says the fortune of the Bengals under Marvin Lewis started to change back in late 2008 when veterans such as Domata Peko, Andrew Whitworth, and Robert Geathers decided they were going to stop getting hit in the mouth.
So when Titans tight end Delanie Walker mused last week that the Bengals had yet to be hit in the mouth this season and indicated the Titans were going to change that Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, Lewis made sure his team heard and saw the words.
"We saw it, it was funny. We hadn't got hit in the mouth because we were doing the hitting," Geathers said after the Bengals TKO'd the Titans in the second quarter of a 33-7 dismissal. "I don't know if that was supposed to get them going or not. If they hit us, we just look at them in the eye and say, 'That's all you got?' We've got a lot of guys on the defense and team that have been through a lot. There's leadership with me, Whit, Domata. We've been through it. A little adversity is nothing for us."
The physicality has been the foundation of the PBS domination that reached a record 11 straight regular wins as the Bengals continue to pile up quarterbacks like firewood. So has been the defense's depth. With captain Vontaze Burfict benched with a concussion, SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur took his radio helmet in just his third NFL start and directed another stingy stand.
Titans quarterback Jake Locker was the eighth first-round quarterback to be a victim in the streak (they've got Joe Flacco twice), but his 41.9 passer rating is the worst. It was the seventh time they didn't allow multiple TD passes while ringing up multiple interceptions. In the 11 games they've allowed just 11 TD passes to go with 21 interceptions. After Locker rambled for 29 yards through a blitz on his first third down and followed it up with a 23-yard pass to Walker a few snaps later on third-and-four, that was the last one he converted as the Bengals ended the day with 10 straight successful third-down stands.
"We adjusted," Peko said. "He got us on that long run early, but we adjusted and third down was the big key to the game."
It always is in this place. After the Titans melted to the tune of 2-for-12 on third down, opponents are now 23.2 percent on what Boomer Esiason used to call the quarterback's down in the streak at 34-for-146.
"The fans were great today," said defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry. "They were in it the whole game and it's our job to keep them in it. To keep their energy level and keep them motivated through the whole stadium."
Indeed, Gilberry said that was the game plan.
"Hit them in the mouth," he said.
"We took that personally," Peko said. "Especially when someone comes into your house and talks trash. We don't like that around here. We kind of made it a little personal to us and with a little chip on our shoulder."
The offense noticed it, too, and finished off three straight red-zone appearances with blood-and-guts touchdown runs totaling six yards by running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Left guard Clint Boling, matched up against the Titans best pass rusher much of the day, kept Jurrell Casey off quarterback Andy Dalton as the Bengals offensive line has opened the season not allowing a sack in the first three games.
"They made some comments about how we hadn't played anyone as tough as them. We're a physical team. We punch guys in the mouth, too," Boling said. "You don't ever want to hear somebody talk about that and how your guys aren't physical. That definitely fires the guys up and gets us going."
If offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is mixing his bottomless well of formations with Off Tackle 101, then defensive coordinator Paul Guenther also continues to be an enigma. He's still bringing more blitzes than predecessor Mike Zimmer, but from different angles and with different people than the week before. And some of Sunday's biggest plays came when the Bengals rushed Locker with just three and Locker had nowhere to go against the coverage.
That happened in the first half when the defense set up the safety with a holding calling on a punt in the end zone. End Carlos Dunlap, during another active day he racked up his third sack in as many games, chased Locker out of bounds at the Tennessee 4 on third-and-9 when Locker couldn't find anyone with seven dropping.
Then after the Bengals' lone turnover of the season in the final minute of the half, the defense did what it did all last year and reacted to sudden change. With the Titans on the Bengals 23, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, in his best game since his rehab, chased Locker toward the right sideline as Locker looked at seven in coverage before chucking an interception to safety Reggie Nelson in the middle of the end zone.
"He made a bad throw. I was there to capitalize on it," Nelson said. "He threw it across his body. I was in a good position."
Then in the second half Guenther unveiled first-round pick Darqueze Dennard blitzing off the corner. He didn't wait around. Giving Leon Hall a breather in the slot, it was Dennard's second NFL snap from scrimmage.
Geathers, who'll play his 140th NFL game after the bye in New England Oct. 5, is enjoying the diversity. He's played everywhere and Guenther has even dabbled with him at linebacker. On Sunday he dropped in coverage and got his third career interception and first in seven years. It came courtesy of a great reaction catch off safety George Iloka's spike when he broke up a pass to Walker over the middle.
"I'm all over the place these days," Geathers said. "That's fine with me. Whatever it takes."
On Sunday it took Lamur setting up the huddle. Before he went to the locker room after getting hit in the head in the fourth quarter, he got the Bengals lined up well enough to sniff their first home shutout in 34 years.
Because Lamur would be on the field as a SAM linebacker as well as a nickel linebacker, he got the radio helmet because he would play the most snaps. But he had help. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga played more snaps than usual even though they were in nickel most of the day, and Vincent Rey, who started at WILL backer in place of Burfict, took the helmet when Lamur went out.
"He did a great job. He's looking for more opportunity," Geathers said. "Part of that is everybody on the defense knows the system so well. We know what Paulie expects and understand it through his eyes. Sometimes we're probably making a call without getting a call from the sidelines."
Iloka supplied a rather poetic finish when his blow up of Walker drove the stake in the Titans to set up the TD that made it 19-0. But Iloka wasn't looking to be an exclamation point. To him, it was just another period in a workmanlike paragraph.
"I've never been into bulletin board material. If the money and pride isn't enough to go out there and try to win, you're going to be at that point anyway," Iloka said. "I knew he thought he was open. I felt him, too. And I just broke. I got my hand on him and tried to tackle him. The ball popped up. I couldn't see it. I was on the ground. I just heard the crowd and I figured one of our guys picked it. So I was cool with it."
A pick and a roar. That's pretty much how this streak has gone.