Nose tackle Domata Peko gets a lift with the return of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.
Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther had already moved on to the Texans and Sunday's game in Houston (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), declaring he plans to put his men through an even quicker week of practice than the one that yielded the 27-10 victory in New Orleans.
He says the Texans have one of the top three backs in the league in Arian Foster in a run scheme that produced 156 yards by backup Alfred Blue on Sunday in Cleveland and all of Bengaldom knows Foster rushed for nearly 300 yards in two playoff victories against them.
"I told them whatever day it was after Cleveland, (it) was unacceptable," Guenther recalled Monday of the 24-3 misery of Nov. 6. "We can't play like this. We have to be able to play this way. We went out to practice (and) we told them what the week was going to be like and I don't see it any different. This week is going to be more uptempo. Houston does some of the same stuff and they've got a damn good back back there."
But Monday was a good day to review how the Bengals shut down the NFL's second-ranked offense, holding Saints head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees to their fewest points at home in eight years.
Rotating a platoon of linebackers and safeties, they held Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham to just three catches for 29 yards by being physical and head coach Marvin Lewis said safety George Iloka's big hit on him across the middle on the first drive affected him for the rest of the game. Iloka was flagged for a hit to the head, a call Lewis disputed in his own Monday review.
"It took a little bit out of him for the rest of the football game. We have to be around him and close, and he's obviously such an effective receiver," Lewis said. "I think that (as) George was coming through to the football."
Guenther also made a small adjustment that may pay off in bigger dividends down the road when they opted to play rookie right end Will Clarke in place of defensive tackle Devon Still. In his second game and first significant scrimmage work since they took him in the third round, Clarke played 10 snaps the Bengals classified as "quality," and since the Texans run a variation of the Saints' stretch run play, Clarke figures to play again.
"He's getting better with his pass rush, he does a good job in the running game with his hands locking out guys," Guenther said. "When you are playing these perimeter run teams it's good to have guys on the end that can really bookend the outside runs. He's doing a good job, hopefully he will continue to progress."
But what Sunday's game showed more than anything is why the coaches love middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. It will be recalled when he became a free agent before the 2013 season, the only three people that wanted him back in Cincinnati were Lewis, Guenther and then defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer warning you won't miss him until he's gone. No doubt Lewis, Guenther, and linebackers coach Matt Burke are going to be in his corner again when his deal is up at the end of the season.
After missing four games with a hamstring injury, Maualuga's down-hill havoc bolstered the NFL's struggling run defense against a Saints' running game that had produced Mark Ingram's three straight 100-yard days. Plus, his knowledge of the scheme translated into the day's game-changer on the fourth-and-1 goal-line stop. Ingram's 4.8 yards per average was reduced to 2.9 despite 23 carries.
With Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee) out for most of that stretch, the Bengals slipped to next-to-last in rush defense. Now that Burfict is expected to begin field rehab this week and maybe be back for next week in Tampa Bay, the Bengals figure to have their two best run defenders for a nasty December.
"When everybody is working laterally on those outside stretch games, then the ball cuts up you don't have base to play it. It all fits hand and hand," Guenther said of how his experienced backers fit into the run game.
"If the linebackers are in the right place and two guys (are) coming up to a linebacker and the linebacker is going to keep going sideways and driving him right into him until that guy is a threat. (If) that guy doesn't come downhill right now, these two guys are going to stay on him. If he's coming downhill, now you are going to get one-on-one blocks."
And that's what Maualuga does. He goes downhill now, forcing the offensive linemen to get off their blocks at the line of scrimmage faster. That's another reason why nose tackle Domata Peko had such a big day.
But everybody knows Maualuga can go downhill. What the coaches also know is that after six seasons in the scheme, he knows the defense as well as anybody and it paid off when Brees tried to quick snap the Bengals into a mistake on fourth-and-one. With goal-line linebacker Shawn Williams getting to the edge late, Maualuga coolly communicated to switch responsibilities. When Maualuga blew up fullback Erik Lorig for a one-yard loss in the flat, Williams helped him clean up.
"They tried to get (Graham) the ball running quick snap and they ran one guy to the corner, one guy to the flat," Guenther said. "But (Williams) got lined up and took his guy going to the center and Rey did a good job of playing off of him and came down, and as soon as he threw the ball he didn't have a chance to turnaround. It was a big swing in the game… In these games you try to draw up, you try to be exact but it isn't always that way. A guy moves here or there and you are smart enough to play off."