One of Mike Zimmer's many goals when he arrived to coordinate the Bengals defense earlier this season was to uplift its self esteem as well as the NFL rankings.
But 0-6 doesn't help anyone even if the defense's overall ranking (No. 16) would be its highest in seven years if the season ended Sunday.
Just how far the Bengals defense has come in Zimmer's bid to establish toughness and tenacity is going to be on marquee display Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium against that signature Steelers running game that has hit them for 22 100-yard rushing games by six different backs in the last 32 games.
"It's a hard thing to evaluate when you've lost six games in a row. It's really hard to evaluate when the whole team isn't doing well," says middle linebacker Dhani Jones. "The overall attitude on defense, there is a certain level of resiliency that we've had because we've had to be on the field. The level of maturity has increased, but we haven't played well enough to win."
Despite the terrible ranking against the run (28th in the league) and some brutal missed tackles that have changed games, there is a sense there is a new day on the defensive side of the ball with a brassy coordinator and a spritely batch that starts just two players with more than five years of NFL experience.
For one of the few times since defensive guru/genius/mastermind Marvin Lewis arrived, the defense is playing well enough to win. If the offense had been its normal self from '05, '06, and even the first part of '07, the Bengals would be at least 3-3 and quite possibly 4-2.
"I don't think we feel that way yet," said defensive tackle John Thornton, who along with Jones is one of the plus-five-year guys. "He's instilled in us to keep fighting and everyone in the room sees things the same way. But he keeps stressing winning games as a team, offense and defense together. He says it doesn't matter, you just have to win. I mean, at 0-6, how can anyone feel good about anything?"
The Bengals haven't won and the defense has played its part. Zimmer groused last week that the only stats he really looks at are yards per play and third-down percentage. Ranked 11th at yards per play, their highest in years, Zimmer says "not bad." But the 30th ranking on third down gets his blood boiling after a slew of missed tackles.
"There were about six tackles last week (against the Jets) that we should have, could have made that could have put us in a different category," Zimmer said. "Sometimes it's angles, sometimes it's being out-atheleted, sometimes it's ducking your head. Usually the good tackling teams have two or three guys around the ball when the first guy (misses)."
One of the guys to watch in this one against the Steelers smashmouthers is SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty, considered by some to be the Bengals' most physical backer. Although Zimmer said the Bengals were out of full pads for the first time this season this week, tackling has been at the forefront.
"We've emphasized tackling this week," Jeanty said. "Against dummies, working against each other. And we've been doing it all our lives. Keep moving the feet."
That No. 11 ranking in yards per play is eye-catching given that the Bengals have the second-worst time of possession in the league at 26:45. Really, the defense has kept them out of the joke phase they entered in 2002 when they went 0-8 with awful play on both sides.
But Thornton knows winning means everything in perception, reality, and the NFL.
"The people who don't see us play are going to say, 'Yeah, their offense is struggling and has some injuries,' but they're still going to say, 'The Bengals defense stinks,' '' Thornton said. "Zim told us it takes just one game where we don't play well and it's going to be, 'Same old defense.' So we have to keep playing hard. There were games where the offense put us in to position to win games against the Giants and Dallas and we couldn't do it."
The challenge Sunday is no different than it has been in the last 32 regular-season games against the Steelers over the past 16 seasons. Or the last 10 that Thornton has seen.
"They always do the same thing," Thornton said. "They throw it early to get a lead and then they try to run it out. In the games we haven't won we came in all geared up to stop the run and they hit us with some big passes and then they squeezed the ball."
The Bengals are trying to keep Mewelde Moore off that 100-yard list that has been built since 1992 by the previous Pittsburgh backs: Barry Foster, Bam Morris, Kordell Stewart, Duce Staley, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.
Even with Parker (knee) out Sunday, Thornton sees the same pattern with Moore, a guy that can also be elusive catching the ball out of the backfield.
"They're going to do what they always do and try to bounce it out to the perimeter," Thornton said. "When they had Bettis, he was really the only guy that ran it inside."
Zimmer remains unimpressed until the Bengals get a win.
"Good teams tackle, bad teams don't," Zimmer said. "That's usually how it goes."