Defense rotates to top

Frostee Rucker

The current moves swiftly in the NFL and Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to sense it when he lines up Sunday against the NFL's third best defense that has exactly just four starters and seven regulars from the one that lined up for him in his last game as a Bengals starter less than three years ago in the 2008 finale.

That was back when the defense drew its identity from cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. Now the heart of the defense lies up front with a dizzying seven-man rotation soon to be back to eight that has supplied two-thirds of a club-record sack pace as well as the league's top average per carry against the run.

"We should be. We want to be. We like that. We're the most experienced group with Robert (Geathers) leading the way," defensive end Frostee Rucker said Monday. "With a great group of young guys, we're all maturing at the same time."

Rucker had one of the Bengals' five sacks Sunday against the 49ers, giving them nine on the year that computes to three per game, which would tie them with the 2001 club that set the team record with 48 sacks. And the Bengals don't even have one yet from last year's leader, end Carlos Dunlap, and Geathers, an eight-year player, hasn't played in the last two weeks with a shoulder injury.

"He'll be back soon enough," Rucker said. "We've got a bunch of guys that are fighting each other for sacks, fumbles, whatever it is; we've got guys that are just hungry to make plays."

And Dunlap, off his Bengals rookie-record 9.5 sacks, is getting close. He continues to buzz the quarterback with pressure. He had one Sunday, and that's not counting the other rushes where his 6-6 wingspan causes problems.

Fitzpatrick got a sense of the change last year when he shred the depleted Bengals secondary with 35 second-half points on 316 yards passing, but he never saw this rotation where each defensive lineman is getting at least 20 to 25 snaps per game.

"The coaches are doing a good job of rotating. If anyone even looks winded, someone else is going in and that's different than a lot of years when we used to stick guys out there and stay in the game," Rucker said. "Now everyone gets a break when they need it and everyone is just confident."

In a sense, Fitzpatrick hasn't seen Dunlap, either. It will be recalled that the only game in the last eight of last season when Dunlap didn't have at least half a sack came against the Bills.

If there's one group that knows Fitzpatrick more than the smart guy from Harvard, it's the D-line. Rucker, Geathers, Domata Peko, Jon Fanene and Pat Sims were all here with him, but Fitzpatrick wouldn't recognize it because of what the young guns of Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins are bringing.

Atkins, the second-year tackle, has been immense. He's got two sacks and one was one of the biggest plays of the game Sunday on third down and the Bengals leading 3-0 late in the third quarter. Atkins flushed quarterback Alex Smith out of the pocket, but didn't stop and reversed direction, chasing him from behind to force a field goal from the Bengals 5.

Atkins' quickness is proving to be a matchup problem for plodding guards. Plus, Fanene had two sacks of Smith in place of Geathers as he lined up in different spots and worked some line stunts. Like Fanene, Rucker can move inside and outside and the Bengals are getting to the point where only Peko and Sims are assured of lining up at tackle as they shuffle through their various packages.

How fast is the current? Fitzpatrick is facing a defense with six new starters from last Nov. 21. And with a different spin up front.

"It's helping us keeping the same intensity and same energy for the whole game," Rucker said. "I'm happy for (Fitzpatrick), but we're on a mission to get to 2-2."

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