DETROIT — After taking a shattering blow to the gut with what appears to be another season-ending torn Achilles for cornerback Leon Hall and then absorbing a bevy of body shots from the lethal Lions combo of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, the Bengals defense saved its best for the very last in the 27-24 victory at Ford Field.
Coordinator Mike Zimmer's men uncharacteristically got smoked by Johnson (155 yards) and Stafford (357 yards) while the Lions reeled off 13 of their first 17 third-down conversions.
It's the most yards the Bengals have allowed a receiver since Baltimore's Torrey Smith had 165 on Nov. 20, 2011. Which, by the way, is the first game the Bengals played without Hall after he tore his other Achilles, the left one, against the Steelers on Nov. 13, 20111.
And forget snapping Cincinnati's NFL-best skein of 21 straight games without allowing a 300-yard passer. It's the most passing yards the Bengals have allowed since Seattle's tandem of Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst passed for 375 yards on Oct. 30, 2011 and the most they've given a solo passer in four years and two days, when Houston's Matt Schaub threw for 392 yards.
But with 47 seconds left, the Bengals summoned another stand. The pass rush that didn't generate a sack all day (for just the second time in the last 15 games) got enough pressure on second-and-five and third-and-five to force a punt with 34 seconds left.
On the game's biggest third down, safety Reggie Nelson blitzed from Stafford's blind side and forced a hurried incompletion as Nelson hopped on Stafford's back as he let it go.
"That's what Zim does best; he dials it up," Nelson said.
The sequence harkened back to the two previous games and the defensive stands that either preserved wins or set up the winning points.
"We kept our composure; we've been in that situation before," defensive tackle Domata Peko said after watching Stafford blunt the rush with all kinds of quick throws. "We got the three-and-out real quick and got the ball back for the W.
"He gets the ball out quick. If we did get close to him, he was flipping it out sidearm doing some crazy things, getting the ball out of his hand. But we were flying around. Our effort's not a question. We played our butts off. We just kept hanging with it. Coach (Marvin Lewis) during the week talked about the fourth quarter. This is a huge win. On the road against another good team."
But the win was tempered by Hall's unthinkable injury. Arguably the club's best defensive player, he spent a grueling offseason after the 2011 season proving corners can come back better than ever from the dreaded torn Achilles and was ready for the first day of training camp.
Now he's done it to the other one, the right one, and the defensive backs were collectively sick as they tried to console the inconsolable Hall.
Hall was covering Johnson in the end zone, both leaped, and Hall tipped it away before he grabbed his right foot and then buried his face into the FieldTurf.
"When I came over to the sideline and he told me, I lost it," cornerback Terence Newman said. "I was out of it for a while. Leon's one of the best corners in the league. When I got here last year I saw how hard he worked to get back on the field; it's devastating."
Nelson said he was hurting watching Hall hurt.
"That's tough; that's just the worst news," said safety Taylor Mays.
To complicate matters, the Bengals were using alignments with as many as five and six defensive backs to combat the Lions spread offense. In fact they started five with safety Chris Crocker taking the place of SAM linebacker James Harrison.
Crocker, who played just three snaps last week, played most of the 76 against the Lions. He worked in the slot as well at safety and it makes one wonder if the Bengals ever would have survived Sunday if they didn't sign Crocker off the couch last month. Also pressed into service was little-used cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
"I had to move around a little bit. We had a lot of moving pieces back there, but we know what we're doing," Crocker said. "We got it figured out. It was a combination of the pressure and coverage."
Crocker was also hurting with Hall's injury.
"He's my guy. We're the only (DBs) left from 2008," Crocker said. "He's an exceptional player, so it really hurts your team when he's not out there."
Crocker and the crew figured it out for that final series. On second-and-four from the Lions 23 cornerback Adam Jones covered Johnson across the middle while Stafford hurried a throw to the sidelines under heavy duress from ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Then on third-and-four the Lions lined up Johnson on Jones, but the Bengals passed him off in a zone as Nelson won the blitz.
"Combination of more pressure and coverage," Crocker said.
Before they figured it out, the Bengals gave Stafford three third-down touchdowns. Calvin Johnson cut it to 21-17 with 8:17 left in the third quarter when Kirkpatrick was draped all over him, but Kirkpatrick didn't find the ball on third-and-10 and gave up the 27-yard TD when Stafford softly hit Johnson's back shoulder.
There was nothing the Bengals could do on Johnson's tying 50-yard touchdown with 11:59 left in the game. On third-and-18, Michael Johnson had Stafford in his sights but he got rid of it as he scrambled and the 6-5, 240-pound Calvin Johnson muscled up between three defenders: Nelson, safety George Iloka and WILL backer Vontaze Burfict. Johnson basically took it off Nelson's facemask.
"I didn't know he was behind me, I was finding the ball," Nelson said. "Of course I saw him come over me … it was a great catch. That's what he gets paid to do."
But that would be it. Johnson had two catches for 19 yards the rest of the way and no catches on the last series.
"We found a way today," Crocker said.