It is a good thing defense and special teams travel because the Bengals needed both to secure their first winning road record in six years Sunday when they held the Rams on two out of 13 third-down tries and the relentless Steven Jackson to less than four yards per his 18 carries during the 20-13 victory in the Edward Jones Dome.
It was a vintage No Nonsense performance by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's No Names who spread out three sacks and had five players with at least five tackles while stopping St. Louis five times on less than third-and-five.
If there is one guy making a name for himself it is second-year tackle Geno Atkins, who made one last eloquent pitch for the Pro Bowl with a franchise-tying eighth sack to go with four tackles, two for loss, two quarterback hits, and a forced fumble.
It was the kind of effort expected from a seasoned, professional outfit against a new quarterback and the foe's seventh different starting line in eight games for an offense dead last in the NFL at converting third downs.
"Nothing exotic with blitzes all over the place," said safety Chris Crocker. "Just minimize their best player and make them do something else."
Quarterback Kellen Clemens rung up a 95.7 passer rating in just his second start in three seasons and his first with the Rams after just five practices, but that's the way they drew it up. He didn't get in the end zone until 1:08 left when he lofted an almost desperate heave that translated into a 25-yard touchdown pass just over the hands of cornerback Adam Jones in double coverage.
"Some of the guys were a little deflated about it and dejected a bit; they just wanted to finish it out," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "They held back a little bit on that and let us rush and put the ball in the air a little bit. We have to do a better job at that."
Jackson came into the game averaging 4.4 yards per carry this season and 4.3 in his borderline Hall of Fame career, but the Bengals held him to 3.9 while holding a team to less than 100 yards rushing (95) for the first time since Nov. 6 in Tennessee.
"We knew they were going to keep it simple with the quarterback situation, so we were going to keep it simple," Crocker said. "I think sometimes people get mixed up playing a new quarterback and saying, 'Let's throw the kitchen sink at this guy because he hasn't played a lot.' We just felt like if we did our things very efficiently we were going to have a good ballgame and we did."
Instead of the kitchen sink, the Bengals just threw a wrench into the Rams plans. With a 5-3 road record, the Bengals need to match it back home in the last two games to get to 10-6 and reach at least 10 wins for the second time in three years in order to have a shot at the playoffs.
"There was just simple stuff and we won doing simple stuff," Crocker said.
The defense bailed out the offense and special teams after their two biggest mistakes and held the Rams to just a field goal in a seven-minute span in the second quarter quarterback Andy Dalton got picked off and Kevin Huber had a punt partially blocked.
After cornerback Josh Gordy ran his interception back 30 yards on a sideline route to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins to the Bengals 48, Crocker blitzed on second-and-five and along with outside linebacker Thomas Howard hauled down Jackson for a two-yard gain for one of Howard's team-high 10 tackles. On third-and-three defensive tackle Jon Fanene came up the inside for his fourth sack of the season to force a punt and give the Bengals four players with at least four sacks.
Then after rookie defensive end Robert Quinn's blocked punt put the Rams at the Bengals 39 with 7:31 left in the first half, the Bengals forced Josh Brown's 26-yard field goal with 4:18 left that tied the game at three.
Cornerback Nate Clements, who had seven tackles to go with a sack, had St. Louis's best receiver, Brandon Lloyd, covered in the flat on first down for an incompletion and then on third-and-four from the 19 he dropped Lloyd for a one-yard catch to bring on Brown.
"Minimize their best player," Crocker said. "Make them do something they don't want to do."
Even tackle Domata Peko, the captain of the defense and its spiritual leader, felt like his team had no energy in this hollow canyon of a dome. Peko had spent the week helping his mates remember Bengals receiver Chris Henry with his death two years ago Dec. 17. He handed out stocking caps with Henry's orange No. 15 and on this weekend's trip he wore the 1983-2009 hoodie he gave everyone last year.
On Sunday, he and his unit offered the passion needed in memory of his friend. Helped out, Peko said, by wide receiver Brandon Tate's 56-yard punt return late in the third quarter.
"The game plan coming in was to stop Steven Jackson and we did it," Peko said. "The thing you've got to do is stop him before he gets going. Stop him from going east and west. He's the main guy on their team. He gets them going. That was the big thing today."
With the Rams looking to make it tight on a third-and-one from the Bengals 18 with 3:15 left, Atkins dropped Jackson for a five-yard loss and forced the Rams to recover a fumble. The Bengals got the ball back after the next snap when safety Reggie Nelson's blitz forced an incompletion.
That was not only Atkins's team-leading eighth sack, but it tied him with Dan Wilkinson for the most sacks by a Bengals defensive tackle in a season. It's also the first time since 2001 four Bengals have at least four sacks.
But the defense, looking to lower that No. 7 ranking, wasn't happy it gave up the end zone with just 68 seconds left. Another grind job. Another game decided by seven points or less. Make that nine this year. And six out of the last seven.
"We always seem to make it interesting, don't we?" Crocker asked.
On Sunday, the defense made sure the playoff race is still interesting.