It's all very simple to rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict when the Bengals defense gets in the red zone in Sunday's play-in game for the playoffs (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Pittsburgh.
"We don't think about not giving up a touchdown. We just think about doing our job," says Burfict, echoing his best Marvin Lewis. "If we do our job, they won't score touchdowns."
The Bengals were at their do-your-job-punch-the-clock-blue-collar best at Philadelphia on Thursday night with two sequences during a 34-13 victory the Bengals think showcase their much-improved linebackers.
Leading 10-7 midway through the second quarter, a sack-and-strip helped the Eagles get to a first-and-three from the Bengals 3, where Cincy held for a field goal. And in what may have been the biggest stand of the year, the Bengals did it again in the final 39 seconds of the half after another sack-and-strip led to a second-and-1 from the 1. Another hold for a field goal put the Bengals in a 13-10 hole at the half, and not 17-10. Or even 21-10.
It's been the trend. In their last 13 red-zone trips dating back to the Giants game on Nov. 11, the Bengals have allowed just three touchdowns and one of them was a classic garbage scoring run by Giants running back Andre Brown from two yards out with 2:46 left in a 31-13 win.
"Not that you want to give anything away but when you get in the red zone you already concede three points," says safety Chris Crocker. "That's the mindset, 'all right, they've got three points. Let's just not let them get six.' They've got three points, make them make the field goal and move on. If you have to kick field goals all day it's going to be hard to win a football game."
Those two Philly stands reflect how much better Cincinnati's linebackers—along with the overall defense—are playing against the backdrop of an offense that has struggled to find its footing in the last three games.
On that first stand, after a blown shovel pass, Burfict dropped into coverage on second down and batted away a ball intended for wide receiver Clay Harber with help from cornerback Terence Newman. On third down, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga gave Harber a shot off the line of scrimmage, redirected him, and Harber didn't get settled quickly enough to haul in a high pass from quarterback Nick Foles.
Then with 28 seconds left in the half on second-and-one from the 1, Foles went play-action bootleg and tried to hit tackle-eligible Matt Tennant, a center. After Maualuga knocked that away, Foles again tried to pass (the Eagles passed five of six times in the two stands) on third-and-one and tried the rollout to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin that beat Tampa Bay four days before on the last play.
But the Bengals were all over it with cornerback Leon Hall's blitz forcing Foles to throw high to Maclin, covered by Newman.
"Rey and I have put a lot of work in our pass defense with Coach G," Burfict says of linebackers coach Paul Guenther. "All the extra work is showing up and helping on goal line and red zone. We've gotten better. We're still working on our man-to-man, but in our zone we've worked hard on our progressions and we're getting to our guys."
Overall, the Bengals believe they're playing better defense than they were back on Oct. 21, when the Steelers rolled up 431 yards, 167 of them on the ground, and were two of three in the red zone for touchdowns.
But in the last five games the Bengals haven't allowed more than 288 total yards, haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer went for 122 on just 17 carries, and have allowed a team more than 122 just once since Oct. 21.
The backers have been a big reason. Maualuga was struggling back on Oct. 21 and allowed Dwyer's late 32-yard run that put in the dagger. But since then he's been better and lighter, about 245 pounds and down from 260. The longest run by a first-string back since then is 17 yards by Kansas City's Jamaal Charles a month ago in Kansas City.
"They've come a long way. Rey has stepped up his play tremendously since the Washington game. He's been a lot more consistent and he's been very good at times," Crocker said. "Burfict has come in because of injury and he's played way better than you'd ever think a rookie linebacker would play."
Burfict has simply had more snaps. The Steelers game was his fifth start (a season-high 16 tackles) and this Sunday is going to be his 13th, most ever by a Bengals rookie free agent.
"What was that? My (fifth start?)," Burfict asks. "Now I'm playing faster. We've got a lot of hard-nose guys on defense and everybody is playing hard. We've got (defensive coordinator Mike) Zimmer and if you mess up, you have to listen to him."
And Maualuga isn't the only one on a weight watcher's program. Guenther is also watching Burfict's weight and likes it at the current 243.
"Both those guys are at the weights they should be for the rest of their careers," Guenther says. "I think both of them have improved leaps and bounds. They've done a better job particularly covering the underneath pass."
Guenther is slowly getting another impressive rookie free agent backer on the field in nickel situations in Emmanuel Lamur. Lamur played 15 snaps Thursday and had a pass defensed with three tackles. All of them are going to be needed against rampaging Steelers tight end Heath Miller, he of a nine-yard red zone TD back on Oct. 21.
(After allowing three red-zone TD passes to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning the next game on Nov. 4, the only red-zone TD catch the Bengals have allowed since is Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper's 11-yarder last Thursday night.)
"Our defensive line has made quarterbacks scramble and our secondary has been disruptive on the ball," Burfict says.
"He's been trying to make me and Rey lose two, three pounds just to run faster and be able to do different things. All credit to Coach G. He does a tremendous job with me and Rey. Even the practice squad guys," says Burfict, who had been used to playing at 250. "I'm about 243. I'm where I need to be. Every time I get weighed he comes to me and says, 'Make sure you're at your weight.' I feel much faster and I can go on a 10-play drive as much. Just different things."
The Bengals coaches gave Burfict 10 tackles Thursday night, his fourth straight double-digit outing and ninth of the season, pushing him past Maualuga for the team lead, 139-135, as he bids to become the first rookie to lead the team in tackles since middle backer Odell Thurman in 2005.
They are doing their jobs. The next closest tackler on the team is safety Reggie Nelson with 77.
"He's starting to get it," Crocker says of Maualuga. "There are a lot of things that go into it and weight was just one of the things. You can't play well if you're too heavy and that transcends into a lot of other stuff that affects your play also. When you have to worry about losing weight every week, how much can you focus on studying? It takes away from a lot of other things."