Carlos Dunlap sets sail for the end zone on his 35-yard touchdown return.
The Bengals defense may have lost its No. 1 ranking Sunday, but the fourth quarter stand at Paul Brown Stadium in the 27-17 victory against the Colts displayed its vast range of experience, youth and depth that figures to keep their team in the middle of the AFC North race well into this season.
The Bengals made sure of that by getting to 4-2 heading into this week's bye when their oldest regular, 31-year-old cornerback Nate Clements, blocked a tying 52-yard field-goal attempt with 5:38 left, and three minutes later their youngest regular, 22-year-old left end Carlos Dunlap, made like the high school kick returner he once was and shot 35 yards with a fumble for a touchdown to account for the final.
The rest of the day also belonged to The Uso Defense that uses the buddy system rather than the star system. First-round draft picks like safety Reggie Nelson and cornerback Leon Hall teamed with a college free agent like Dan Skuta and a special-teamer in Brandon Johnson to suffocate the Colts on just 273 yards and three turnovers as the Bengals held a team to 20 points or less for the fifth time in six games.
"Last year we won four games. That stays in your heart. It's a chip on your shoulder," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We got a taste of it. It tastes so good, you don't want to go back. Our defense is hungry and relentless. That's what you want to see. Sometimes you give up a big play and you go on. In the fourth quarter, other teams get tired. It seems like we start to dominate."
The winless Colts looked liked they were going to own the fourth quarter after blowing the last three games in it. Quarterback Curtis Painter spread out the Bengals in the no-huddle and rallied from a 20-7 deficit late in the third quarter to within 20-17 with 9:33 left and had the Bengals on their heels.
The Bengals were already operating without middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and when outside linebacker Thomas Howard went out with a hamstring problem late in the third quarter, Maualuga's replacement, Skuta, had to stay on the field on passing downs. Outside linebacker Brandon Johnson, who had lost his nickel job to Howard, showed why the Bengals wanted to re-sign him when he came off the bench for one of his typical solid efforts.
It was Johnson who stood up Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon on a five-yard gain long enough for Nelson to pop the ball out of his hands and into the arms of Dunlap.
"One guy had the tackle, one guy got the ball out, one guy caught the ball and ran it in for a touchdown," said Johnson, who lost his job to Howard but not his leader presence among his teammates. "That's consummate team defense to me."
It defined the Bengals' effort on Sunday and while it may not have been pretty at times giving up 4.1 yards per run to a bad rushing team and the hurry-up Colts attacking the revamped Bengals pass package with screens into blitzes, they were there when it mattered at the end with individual plays.
Johnson said the coaches calmed down the players on the sidelines once the Colts unveiled the no-huddle "and we did better at it the second time around."
"Hats off to Dan Skuta. He came up big and was the signal-caller this week," Johnson said. "He got everybody lined up. That's a tough offense to (prepare for) on just a few days of practice."
Skuta, who had five tackles in his second NFL start, turned it around.
"I had to go out there. We had a guy go down (Howard) for a second," Skuta said. "It's good being in there with Brandon because he's so smart and gets everything lined up. All I have to do is hurry up and make calls and get in my spot. I don't have to do anything special."
That was left for the frisky Clements, who was all over the place with six tackles, three passes defensed, a forced fumble and the big block. Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri may be going to the Hall of Fame, but that 52-yarder is not. Clements made sure of that coming off the left edge when his elbow hit it.
Special teams coach Darrin Simmons thought the Bengals caught a break when the snap was bobbled, but he's not sure that mattered because Clements got such a good start.
"I was timing up the snap most of the game. I had a good jump on it," Clements said. "The wind was actually in their face and it was a longer attempt. The guys up front did a great job with a good push and I was able to get a short edge. I just shot my gun and layed out."
Clements has proven to be everything the Bengals thought he was when they signed him in free agency in the dark hours following Johnathan Joseph's departure to Houston, particularly his never-say-die relentlessness. The Colts worked hitches and screens in front of Clements, but he stayed patient.
"Just keep playing," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "The Colts have done a great job over the last couple of weeks of making plays over the top. That is the thing; that you come and play against them and you can't do that. You have to make them drive the field. They were good enough a few times today to do that and drive the field and get scores. We made stops a few times and that was good."
Remember, it was Clements who had that last-gasp fourth-quarter breakup of a third-down pass to Stevie Johnson in the comeback over the Bills. And it was Clements who set the tone of Sunday on the Colts' third snap when Nelson held up tight end Dallas Clark and Clements came up at the last instant, playing to the whistle, and yanking out the ball for Howard to recover at the Colts 44 and set up the first Bengals touchdown.
"I was taught first man in, second man strips," Clements said. "We had the tackle assured. We got that strip and luckily the ball came out."
As Branch Rickey supposedly once said, "Luck is the residue of design," but when it comes to defense, luck is usually the backwash of hustle. With 2:36 left, Nelson made the play of the game when he popped the ball from Garcon. It was the Bengals' 10th forced fumble after they had nine all last year. And Dunlap's fumble recovery was their eighth, only one behind the Steelers in the NFL.
"It's all about running to the ball. When you run to the ball, good things happen and that's what this defense did all day," Nelson said. "I wasn't going for the ball. I was going for the sure tackle and hit his arm as it was coming down and it spiked up off the ground to Dunlap."
Everyone got a kick out of the 6-6, 290-pound Dunlap's run. Especially after replays upheld it.
"He was moving like a running back out there," Nelson said. "He wasn't going to take no for an answer."
Hall said he tried to get up to him so he could lateral it, "but it didn't work out." Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, who saw Dunlap return a kick for a touchdown against his high school team was the least surprised guy in the house.
Dunlap, in his second season, is the future of this defense as the gamebreaking pass rusher. He got a touchdown this year before he got a sack, but he also had a quarterback hurry and showed Sunday how his athleticism can turn around a game. As Howard said, "You saw a glimpse today of how athletic Dunlap is."
"When you get the ball in your hands, you try to go back to your high school days and pee wee league," he said. "I did not want to go down. I just wanted to get in the end zone for my teammates and get the win for my team."
Dunlap had thoughts about a leap into the stands, but couldn't pull it off.
"Paul Brown did a good job building these walls pretty high," Dunlap said. "I don't think if I was as tired, I could have made it."
It's about the only time the defense hasn't made a leap forward this season.
On Sunday, Peko thought back to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's first session after the Lions ripped them in the preseason opener two months ago.
"He didn't yell at us," Peko said. "He told us we were going to be a good defense. He could see it then."