Defense throws it back to look ahead

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Linebacker Vincent Rey had a huge pick Sunday.

This is how it used to look back in the day.

The NFL's best quarterbacks would waltz into Paul Brown Stadium and leave with not only a loss, but a bruised passer rating courtesy of the Double A Gap blitz and a Velcro secondary. From 2012-2015 the Bengals Pall in the Paul Defense dispatched no less than seven Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, not to mention future Hall-of-Fame candidates Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers.

Wilson (91) and Rivers (113) were the only ones to break 74 in their losses and now after two years of watching rookies Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky, and a first-year starter in Trevor Siemien light them up in their own building, the word is right side up again. Now you can add the Lions' Matthew Stafford to the Hall-of-Fame list after the Bengals cut 30 points off his rating with a 69 that doomed the Lions in Sunday's 26-19 loss.

 "I think with this team we can pretty much play with anybody. I think we've showed flashes,' said cornerback Darqueze Dennard after he held NFL yards-after-catch leader Golden Tate to 14 yards on three catches. "I think today was one of those days we finished the game , played together, played with intensity, it got everybody going and it just showed."

Even though injuries have picked this defense clean, including another two quarters without its best player, WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, Sunday showed why the defense is the least of the Bengals' worries heading into what looks like an offseason of transition.

Oh, sure. They're always on the lookout for a big-play safety. They could use a bigger nose tackle to add to the mix, they need another linebacker, and you never turn down another edge player. But like Dennard was saying, look how they played against a big-time offense that needed to win to make the playoffs:

"They've got great weapons," Dennard said. "That's a high-scoring offense. Two weapons on the outside.  Two backs that can do a lot out of the backfield. And a Hall-of-Fame quarterback."

They got a break because though they lost Burfict (shoulder) and rookie linebacker Jordan Evans (concussion) on consecutive snaps in the last minute or so of the first half, they were playing the only run game in the league worse than their own.

And it really shows you how an offense helps a defense. In a year the Bengals defense has played more snaps than anyone in the league, Sunday marked just the second time all year the offense played more snaps and it was by the significant margin of 19 with a season-high 78 plays.

Still, the guys that came up big Sunday in holding Stafford to a scant 203 yards are all back for at least next season:

_Dennard, Dre Kirkpatrick, and the Pro Bowler-in-waiting William Jackson commanded the corner. It was Kirkpatrick's first game back after missing two with a concussion. Dennard, the best tackler on the team, showed why in controlling Tate and playmaker Marvin Jones only made one on a 31-yard jump ball as Jones and Tait combined for just 64 yards.

"That's what Marv does. Those 50-50 balls," Dennard said.

 Jackson, who should be OK after leaving the last series, did it again when he knocked a touchdown pass away from rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay in the end zone on third down when he recovered at the last instant. He also defended Jones over the middle on third and short. According to profootballfocus.com, Stafford threw at Jackson three times and didn't get a completion.

_The pass rush didn't get Stafford until the last two snaps of a nine-point game, but that's when you want it. Ends Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson went back-to-back and now Lawson needs 1.5 in Sunday's finale in Baltimore for double-digits to break Dunlap's team rookie record.

_Burfict, who finished the day with his shoulder in a sling, showed how much they need him after he missed the last six minutes of the Pittsburgh game and then the big losses to Chicago and Minnesota  with a concussion. Burfict roamed over the middle to shut down the check-downs and swing passes that were killing them in holding Stafford to one touchdown pass in the first half before he hurt himself crashing into Stafford on a blitz that set up their only turnover of the day on linebacker Vincent Rey's interception and a field goal to end the half and cut the lead to 7-6.

"He raises the level of the team's play," Rey said of Burfict. "He came in on a blitz and won his rush on the back and was hitting the quarterback. He made (the quarterback) make an errant throw, and thankfully I was able to pull it in. The offense was able to turn it into three (points), so it was big. Obviously it was a six-point swing right there."

_What about Rey? He typified the guts of a linebacker corps that has been slowly decimated over the last month. Outside linebacker Nick Vigil and middle linebacker Kevin Minter are on injured reserve and Burfict has missed 10 of the last 12 quarters. In Sunday's second half with Evans also shelved, Rey held it down with 12 stitches in his mouth from last week and undrafted rookie free agents Hardy Nickerson and Brandon Bell. Rey lobbied Nickerson to get a game ball after he came off the bench.

"Very reliable guy," said defensive back Josh Shaw of Nickerson. "From not knowing if he was going to play to coming in and playing like he did, that was big for the defense."

And just like back in the day, Bengals safeties George Iloka and Shawn Williams moved enough pre-snap to confuse Stafford just enough. There may have been only 47,732 in the place but it might as well have been a packed house for Stafford when his line jumped twice in the fourth quarter.

"They've got a lot of weapons and Stafford runs the whole ship," Shaw said. "We wanted to have different looks in the back end to confuse him a lot. We know he'll take the play clock down as far as he can before he hikes the ball to see what the defense is in. I think Shawn and George did a great job all game disguising and making it tough for Stafford. They began to get flustered."

And then there were the intangibles.

"For a lot of teams in this league it would have been an easy game to lie down. Out of the playoffs, hurt, blah, blah, blah," Shaw said. "We don't have any guys in this locker room with that type of mindset."

Iloka talked last week about getting something going for next year late in this one. He wasn't here, but in the four- win seasons of 2008 and 2010, the Bengals went a combined 5-3 in December and went to the postseason in '09 and '11.

"These next two games are something we can possibly build on," Iloka said. "Get the sour taste out of our mouths in previous weeks. I was just real happy how we played. I know we won, but midway through I'm like, regardless of the outcome, this is a different feeling today. The last two weeks have been (lousy). A horrible feeling. Today it reminded us we can play with anybody when we knuckle down and that was good to see."

 

Cincinnati Bengals host the Detroit Lions in week 16 of the regular season.

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