Adam Jones heads upfield with his first interception since 2006.
Marvin Lewis' greatest accomplishment in his eight seasons as the Bengals head coach has been his ability to bottle the division style and Sunday in the Paul Brown Stadium opener the Bengals uncorked the formula in an outing straight from the 21st century vineyards of the AFC North.
No turnovers on offense. Seamless special teams play tipping the precious field position. Stingy, big-play defense.
Voila. Bengals 15 points on five field goals, no turnovers, a 60-yard kick return. The Ravens 10 points on four turnovers.
Translation: The Bengals toasted their eighth straight division victory dating back to 2008.
"Division games are very personal; we approach them that way," said linebacker Brandon Johnson, who had one of the two interceptions in the final 4:19. "You never want to disappoint Bengals Nation. That's how it came out today."
After last week's horrid performance in New England sent shockwaves through every Bengaldom village and farm when the Bengals went sackless, had no turnovers, missed as many as 17 tackles by one count, and gave up nearly 70 percent of their third downs, on Sunday the defense picked off Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco four times and got off the field 15 of 19 times on third down.
It was so bad last week that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer took the unprecedented action in this era of cover-your-butt politics and called himself out. He proclaimed that his scheme had been too complicated for his players.
"You love to have a coach take the blame for you," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "Zim said we were going to keep it simple and we played much faster than last week. Today, we just kept it loose. We started fast. That was the key to the game. We needed it as a defense and as a team.
"That's what kind of coach he is. That's what kind of guy he is. We all respect him for that. He's the kind of coach you want to lay down your life for. He's got our back and we wanted to go out there and show him we've got his back by the way we played."
How good was the Bengals nickel coverage anchored by cornerback Leon Hall in the slot? Good enough that the Bengals survived their own 3-for-18 misery on third down.
"We just went back to basics, played hard and stayed within the defense," said Hall, who had one of the picks and helped blank T.J. Houshmandzadeh in his PBS return. "We needed that mentality. We played a lot harder."
Good enough that when the Bengals were down two cornerbacks and safety Chris Crocker had to move to slot cornerback in the final 4:34, the desperate Flacco had to throw checkdowns when he needed a touchdown.
"Zim's not exactly subtle … and that's good. We felt like we were ourselves today … we have to execute what's called; it's on us," Crocker said. "We kind of got to (Flacco) in the second half. He was throwing off his back foot. We know any time we've got a quarterback worried about the rush, we're going to win because there are going to be balls overthrown and tips. You saw it today."
The nickel was good enough that when Zimmer called off the blitz on the final four snaps, end Michael Johnson and tackle Geno Atkins worked a stunt to split a third-down sack of Flacco with the clock ticking to two minutes.
Johnson beat left tackle Michael Oher inside and Atkins said "he cleaned up" as Johnson made Flacco step up in the pocket.
"My job," said Johnson of Atkins, "is to cut the corner for him."
Everybody, old and new, did their job, starting with the second-year Johnson and rookie Atkins.
In his PBS debut, cornerback Adam Jones came up with his first interception in nearly four years. Safety Chinedum Ndukwe ended it all with two minutes left with his pick that bookended the one in last season's PBS finale.
"Flacco likes to stare down receivers," said Ndukwe, and when he kept looking at wide receiver Derrick Mason down the middle Ndukwe stepped in front of him.
Crocker, who played a lot of slot corner for this defense two years ago, did it again in the final pinch to finish off a seven-tackle day.
"We just felt awful," Crocker said of the New England game. "We knew we had to come in with our hard hats and this was a game we had to win."
Brandon Johnson, like he did last year, came off the bench for injured WILL linebacker Keith Rivers (foot) and helped beat Baltimore. Last year he had a big third quarter sack. This year he corralled defensive tackle Pat Sims' tipped ball with 4:19 left to set up Mike Nugent's fifth and final field goal from 25 yards with 2:48 left.
"Everybody is all around me asking me questions; they should be around Pat Sims," Johnson said. "My play was easy."
It was easy to like what Adam Jones did Sunday. He finally got that first interception since December 2006. His first one since NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for the 2007 season for a seemingly endless list of legal infractions. His first one since no one signed him last year after he wore out his welcome in Dallas in 2008. Jones's first one since Zimmer decided to take a chance on him when Zimmer worked him out this spring and saw he had a lot of his first-round ability intact.
Jones says he likes to play with a chip on his shoulder and it's even bigger than when he was the sixth player taken in the 2005 draft by Tennessee. But then, that's how this defense played Sunday in response to Patriots Day. Which is how it played in '09 in coping with its depth chart of NFL retreads.
"I'm a product of what the coaches put out there," Jones said in giving credit to Zimmer and secondary coach Kevin Coyle.
Their preparation had Jones reading the tight end early in the second quarter and he knew the backside slant was coming to wide receiver Anquan Boldin and he leaped inside him.
And if you thought Jones was athletic and fast, did you know he was this tough? He's been having trouble with his shoulder all summer and Boldin drilled Jones there with a big tackle on his 10-yard return after the pick.
He didn't leave until the third quarter. He says he'll be OK and indications are he'll play Sunday in Carolina. Jones's best play, though, might not have been the pick. It may have come late in the first half when Flacco, about to get buried, launched a bomb down the middle to Houshmandzadeh on third-and-nine from his own 43.
The 6-2, 203-pound Houshmandzadeh, as we saw him do for eight years, got position on the 5-10, 188-pound Jones. But Jones hung with Houshmandzadeh when they leaped in the air and he caused the ball to come out.
"You saw how fast I wanted y'all to know," said Jones of his incompletion signal, relaxed and joking with the media. "It was a double post. If y'all watched film you would know these sorts of things. I knew the route. These guys prepare me like no other."
Jones can't want to watch the entire game.
"Film doesn't lie," he said. "We were the most physical team. It showed. We were more physical, we played hard, and we left it on the field."
Which is what AFC North defenses are supposed to do. They also are supposed to be like a heavyweight champ and shrug off blows. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph did after Mason raced past him down the right sideline for the Ravens' lone touchdown, a 31-yarder that gave the Ravens a 7-6 lead just 3:14 into the second half.
"I just didn't use my hands the way I should have used them; he got on top of me," Joseph said. "We play a lot of man-to-man. You're by yourself a lot. It's me. You've got to put it behind you and keep making plays."
No one else got behind him or anyone else. That was the only Ravens pass longer than 19 yards.
"Last week against New York they went up over the top and we were a little conscious about that today," Joseph said. "We wanted to be aggressive, too."
Houshmandzadeh called Joseph a top 6-7 corner last week. Joseph said Houshmandzadeh was talking as usual, "but we didn't buy into that," he said. "He's a Raven, we're over here in Cincinnati." Joseph sensed frustration, but only like any other receiver getting blanked.
"T.J. wanted to make a play; we're fortunate he didn't," Crocker said. "I talked to him after. He doesn't hate us. Just the organization."
But it was a big lift for an organization looking to keep a home sellout streak alive in three weeks against Tampa Bay. Like Peko said, "This is a big win for the organization and the city."
The best kind. An AFC North win. A win that Adam Jones inadvertently summed up when talking about his status for Carolina.
"Where there's a will, there's a way."