Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal thought he had a touchdown Sunday on the second of his three interceptions. Until he slipped before he could wriggle away from Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper at the Vikings 16.
"But you can't give me an 'F' for effort," said O'Neal, so you just ought to hand out a 'D.' D is for Deltha, the fifth Bengal to have three interceptions in a game and for Defense, a unit that is on pace to give up the fewest points in team history by allowing its fewest points in a season's first two games since 1975.
BY A BENGAL (INDIVIDUAL)
BY THE BENGALS (TEAM)
The Bengals buffaloed Culpepper into five interceptions by disguising a variety of looks. They didn't want to say they had Culpepper confused, but their game plan was to keep the Vikings guessing.
"We tried to mix it up and create havoc and confusion on his part," said strong safety Kevin Kaesviharn, who had one of the Bengals' five interceptions. "With different looks, and bringing guys from different places."
One of the tenets of new defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan's scheme is if you keep it simple, you have to make the offense figure out a bunch of different looks.
"No question," Kaesviharn said. "Why make the game harder than it already is?"
Kaesviharn tipped his hat to a Bengals' front that had been tweaked a bit in the Minneapolis media for not being near the Tampa Bay unit that blanked the Vikings' offense in the opener. In fact, defensive tackle John Thornton had been sent an e-mail from a fan up there that sent along a quote from Vikings center Corey Withrow suggesting as much.
Thornton shrugged it off, but there's no question the Bengals handed it to the Vikings on the pass rush, although the Vikes did duplicate the Browns' Opening Day feat of running for more than five yards per carry.
"Our front guys did a great job rushing with just four," said linebacker Brian Simmons. "When we did come with the blitz that made it more effective."
Often, the blitz came off the slot, courtesy of nickel cornerback Keiwan Ratliff. With O'Neal getting three picks, and the other starting cornerback, Tory James getting one, O'Neal said the Bengals badly wanted Ratliff to complete the trifecta a week after he got his first NFL interception.
But five still got the Bengals in their record book for their most interceptions since they tied the club record with six in the last game of 1976. That's another Bresnahan tenet that played out Sunday. The simpler the scheme, the faster the players, and the faster the players, the higher the odds of forcing turnovers.
Exhibit A is rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman, forcing the second and third fumbles of his career and giving the Bengals seven turnovers, their most in a game since 1983. That makes 10 turnovers for the season, a number they didn't reach until Game 4 last year.
O'Neal chalked up each of the interceptions to Culpepper trying to dig himself out of a major hole with some big plays. Of course, if you throw it to him, he'll catch it. O'Neal became the 18th NFL player to have four interceptions against the Chiefs in a 2001 game.
"When I first got here, I was told if you can get your hands on the ball, get your hands on the ball," O'Neal said. "We got good pressure on him, that was the key. We kept him contained. . .In my mind, he was making bad throws because they were behind. They were worried about putting more points on the board. He was just trying to do things he wouldn't normally do if the game was close."
O'Neal thinks Culpepper was trying to throw the ball away on the last two interceptions, which came within five minutes late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.
"It was a screen, and he saw me covering the screen, and then my reaction, and so he just threw it," said O'Neal, all by himself in the flat with only Culpepper to beat.
Five minutes later from the Bengals 12, Culpepper rolled right away from the rush to the sidelines and tried to hit the 6-3 Marcus Robinson. But he didn't get enough on it as he landed out of bounds and threw it to O'Neal.
"I think he was just trying to throw that one away," he said. "I call that my Christmas present."
O'Neal doesn't mean to be greedy, but he is in a bit of a personal race with James. Last year, James picked off eight on the way to his first Pro Bowl while O'Neal had four as he fought a batch of injuries all year long. Suddenly, after Sunday, O'Neal leads, 3-1, this season. James got his with 1:53 left in the first half at the Bengals 47 when Vikings wide receiver Nate Burleson tipped the ball to him, setting up tight end Matt Schobel's eight-yard touchdown catch with 12 seconds left.
"I'm trying to catch up with Tory. He's got all those picks," O'Neal said. "I've got to catch up. I don't want to pass my partner. I just want to catch up to him."
O'Neal says the pair has goals. One might even be combining for more interceptions than they did last year.
"No, then you'll put it in the paper," O'Neal said. "It's a goal that's up there."
But the secret looks to be out on this defense. It hasn't given up points easily. The last time the Bengals allowed 21 points in its first two games was at the start of Paul Brown's last season, when they gave the Browns and Saints just 17 points on their way to winning six in a row to open the '75 season.
More numbers; They're also on pace to give up 168 points, way ahead of the '76 team that allowed 210 and even nine points below the 1982 team that played just nine games because of the strike.