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'Have to be as fast as we've ever been'

Cedric Benson

If there is ever a symbol of the success of Marvin Lewis' makeover of the underachieving Bengals of 2006-2007 to the resolute AFC North champs of 2009, it is running back Cedric Benson's two 100-yard games against the franchise defense Lewis sired in Baltimore in the late '90s.

And if there is ever a game the Bengals need to recapture the gritty resolve after laying back-to-back eggs nine months apart in the playoffs and on Opening Day, it is Sunday's 1 p.m. Paul Brown Stadium opener (Cincinnati's Channel 12) against those same Ravens.

"We have to play as fast as we've ever been," said right guard Bobbie Williams, the offensive co-captain the Bengals call "Boss Man." "We've got to have the bully mentality. We've got to go out there, walk soft and carry a big stick."

There are no secrets to running the ball against Baltimore with Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the Ravens' beefy but balletic defensive line, and a rich legacy that Marvin Lewis began in a streak of 50 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher that was snapped by the Bengals' Corey Dillon in 2001.

"Getting a man on a man and bringing two chinstraps to the party," Williams said. "This might be one of the weeks to break out the shovel. Get man on man and bring an attitude to the party."

The shovel became a symbol of the hard-hat-head-down-AFC-North mentality Lewis brought from Baltimore to the Bengals in 2003, a mentality missing last week in New England during a rare no-show by a Lewis team.

And there is no secret how much the run has meant to this team since the makeover began in the 30 games since Benson arrived. In the 13 games he's carried at least 20 times, the Bengals are 10-2-1. In his 10 100-yard games, the Bengals are 9-1.

Williams and other team elders realize that '09 toughness never made the trip to Massachusetts, underlined by their awful attempt at running the ball on Benson's 43 yards on 15 carries.  There has been some soul searching after the Patriots so thoroughly outplayed the Bengals, although Williams wouldn't say if there have been any cleansing closed-door meetings.

"If I told you, I'd have to kill you," said Williams with his signature four-lane smile. "We've been pulling together as a family.

"I would want go out and say the whole team didn't (have the mentality) and that's something we can correct. That's something that is manageable by us. We've got to bring a sense of urgency to the game. For some reason last week, we had it in the second half. We have to have it for 60 minutes. Coach Lewis always says don't try to explain it, just fix it."

The Ravens are right where they always are. They come into PBS six days removed from a suffocation of the top-ranked Jets running game.

"They were strong up front and made it difficult to run," said Benson of his Monday night viewing. "But there were little sparks here and there by the Jets running game and we saw a couple leaks that maybe we can capitalize on. But they definitely sent a message that they're not going to just allow somebody to come in and run the ball on them. Once again, it's a great challenge." 

The intensity of an AFC North game is hard to describe, even for a guy like Williams who has played in 34 of them. But he has the perspective of a man whose pro career was weaned in the NFC East of a decade ago with the Eagles.

"The AFC North is one of the most physical, brutal divisions in the game of football today," Williams said. "I've got to say the AFC North is by far a little bit more physical and I can say that playing in the NFC East against Dallas, the Redskins, Giants. This is pretty brutal over here. You know, you've got to have that bully mentality over here."

The Ravens, of course, have had the ultimate bully for the last 15 seasons in Ray Lewis and he proved Monday night against the Jets that the AFC is still his personal schoolyard. When Lewis lost his cool late in last year's first game against the Bengals and kept the winning drive alive with the personal-foul shot that separated wide receiver Chad Ochocinco from his helmet, it showed the Bengals could keep their composure on the road against a playoff team.

But Lewis has had a year to stew on Benson's 120 yards on 27 carries that day, and his 117 on 34 carries four weeks later. Former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh marvels at his new teammate. He says every time he sees Lewis, he's got a DVD of the opponent in his hand. You know Benson is the star of the one he's holding this week.

"Very patient, very patient," Lewis told the Baltimore media Thursday in describing Benson. "On film I've watched so far, he's OK with taking a three-yard gain, four-yard gain, five-yard gain. But then the one time, whether it's me, whether it's whoever it is, jumps out of a gap, then he pops a 14- or 15-yarder.

"So the bottom line is defensively, we've just got to make sure to stay in our gaps to keep him contained. He's a very, very patient runner, stutters a lot to read his keys, to read his holes, and then bounces it or cuts it inside. I just think in that zone scheme they've got it's really kind of created for him and the way they run that. As far as defensively, we've just got to attack our gaps and stay on him."

Benson says the key to running it on Baltimore is exactly that. And both he and Lewis agree that the key is the offensive line.

"You can't shy away from it when it doesn't work one time," Benson said. "It starts up front with the offensive line. They have to come with the mindset that that's what we're going to do and come off the ball."

Lewis has been dealing with the Bengals' size for a long time, but he's been helped up front in this era by the extremely athletic and huge tackle Haloti Ngata, the rock-ribbed fundamentalist in nose tackle Kelly Gregg, and the freakishly strong Terrell Suggs roaming the edge.

"They've got a good offensive line; their offensive line is big guys that get on you," Lewis said. "And now it's getting off the block, and when you try to get off a block and make a tackle when (Benson) is hitting you, he sometimes falls forward for a couple more, and we can't allow that to happen."

Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has slain the dragon a couple of times. He was there in '01 when Dillon broke the Ravens 50-game, under 100-yard streak, and he made sure Benson got the ball enough to break the 40-game streak last season.

"Your linemen have to play with great pad level," Bratkowski said. "The running back has to show patience. He has to be able to run through arm tackles. And you can't get frustrated because there are going to be runs that aren't the way you want them. You just have to keep going.

"It was hard sledding on the Jets. They try to pride themselves on being a hard-running, physical smashmouth team. It was hard for them."

Benson knows how valuable last year's efforts are.

"Last year, I think we did (send a message) not only to them but to us," he said. "Letting each individual know what we can run the ball even against great run-stopping defenses ... I don't doubt our guys are going to be fundamentally sound and execute as well as they did a year ago."

But, like Williams said, echoing this week's locker-room theme, "Last year isn't it. What have you done for me lately?"

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