SAN DIEGO — Bengals tackling apparatus Vontaze Burfict sensed Sunday that head coach Marvin Lewis second-guessed his decision to play him with a sprained ankle.
But Burfict assured him.
"Trust me," Burfict told Lewis and how could you not in a season Burfict has carried the defense and the defense has carried the 8-4 Bengals to a commanding two-game lead in the AFC North?
Count the ways defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has taken down the best quarterbacks in the league. Zimmer, an avid hunter, has stuffed, in order, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford. Now he's taking Philip Rivers's NFL-best 70.8 completion percentage to the taxidermist after holding him to 62 percent and a suffocating second half the Bengals allowed San Diego its longest plays only a pair of 15-yard passes to wide receiver Keenan Allen and tight end Ladarius Green.
"Big plays. We couldn't give up a big play. The one touchdown they got was a semi-big play," Lewis said of Green's 30-yard touchdown in the first half. "You have to make them work the field and we have to be good on third down. We have to have tight cover on third down. One thing that we probably didn't do that we did try to emphasize was we have to squeeze the pocket around Philip Rivers. He escaped a couple times early in the game and made some plays. As we got later in the game, he was kind of throwing it with people all around his feet and legs. He made some errant throws. I thought we did a better job in the second half of squeezing the pocket in on him."
So don't expect that Sunday night game in Pittsburgh on Dec. 15 to get flexed to the day as the Bengals try to secure their second AFC North title in the past five seasons and first for the Green-Dalton era.
But maybe we should start referring to it as the Vontaze Age.
Burfict, playing all but one of the 65 snaps, raced sideline-to-sideline as the Bengals strangled a top five offense at home on a touchdown and a field goal in a 17-10 victory that floored the Chargers a week after they destroyed Kansas City with 41 points.
"That's a good defense. They've got good linebackers that tackle and really run," Rivers said after he offered a season-low 80 passer rating. "The secondary is a very experienced group that plays well. I thought we did some good things against them but we just weren't consistent enough. We had crossed the 50 (yard-line)—I don't know how many times—we didn't finish drives. It's not just the turnovers, those we know. There were other drives that we just didn't finish and ended up punting right around midfield that are critical."
The three turnovers—one in the red zone and one on the doorstep—and the defense's work against San Diego's underneath weapons won this one. Running back Danny Woodhead, the leader among NFL running backs for catches and yards, had just two and 13, respectively, and Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates was victimized for those two critical turnovers while being held to 41 yards.
"It was matchup; Woodhead and Gates," Burfict said. "They're great catching the ball and making people miss. I think we did a great job of running to the ball and just executing the defense. Everyone was on their keys. Zim puts a lot of emphasis … on when we get inside the 40-yard-line we have to stop them. … When we crossed their 50 and we step up and make plays."
One came on the first series when safety George Iloka scooped up Gates's fumble at the Bengals 18 after safety Reggie Nelson dislodged a 13-yard completion.
Then second-year backup cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick got bonus points for the timing of his first NFL interception. It came on San Diego's first possession of the second half in a 7-7 game at the Bengals 25 on third-and-six. Kirkpatrick looked like he had already stopped Gates from getting the first down, but he simply yanked the ball out of his hands to make sure.
A little more than five minutes later the Bengals had a 14-7 lead on A.J. Green's 21-yard touchdown catch.
"We have history. I have a history against Gates," nickel back Chris Crocker said after several encounters with Gates in the slot Sunday. "I enjoy playing Gates. When you look at tight ends, he's up there. I enjoyed today.
"These games go left and right, up and down. Who thought we'd get a fumble after they got the first down (twice?) Dre jumps over his back to pick the ball off. That's a heck of play. In the second half, we really played our butts off."
San Diego's last two series showed just how well the Bengals played. With 9:16 left and the Bengals holding a 17-7 lead, Burfict smothered Woodhead for no gain on a first-down pass. On second-and-15, Iloka slipped trying to cut off Allen on a short route and when Allen motored around the edge for the first down at the San Diego 30, Iloka poked the ball out as he made the tackle and linebacker Vinny Rey recovered at the 34.
"Our whole thing was trying to stop them from getting yards after catch and making sure of the tackle," Iloka said. "When I slipped, I was trying to chase him down and as I tackled him I hit his arm trying to get it out."
Then on the last Chargers snap with 4:45 left from the Bengals 30, Rivers had nowhere to go downfield and Gates was a last resort across the field hooked up with Crocker. The crowd wanted pass interference called, but all they got was a 48-yard field goal with 8:17 left that cut it to 17-10.
That happened to Rivers a lot Sunday with cornerbacks Adam Jones and Terence Newman holding up well on the outside. If Crocker wasn't locked up in the slot, he was trying to bait Rivers into thinking he was blitzing, and Zimmer did red-dog it often Sunday. If it wasn't Crocker it was either Nelson or one of the backers.
"I was trying to make a play on the ball. I was actually trying to get both of my hands on it," Crocker said. "For him to throw that ball away, we took away everything else. That's what we tried to make him do all day. Just make him check the ball down and come down to somebody he doesn't want."
Jones was his usual competitive, resilient self. He missed an interception on the touchdown drive when Rivers's 17-yard back-shoulder throw to wide receiver Vincent Brown seemingly went through Jones's hands on the sidelines. But on the next series he batted down a third-and-two pass headed to Brown to produce a punt.
While Lewis extolled Burfict's ankle, Burfict tried to play it down. After wearing a boot on the Friday flight just hours after he turned it in practice, there weren't a lot of people that thought he was going to play.
"I feel like I was a productive person out there. I'm playing for my coaches and my teammates," Burfict said. "I have so many leaders around me I feel like I have to step up because they're expecting me to be great and do big things for the team and be a leader.
"That makes me want to do well; that they care about me so I want to do well."
Sunday was one of those days. Playing in front of a large contingent from his home of Corona, Calif., they roared every time Burfict's name was called and it was more than the 13 tackles he was credited. On a bum ankle, it may have been the toughest performance on a day of tough performances.
"He worked his tail off; everything he does," Lewis said. "We'll put him back in the boot and take him out on Thursday and get back to work with him."
It must be December.