Updated: 11:15 a.m.
When Matthew Stafford quarterbacked Georgia, he claims Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson never sacked him. After Johnson turned Sunday's game around by tipping a Stafford pass and added an NFL sack of him later in the Bengals 23-13 win over Detroit, Johnson disputed that claim.
"I got him once, but he ran out of bounds," Johnson said.
There was no disputing Johnson got Stafford on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. It happened early in the second quarter and the Bengals gasping in a 7-0 deficit to a Lions team that hadn't won on the road in two years.
On third-and-11, Stafford tried a wide-receiver screen, but the 6-7 Johnson tipped the ball in the air on the rush and it turned into defensive tackle Jon Fanene's 45-yard touchdown off an interception that injected life into the stadium and the Bengals.
"It's always good to get a Bulldog," said Johnson with a smile. "It's great to win."
By the way, Johnson had no idea that the Bengals were losing.
"Really?" he asked. "I never look at the time or anything. You need to just focus on your job out there."
Fanene had a sense that his first NFL touchdown came at a good time.
"The crowd was down. The offense was down a little bit," Fanene said. "On that run I took back to the house, it brought some momentum to the team."
It was another solid effort by the defense, its lowest scoring defense in the NFL giving a rookie quarterback 2.8 points below the average. Since giving up 28 points against Houston Oct. 18, the Bengals have allowed six touchdowns in the past six games. And with the Lions going 2-for-11 on Sunday on third down, they've now held foes to 14 of their last 61 third downs at a miniscule 23 percent.
Johnson and Fanene have been big parts of that third-down package with Fanene, Frostee Rucker and Tank Johnson going inside on passing downs.
"We get some penetration and push and Michael is doing his job. He's got (two) sacks," Fanene said. "That was one of our keys today — to put pressure on him. Mike (Zimmer) told us that he is not a runner. He would step up in the pocket, but if we put pressure on him inside, he might make mistakes."
After having just one sack in the last two games, the Bengals got three Sunday as Zimmer, the defensive coordinator, dialed up the blitz more. Left end Robert Geathers got one on what appeared to be an assignment error, middle linebacker Dhani Jones got one on a blitz, and Johnson got one on a blitz, bit he came in off the line with an inside move.
The Bengals defense got beat on just two big plays by wide receiver Calvin Johnson, a 54-yard touchdown pass splitting safeties Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe and then a 38-yard jump ball over Ndukwe and cornerback Johnathan Joseph. The touchdown came off a fake reverse.
"It took awhile for it to develop and they kept everybody in (to block)," said cornerback Leon Hall. "The fake reverse didn't get us. He got by us and got good position."
Crocker had injured his ankle, but he came back for that series and didn't return after the touchdown. Rookie free agent Tom Nelson took his spot and he came up with his first NFL interception later in the game.
"Just doing my job," Nelson said. "It was a Cover 2 and Stafford was just eyeing the tight end a little bit. I think he was trying his back shoulder."
Head coach Marvin Lewis' other rookie free agent also expanded his role Sunday. Wide receiver Quan Cosby lost two yards on a reverse and added kick return to his punt return duties with Bernard Scott shelved. He returned his first NFL kick for 21 yards.
"I thought he handled himself well today," Lewis said of Nelson. "He made a big breakup on the play near (the Lions) sideline earlier in the third quarter, and then coming up with an interception there at the end. He seemed to be in the right spots. I didn't hear a lot of, 'Why is Tom over there on the headset?' "
OFFENSIVE TAKE: With the Bengals getting ready to take their show on the road against two of the top teams in the league, the 10-2 Vikings and the 9-3 Chargers, the Bengals say they are going to clean up their offense that has stalled in the passing game since Carson Palmer put up his best passer rating of his career in a 45-10 win over the Bears Oct. 25.
The Bengals were again hampered by three holding calls (left tackle Andrew Whitworth, wide receiver Maurice Purify, tight end J.P. Foschi) and three pre-snap penalties, which seem to happen every game: A delay of game, a false start on wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and an illegal formation call. The delay of game really hurt with 14 seconds left in the first half because it pushed the Bengals back from the Lions 21 to the 26 and forced them to kick Shayne Graham's first of three field goals on the day, a 44-yarder that made it 17-7 instead of being able to take a shot into the end zone.
Those are mistakes the Bengals can't make indoors next week in Minnesota against a defense that came into this weekend with an NFL-high 40 sacks.
And in the five games since the Bears win, when quarterback Carson Palmer threw five touchdowns and no interceptions, he has thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions and the club hasn't passed for more than 223 yards and has scored 20 points just once.
But the Bengals are 4-1 in those five games and they have rushed for at least 119 yards in four of the games. In four of those games they have kept the ball for at least 38:11 and Sunday it was 38:48.
In the last two games Palmer has looked to be inaccurate with some low and high throws and some balls behind receivers. Yet when he emerged from the press box Sunday, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski defended Palmer's accuracy after a 17-for-29 day for 220 yards.
"I didn't really notice a whole lot of (inaccuracy)," Bratkowski said. "I think there are things that happen where he sees somebody and he tries to place the ball in a position where it looks like an inaccurate pass but he's really trying to keep it away from a guy he sees moving from the inside or a guy on the outside. I don't think there's anything wrong with the accuracy. I thought there were some very beautiful throws he made today.
"Some of the times he has to try and drop some of those balls with touch over a linebacker and drop it into Chad (Ochocinco) on some of those in breaks. Things that when you see a ball that goes a little over Chad's head, 'that's incaccuracy,' but he had to drop it over a linebacker and he didn't get it quite right. We'll look at it, but I'm not worried about it."
Something more tangible is the struggle in the red zone since the Bengals led the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage last month. On their last 13 red-zone possessions dating back to the Nov. 15 win in Pittsburgh, the Bengals have scored just three touchdowns and were 0-for-2 Sunday. If they get 14 instead of six points on those drives, they score 31 points and no one cares about the penalties.
"We'll look at the red-zone stuff and get a little more efficient in there. We had some mental errors and things that slowed us down," Bratkowski said. "Maybe I'm being too hard-headed in there and trying to run it on the first two downs. Maybe we need to throw it more on the first and second downs in there. I'll look at it."
On five red-zone runs Sunday, the Bengals had 10 yards. But if tight end Daniel Coats didn't drop a red-zone touchdown Sunday and Purify didn't drop one last week, Palmer's numbers and the score look a lot better.
"Part of the game," Palmer said. "We'll clean it up, we'll get better."
As for not being a high-scoring offense, Palmer said it a couple of times in the locker room after the game: That's not what this team is.
"We're a defensive running football team and the combination of those two have been working," he said. "We have to continue to work that."
But he admitted the passing game is off, in part, because of the change in philosophy.
"Definitely. When you're a 'run first' team, that's your mentality," Palmer said. "It's a little hard to get in sync when you're used to throwing the ball all of the time, but we still need to execute in the passing game. We are what we are. If a team tries to make us throw the ball, we might change a little bit, but we're still going to be a 'run first' team up front."
But Palmer, wearing a Dodgers sweatshirt, did hit the first long ball of the year with a 36-yard touchdown pass to The Ocho, the team's longest scoring pass since before he missed 12 games last year with an elbow injury. He had a 70-yarder to Ochocinco in the 2007 finale.
"Long time coming," Palmer said.
Asked if his first game in sub 40-degree temperatures tightened the elbow, he said, "No," and said he was fine.