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Matchup Of The Game: Bengals Re-Built D-Line Hopes To Keep Fast Start Going Against A-Rod And His Run Game 

Larry Ogunjobi has been a rock in the middle for the Bengals front.
Larry Ogunjobi has been a rock in the middle for the Bengals front.


Bengals defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, his knee still wearing the scars of last week's kind of fourth-and-one stand that changes teams, pointed to the words that have been on the wall ever since they built Paul Brown Stadium.

"The quote I see every day," Ogunjobi says as the Bengals prepare to host cold-blooded Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his dangerous running game Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) at what is expected to be another huge crowd at The Paul.

"From Mr. Brown that says winning makes a believer out of all of us."

Like Paul Brown, Ogunjobi came from Cleveland for a second chance after being part of an effort that built the Browns from the ground up. When Ogunjobi was a rookie with the Browns in 2017, they were 0-16. He played his last game for them last season in the playoffs. After just four games here, he sees the same kind of arc.

"When I was 0-16, I just didn't know how to win and when you're trying to change the culture, that's the thing you have to do is learn how to win. Winning those critical games," Ogunjobi says. "Down 14 at the half (against Jacksonville). Minnesota game. Overtime. Get the W. The Steelers game in their house. Those are critical wins that can really change the culture."

Ogunjobi is one of the faces of the revamped defensive line that along with quarterback Joe Burrow's 73 percent sifting has fueled a 3-1 start. Three of the four starters up front are centerpieces of their two most active free agency periods in history, evidence they can recruit in the post-Marvin Lewis era.

The defense that had the fewest sacks in the NFL last season with 17 already has 11. The defense that gave up the most rushing yards in the league during the previous three seasons is ranked ninth stopping the run and allowing just 93.5 yards per game on the ground. Look no further than the Greensboro Gap of Ogunjobi and nose tackle D.J. Reader in the middle and the Edge of Might with Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard at the defensive ends.

But that's not all. Throw in B.J. Hill via the Billy Price season eve trade and his three sacks and holdover, immovable rotational nose tackle Josh Tupou, and it's the deepest the Bengals have been up front since the Bengals' No. 3 defense stoned Rodgers eight years ago at The Paul with a 65 passer rating.

Rookie Cam Sample and receiver waiver wire pickup Wyatt Ray have also been nice role players. And those first six guys off the bench, all born within a 13-month period from May of 1994 (Tupou) to June of 1995 (Hubbard) have set the tone on and off the field.

Just last week after the win over the Jaguars that came on his mother's birthday, Ogunjobi wanted to do something nice for her and invited the guys over to have dinner cooked by his chef.

"It's very natural. I think the relationship we have on the defensive line is very organic," Ogunjobi says. "A bunch of good guys … I feel like that's what makes it special, you just never know where the next play is coming from. Everybody has the ability to make a play. I think we all feed off each other's energy. We know what we bring to the table, we know have to work hard. There are no egos. When you enjoy coming to work because of the guys you work with, that's extremely important."

Hendrickson ($60 million) and Reader ($53 million) are the richest free agents in Bengals history. Ogunjobi is the $6 Million Man betting on himself on a one-year deal that is looking downright clairvoyant at the moment. Hubbard, the lone starting holdover working on his own $40 million extension, can feel the shift playing with a guy like Ogunjobi.

"He gives us so much. He's a force in the middle that we've kind of been missing for a while. Disruptive," Hubbard says. "As a defensive line, without that interior presence, it's hard to get a lot of things going. Having him and D.J. and guys like that inside is really what makes this whole thing go defensively."

Money and opportunity are always going to head the list for reasons free agents sign somewhere. But the next set of factors vary from team to team and city to city. Scheme. Coaches. For years, Lewis' charisma and success were big sells for free agents from all stations. Now, as Reader sketched out earlier this week, Burrow makes the Bengals a Must See destination.

"I think Joe is a lure for a lot of these guys. Just the way he plays, the way he carries himself and they see the future we're building with him is at the heart of it," Hubbard says. "Even talking to free agents, that's a big selling point. I think maybe the Monday night win over Pittsburgh (last December) did a lot for us at the end of the year as well. Just talking about the culture when things weren't going well and still not giving up. I'm sure a lot of guys saw that, too."

Vonn Bell, the Bengals strong safety who made a culture changing hit on Pittsburgh wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in that game, was also a big factor in luring Ogunjobi. He works out with him in Florida and the Bengals think that might have put them over the top.

He also spoke at length with his parents about the decision. His mother, a psych nurse practitioner, and his father, a director of nursing, met in Nigeria before settling in New Jersey and then moving to North Carolina.

And there was also Reader, a grade ahead of Ogunjobi growing up in Greensboro, N.C. They had a passing acquaintance until they got older and Reader always admired how Ogunjobi turned himself from a 350-pound high school sophomore simply looking to lose weight into one of the greatest players the University of Charlotte ever had. He wanted Ogunjobi to line up next to him as a three technique tackle and he lobbied him hard. Persuasive team leaders are also nice chips to have in free agency.

"I knew a lot about Larry," Reader says. "I know from where he's cut ... He went to a school that believed in him, he kept working and became Mr. Charlotte.

"I told him we've got good coaches and it's a good place to play. There are people that care. The fans are with us," Reader says. "I told him he had to do what's best for him, but 'I would really like to play next to you.'"

That was a big selling point, too. The Bengals are just starting him at the three technique and keeping him there. That's where he pretty much played in his second season and had 5.5 sacks. Then the Browns started using him mainly at nose tackle: "I knew he was out of position," Reader says. "It's good to see him flourishing."

He's got a sack this season, but his fourth-down play on the goal line that initiated the stop of Jags quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the Bengals down 14-0 late in the first half and the gritty aftermath capsulizes what Ogunjobi has meant to them.

After middle linebacker Logan Wilson swooped in to finish it off, Ogunjobi lay on the turf for a few minutes before he got up and came back and somehow played in the second half with a knee injury.

"It's an amazing testament to his toughness and how badly he wants to win games and play for his teammates," Hubbard says. "That was an ugly injury out there and he's practicing still. It was me, Logan, Akeem (Davis-Gaither), the running back all falling on his knee. Pretty crazy. He's just a great athlete."

Ogunjobi: "Adrenaline. Thursday night. My mom's birthday."

Ogunjobi has been listed as limited this week, but he's expected to play. that's good news for a defense that has to deal with the best offense and quarterback it has faced in 2021. As good as Rodgers is (and he's been as good as ever since the 38-3 loss in the opener), the Packers emphasize their running game to protect him.

"There's Aaron Rodgers, there's No. 17 (wide receiver Davante Adams) and No. 33 (Aaron Jones). The offense runs through them," Ogunjobi says.

Since the Opening Day blowout, Rodgers has put it up 96 times while Jones and Dillon have combined to run it 77 times in a pretty balanced set. Dillon is a 247-pound load averaging 4.5 yards per 30 change-of-pace carries while the slashing, 5-9, 208-pound Jones is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and has a career average of five yards per despite getting off to a 3.7 pace this season.

The Bengals have faced a gauntlet of good backs to open the season with Dalvin Cook (61 yards), David Montgomery (61), Najee Harris (40) and James Robinson (78) and while they've kept them in check this is the biggest test on the ground for them because of Green Bay's 1-2 punch.

They need to get from their D-line the kind of game they got at The Paul in 2013 when the Bengals beat the Packers, 34-30, becoming the first team in 14 years to win a game despite allowing 30 straight points.

Three edge guys combined for three sacks of Rodgers and nose tackle Domata Peko had the other one. One edge, Carlos Dunlap, tipped a third-down pass in the last two minutes and Rodgers driving to the edge of the red zone. The other edge, Michael Johnson, tipped the next pass to end it. Minutes earlier, Johnson had forced a fumble on fourth-and-one that turned into cornerback Terence Newman's winning 58-yard touchdown return.

Somewhere in there Rodgers (and it may have been pregame) offered a silent salute from across the way to Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

"I knew they had the right pieces," says Ogunjobi, who played against the Bengals eight times before he signed with them. "It's just a matter of winning the critical games."

Beating a Hall of Fame quarterback with a team that is also 3-1 would certainly qualify.