*Vontaze Burfict leads the Bengals back to his college home in the desert. *
* BENGALS' NO. 1 SCORING DEFENSE VS. CARDINALS' NO. 1 OFFENSE*
Probably more than fitting that one of the players the Bengals received in The Trade for him officially shelved the Carson Palmer talk for the week.
"I don't even want to talk about Carson Palmer for the simple fact I don't know anything about him," says
cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who arrived via the Raiders' 17th pick in 2012. "I wasn't here in his era. All the things I know is he's a great quarterback and he's doing a lot of great things for his team. But as far as him being him playing with the Bengals, I don't know and I can't recap it."
Sunday's game in Arizona (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) has morphed into a lot more than old friend Carson Palmer meets his old team. This one is about a potential Super Bowl matchup with linebacker Vontaze Burfict coming out of the phone booth to lead his smoking hot 8-1 defense that has allowed 30 points in the last three games to take over the league scoring defense lead against Palmer's Arizona 7-2 offense that leads the NFL in yards while piling up an average of 38 points in its victories.
And, no, it is not mere coincidence this defense is in its best three-game stretch (allowing just 275 yards and 30 percent on third down) in Burfict's first three games back from the micro fracture knee surgery that took him out of games for a year. The buzz on defense, anyway, is that the Bengals have gotten better since the Oct. 25 bye week.
"I wouldn't say I'm that big of a difference," Burfict says. "But I do feel like when I'm in there guys pay a little more attention to detail. I got all eyes in the huddle. It just works that way."
You can get into all the reunions. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson checking in with Palmer, the high school kid he recruited to USC and the 31-year-old franchise quarterback he traded for as head coach of the Raiders. Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert greeting Cardinals tight end Jermaine Gresham, the former Bengal who helped break him in. Cards defensive tackle Frostee Rucker checking out Peko, his '06 draft mate.
But here is Burfict, the former Sun Devil, pumped up about his return to campus and Saturday's practice in Arizona State's Dickey Dome.
Cincinnati Bengals host Houston Texans at Paul Brown Stadium in week 10 of the regular season.
Even though Burfict is still easing in his eyes (he played 56 percent of the snaps Monday night), his teammates can feel him. Better yet, Kirkpatrick says the other team feels him.
"He puts a lot of fear in guys. A lot of guys run away from him. A lot of guys are scared of him," Kirkpatrick says. "That's a big positive for us because we know going into the game where a lot of the attention was on other guys, now it's on him. That frees up a lot of other guys to work . . . He's one of the leaders on defense. He brings us the extra energy."
As they like to say, numbers don't lie. In the first six games of the season the Bengals gave up nearly five yards per rush. In the last two games it is 3.6. They've played two of the worst run teams in the league in Cleveland and Houston, but they've also throttled everything else and there is no decimal point for intangibles.
"He gives us an extra edge and that leadership," says left end Carlos Dunlap, "because he's a feisty guy and he's going to play all the way up to the whistle. And as a defense that wants to impose their will on other teams, like Pittsburgh, that plays up to the whistle too, you want to have that dog behind you as a defender."
A junkyard dog.
"I think I bring a little fire to make guys a little more competitive," Burfict says. "I'm not saying when I'm not out they're not competitive. But when I'm in there, I'm not taking 10-yard runs up the middle. I'm not taking that. When I'm in there, I hold everybody accountable as they hold me accountable. If you mess up, you're going to get the next play right."
Carson Palmer a Bengal?
"I wasn't a Bengals or Carson fan," he says. "I was a Broncos fan before I came here."
Burfict is like the majority of the Bengals roster. More guys have played against him (in the 2012 win over the Raiders) than with him in Cincinnati from 2003-10. And of the 16 guys that were here with him, only nine played with him more than one season.
"Fifty guys in here don't even know him," says nose tackle Domata Peko.
Defensive tackle Domata Peko says Sunday's key is stopping the run.
Peko and left tackle Andrew Whitworth do. They were rookies during Palmer's last Pro Bowl season in Cincinnati in 2006. By his last season in 2010 they had emerged as team leaders and were stunned when he asked for a trade by threatening a holdout, which he followed through on.
"That was a long time ago," Peko says. "There are other guys that are still here and have that bitter feeling of how he left us. Its old news . . . We've gone past that." Palmer is a distant memory, but Peko would like to introduce him to his new belly rub sack dance. But first things first.
"First I'm thinking about their running backs. Chris Johnson is averaging 4.4 yards a carry. (Andre) Ellington is fast," Peko says. "(Palmer) is what? 35 now? His big weapon is his arm. We know he's got a cannon and he's throwing great. We've got to get into his feet. We know in years past you can get him uncomfortable getting after him early. We know he's not going to beat us with his feet. He's not very mobile. What he wants to do is run the ball, play-action, and go deep. So we've got to stop the run."
This is where Burfict and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga come in. When they're healthy and in there together, people don't run on the Bengals. Check out the 2013 stats, when the Bengals finished fifth against the run.
"(Burfict) is a huge run defender for us," Dunlap says. "Having him back with the combination of Rey and Geno (Atkins), that's why our run defense has done so well. Everyone is playing the run pretty well. We have to continue to do that, that way we can get after the passer, which is the fun stuff. This week Carson Palmer likes to really air it out. It's a good opportunity for us, but we have to do the grunt work and stop the run first."
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and linebackers coach Matt Burke point to the obvious benefit of getting Burfict back.
"Obviously when you get one of your best players back, it gives you a boost," Guenther says, and Burke talks about how Burfict has taken the load off the other backers with his snaps counts and allowing them to focus more on their various niches in each package.
But Guenther also thinks the bye week was a turning point for his defense.
"We worked on some of the areas we needed improvement and the guys responded," Guenther says. "It was just concentrating on a couple of technical things. We've got good guys. They work hard. They study. They do exactly how we ask them to do it. They work hard all week and let it rip on Sunday. I just think they're playing with a lot of confidence. It doesn't look like it's going to slow down. We've got a big test this week. We'll see where we are."
Guenther flashed a lot of looks on Monday night, including on some plays dropping both Dunlap and right end Michael Johnson into coverage while sending others on blitzes.
"That's the thing about our guys. They understand their fit," Guenther says. "One play they may have to drop and not rush and we've got a good matchup and they have to go win. Another play it may be, hey corner, you've got no help on this one."
Palmer has certainly noticed.
"It's spectacular. It's just a really good unit top to bottom. They are veterans, they are deep at every position," Palmer says of the Bengals defense. "The thing I noticed is how many different things they do. It made for a long couple days just preparing and getting ready for them because there's a lot of different looks, a lot of different fronts, a lot of different guys blitzing and pressures, so they are a ton to prepare for because they are so multiple, and they've got obviously one of the best tackles in the game, two great pass rushers on the outside, and they rotate a handful of guys in and out, so top to bottom, it's just a spectacular group."
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (left) is focused on physical receivers Sunday.
Palmer has a pretty good scouting report on the secondary because he's been watching plenty. He knows and they know he'll be taking his shots. An unbelievable eight of his receivers have caught at least one ball of 38 yards and Palmer's 8.9 yards per attempt leads the league. He'll want to turn it into a track meet, vintage 2005 with Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry on a deep ball his head coach says is the best he's ever been around. And that includes Bruce Arians' stint with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.
According to NFL.com, Dalton and Palmer are tied with the league lead for explosive plays at a 1-in-7 rate.
"They like to take the long shots so we've got to be good in the back end. Because he's going to give us chances with the ball in the air. We have to be good enough to go out there and make the plays," Kirkpatrick says. "They're a vertical passing team. We want to try to get the ball thrown short. Hopefully we can leave the game with the back having the most receiving yards. That's the goal. They've got great receivers."
They've got a Hall-of-Famer in stately 6-3 Larry Fitzgerald and a burner in 5-11 John Brown. Michael Floyd (hamstring) missed Wednesday's practice, but he's a 6-2 pounder that completes the '05-like trio. The key, Kirkpatrick says, is to get physical at the line.
"Floyd and Fitz, they're big guys. Obviously they aren't going to be quick like Antonio Brown or anything like that,' Kirkpatrick says. "It's going to be good to disrupt them at the line, get in his leverage way. That's the key. Disrupt. I feel like if we disrupt and get hands on guys and slow them down, we're going to have a better opportunity of winning this game."
Kirkpatrick says the 32-year-old Fitzgerald reminds him of the 32-year-old Adam Jones starting opposite him on the other corner.
"Obviously we can tell by the film study he's transitioned his game from being more physical -- he still plays physical -- but more of a mental standpoint," Kirkpatrick says. "He's very good at leverage. He's good at boxing guys out. He has a great window for the ball to get thrown into because he has great hands."
Palmer is returning the compliments from the west.
"They have two great cover corners. Adam is having as good a year as you'll see a corner have. He's all over the place. He's so feisty. He's breaking up balls. He's coming up in the run game making tackles," Palmer says. "Kirkpatrick looks like he's coming on really, really well. (Safety) Reggie Nelson's a phenomenal player. It just kind of seems like he keeps going and getting better and better each year. And Leon (Hall) has been the best nickel (cornerback) in the game for a long time. He's so smart, he's such a good blitzer, he plays two-to-one so well."
So after all that, it figures the duel in the desert between the No. 1s comes down to the running game.
"I don't care if they're No. 1 or 32 or whatever it is," Burfict says. "We have to play fast and physical."
Cincinnati Bengals host practice at the University of Cincinnati 11/18/2015