Cornerback Adam Jones, shown here on a kick return Sunday, helped hold down Tampa Bay's receivers.
TAMPA, Fla. - If there is one thing the Mike Zimmer Era taught Bengaldom, good defense can make even a lot of warts look good.
On Sunday Zimmer's successor, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, dialed up a vintage stonewall effort to help the Bengals survive a torturous 14-13 victory over the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.
They allowed the punch-less Bucs 4.8 yards per play, three yards per rush, didn't allow their second-third down conversion until 1:33 left in the game and gave up just their second touchdown in 12 straight road quarters.
There were plenty of moments the defense could have wilted in the Florida heat with an offense turning it over three times in the first half.
But it didn't. And neither did the offense.
"I'm just proud of the fact that through all the mistakes we made as a team, the guys weren't yelling at each other,' said safety George Iloka. "Guys weren't jumping on each other. We were just positive. 'Let's go, let's knuckle up.' I was happy with the way the guys responded to the mistakes we made as a (team) and we were able to ignore that and play our type of football."
For a team that was overcome by adversity last month, they wallowed in it Sunday to win.
"Given all the mistakes and we were still in the game, we were destined to win," Iloka said. "Even if it came down to a field goal, he was going to miss it. That was my mindset. I was very positive all the way through. I don't know why. How we came out as a team, you just say to yourself, 'If we don't win, we did this to ourselves.'"
It was such a frustrating day that even cornerback Adam Jones signalled for his first fair catch since 2006 and his first as a Bengal on his 68th punt return. He was so mad he threw the ball 20 yards behind him, but then trotted after it to give it to the officials.
While the defense showed they can struggle in hockey-like-short-handed situations, they were tough to beat when it was 11-on-11 for the last three plays of the game. The Bucs, working from the Bengals 46, needed about 10 yards for a shot at a winning field goal but couldn't get there in time.
On second down quarterback Josh McCown was chased out of the pocket for an incompletion. On third down safety Reggie Nelson batted a pass away on the sidelines. On fourth down cornerback Leon Hall wrapped up red-hot rookie wide receiver Mike Evans after a 13-yard gain with a second left and seven yards shy of the first down.
"It was a scramble play," Hall said. "We practice it every day. Our quarterback scrambles and he gives us a good look so we learn to latch on to the receivers in our area and just guard him zone or man. That's all you want to do. All that practice worked out."
It was another magnificent effort by the secondary. Evans came into the game with at least a touchdown in every game in November and was second in the NFL with 12 catches of at least 25 yards. He didn't catch his longest, 23 yards, until 7:16 left in the game, and they kept him out of the end zone.
"We talked about it all week. The challenge was on the outside," Hall said. "George and Reggie have been doing their thing all year. We know they're going to do their part. The front did well. It was a good game plan. We ran a bunch of our calls; we used a lot of our looks. Paulie did a good job with that and we took it from there."
With nose tackle Domata Peko (elbow) sidelined for the second half (he left the locker room in a sling but said it will be OK), defensive tackle Geno Atkins offered his best performance of the season with half a sack and two QB hits.
The Bucs came into the game with the fourth worst running attack in the NFL and running back Doug Martin was averaging 2.8 yards per carry. After he had 55 yards on 12 carries at halftime, he got just three yards on six carries the rest of the way.
"That's good to hear," Hall said of Atkins. "If he's hitting his stride along with everybody else, that's really going to help us in the last few games."
Despite his deft handling of Tampa's critical 12-men on the field penalty that prevented a winning field goal try, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis had to handle a lot of questions about game management.
Particularly his decision to try an on-sides kick right after the Bengals took the lead at 14-10 late in the third quarter. Even though the Bucs had done nothing on offense much of the day, scoring their field goal despite a drive of minus-five yards. The decision was compounded by the kick's lack of execution (and an offsides penalty on linebacker Nico Johnson), which gave the Bucs the ball on the Bengals 31 and allowed them to cut the lead to 14-13.
"We're going to onside kick if we feel like it," Lewis said. "We're going to do anything like that in the kicking game if we feel like the look is there. We had a couple of times to kickoff and the look was what we were looking for and they made a great play.
"Anytime you do anything like that, you've seen what we perceive is an opportunity to do that. It's not just we're just going to do it. We're going to do it because of the look. Good credit to (Tampa Bay linebacker Orie Lemon) because he did a great job. He came from the back-side and recovered the football."
When Bengals cornerback Terence Newman knifed in front of wide receiver Vincent Jackson for his first interception of the season with 46 seconds left in the first half at the Bucs 40, it
highlighted just how dominantly the Cincinnati cornerbacks handled Tampa Bay's monstrous wide receivers. Jackson finished with just two catches for 24 yards.
It also gave the Bengals at least a shot to tie the game at 10-10 at halftime. But before Lewis could use the first of all three timeouts, Dalton threw an interception in what looked to be a harried hurryup.
"We didn't want to call timeout because we wanted to get the ball up and snapped and then have the timeouts to use if we get the drive extended," Lewis said. "Obviously, we don't want to throw an interception. There was no chaos. We just have to go. There was no chaos. I don't want to give them the chance to line up. There are two reasons to use timeouts. We wanted to keep them on edge as well. We wanted to keep attacking."
But the 12th man and Lewis' quick thinking made everything all right. Lewis, a member of the NFL competition committee, alertly knew he couldn't get a flag for throwing a challenge flag in the last two minutes because that rule had been changed recently. It just cost him a timeout, but it was worthy, although Dean Blandino, head of the officials, later tweeted the play would have been reviewed even without the challenge flag.
Lewis said his coaches upstairs alerted him to the 12th man even before the snap. The Bucs had run their power run game with an extra tackle, Oniel Cousins, and he reported eligible 21 times. The 21st time was the play wide receiver Louis Murphy made a 21-yard catch to put the ball on the 20 with 12 seconds left. But no one left when Cousins reported.
"When they got on the ball quick, they still had 12 men," said left end Carlos Dunlap of the next sequence.
But before they could snap the ball with 12 men again, Lewis had already stopped play by stepping on the field trying to get the officials' attention.
"They'd been doing it all day," said defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry of the formation. "They must have just forgot."
"Someone is looking out for us," Iloka said.
And good defense.