For all the offensive weapons, for all the brilliance of A.J. Green, for all the winning ways of quarterback Andy Dalton, for all the first-round picks spent on their two tight-end package, the Bengals are making a run at a third straight postseason because of defense.
And never was it more apparent in Sunday's 34-30 victory at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium when the Bengals extended their NFL-high streak of holding quarterbacks to less than 300 yards passing to 17 games against Green Bay machine Aaron Rodgers that the heart of that defense is the line.
"They brought us back for a reason," right end Michael Johnson said after he and left end Carlos Dunlap squeezed Rodgers with dollar signs. "So we're just trying to play the very best football we can play no matter who it is. We're not going to back down from anybody."
Johnson is the 6-7 Bengals franchise player making $11 million this season. The 6-6 Dunlap signed a $40 million extension before training camp. On Sunday it all looked like a bargain as they never stood taller torturing the young Packers tackles all day. Each had seven tackles with Johnson working on rookie left tackle David Bakhitiari for 1.5 sacks, four hits of Rodgers and the huge forced fumble at the end with Dunlap adding a sack and another tackle for loss on a running pay against second-year right tackle Don Barclay.
But it was their combined three deflections in the last drive that won it. Dunlap got one with two minutes left and then another one on the next-to-last play before Johnson ended it on the next snap grazing Rodgers's last pass on fourth-and-five.
A weary Dunlap smiled. The answer for the season-ending loss of his backup, Robert Geathers, in the rotation? Rookie Margus Hunt wasn't activated and James Harrison didn't spell him in the base. The Bengals played the studs. Dunlap figures he played 90 percent of the snaps, the most of his career.
"It's OK; we're young," Dunlap said of him and Johnson. "We're putting it on our shoulders."
Rodgers frustrated the big men with the short, quick passes that tested the nerves of the 64,633 and the mettle of the defense throwing up its second straight second-half shutout as he drove from the 20 to the 20 in 2:22.
Deuces wild in the craziest of games.
"I think they were looking to bat it down a little more, knowing we were going to be looking for some quick passes," Rodgers said. "They are smart defensive ends, they've played some years in this league. They are both 6-6 plus. We tried some different things, cutting them on some plays, split the line at times. But they are good players."
Someone asked Dunlap why he just didn't just end it all and catch one of his deflections and he laughed.
"I wanted to catch a couple of them to keep them from scoring, but at that point in the game I was just trying to keep them from scoring," Dunlap said.
"It was very frustrating," Dunlap said of the short drops. "That's part of what you're going to get when you have a defensive line like we have."
Johnson, a high school valedictorian, said it didn't take brain surgery to figure out what the Packers were doing.
"(Bakhitiari) was trying to cut you, so you know the ball is going to come out," Johnson said. "He's trying to get you down. He's trying to get you out of the passing lane. Get your hands up."
The pressure obviously had benefits in the secondary.
"I take my hat off to the front four," said cornerback Adam Jones. "I only think they caught the ball when we were in off (coverage)."
HALL-MARK: Sunday is one of the very big reasons Bengals cornerback Leon Hall is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. The epitome of that man-to-man coverage was how Hall held dangerous slot receiver Randall Cobb to 54 yards on five catches after Cobb dominated back-to-back weeks with 100-yard days. Rodgers went to him 11 times, but Hall got his hand on the ball four times and one of them was an interception at the Bengals 5 on the third snap of the fourth quarter.
"We knew they had their weapons, but at the same time we had guys that can cover and if we just played our game we would have a good chance," Hall said. "The same thing with my matchup in the slot. If I play my game and try to keep them off balance and the D-line played like it's been playing and everybody just played together, we'd have a chance.
"The D-line set the tone for us."
The interception was huge because it provided a 14-point swing, keeping Green Bay out of the end zone and setting up the touchdown that cut the lead to 30-27.
But Hall's biggest play came on a play he was still regretting another hour after it was over. He let Cobb get loose on third-and-13 with four minutes left and had to dive to tackle him. But it was that dive that saved the first down and set up the fourth-and-one fumble.
"It ended up being pretty good for us," Hall said. "I'm definitely going to learn from that, especially an elite quarterback like him. He'll see that. That's just easy for him.
"It was a soft spot in the zone. I was probably too deep on that play."
Jones said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's game plan was pretty basic. "Press. Press. Press," he said. "Ninety percent of the time we were in man."
Just like Hall was when he covered Cobb on a wheel route to the sideline early in the fourth quarter. It looked like Rodgers was throwing to him.
"I felt good about the ball, but Leon made a good play," Rodgers said.
Hall said he almost missed it.
"I was actually surprised by the ball being there," Hall said. "I turned a little late. A lot of times with guys like Cobb, he's so shifty and quick you want to make sure you keep your eyes on him at all times. You peek back, he's gone. So it was one of those deals I looked back late and it was just right there."
FEAST-FAMINE: The concept of a four-man rush may have won this game. Working against those two young tackles, the Bengals were able to cover Rodgers in the back end. The Packers had no such luck working against left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith and resorted to blitzing in the second half that resulted in giving up big plays. When the Packers lost their best pass rusher, Clay Matthews, to a hamstring injury late in the first half, it forced them to dial up the blitz.
Matthews had one of the four sacks, but that was set up by a corner blitz. Two of the sacks were by DBs and end Mike Daniels's sack was because of coverage.
Quarterback Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for a 20-yard touchdown pass when the Packers kept a safety in the middle of the field, blitzed middle linebacker Brad Jones and Green beat cornerback Sam Shields down the right sideline. Then on the next scoring drive the Packers blitzed Dalton on the last two plays, a 12-yarder to Green on the sidelines working on Shields and an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marvin Jones when he left cornerback Tramon Williams all by himself in the middle of the end zone running a corner route.
"What they got us on today a couple of times is seen on film the same thing you guys have seen," Whitworth said. "The first two weeks it's been tough for teams to get pressure on the quarterback rushing four guys. So they started bringing everybody they could. It's kind of feast or famine. It worked for them early and then late the one-on-one matchups we were able to win and that's what happens."
Whitworth says it's an example of Cincinnati's talent.
"Tell me where we're really weak. The last time I checked all the positions you want to be strong at we're pretty strong at," he said. "We're putting teams in situations—even today—Green Bay had a little feast or famine with us. They brought tons of pressure because that's the only way they could get to the quarterback. It helped them early, but late it cost them. You start having one-on-ones, your receivers win, or someone has a busted coverage, you're going for a long way."