Updated: 8:30 p.m.
With last year's NFL's leading rusher on the horizon this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, last month's NFL leading rush defense is trying to get back on track.
Heading into the Pittsburgh game at PBS on Nov. 13, the Bengals led the NFL in allowing 3.3 yards per rush. In the four games since, all in the AFC North, the Bengals have allowed 3.97, as well as total highs in the last two games with the Steelers putting 136 on them Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Until the first Steelers game, the Bengals were giving up an average of 84.5 yards per game on the ground and had allowed a total of 100 rush yards just once. In the last four games the fewest they've allowed is 105 and they're giving up an average of 120.
Now here comes Texans running back Arian Foster and the third-best rush attack in the league. The 6-1, 227-pound Foster is one those big backs the Bengals have had trouble tackling lately and he's tied for eighth in NFL rushing and is averaging 4.1 yards per rush.
"They've got a good scheme going on in Houston; they have all year," said defensive end Frostee Rucker. "It's a lot different than what we've been playing of late. They do a lot of zone scheme. We'll be up for the challenge. We've got to concentrate on first and second down to get to third down. We've got to eliminate the big plays on early downs."
The Steelers ran it 27 times on first and second downs for 101 yards on Sunday. One play went for 27, another for 15. After Sunday's game defensive tackle Domata Peko felt the Bengals defenders weren't staying in their gaps long enough and allowed the Steelers backs to bounce outside when they seemingly were stopped up the middle. Rucker suggested they need to play with some more patience.
"We just have to be consistent. Everybody understands the importance of it," Rucker said. "They're going to do what they do and we're going to have to do what we do. We stop the runs so we can rush the passer. We just give up too many runs on first and second down. We're better than that. We just have to go out there and prove it."
No question the Bengals run defense missed cornerbacks Leon Hall and Nate Clements on Sunday. Hall, a force on the corner as a tackler, suffered a season-ending torn Achilles against the Steelers on Nov. 13, while Clements, another sure tackler, sat out this Steelers game with a hamstring injury.
Plus, safety Chris Crocker (bicep) was limited during the week, but played in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, whose injured ankle wiped out the three games before he returned against the Steelers Nov. 13, looks at times as if he's still getting his feet under him. The Bengals also were missing one of their top run defenders in Pittsburgh, tackle Pat Sims (ankle), and their best pass rusher, left end Carlos Dunlap, in three of the last four games.
"It's late in the season. It's like that all across the league," Rucker said. "We just have to play better."
Head coach Marvin Lewis gave no clues on his injured players Monday, but he indicated Clements isn't a long-term case because he said the club isn't going to add a cornerback.
SHUTDOWN: Andrew Hawkins's one catch for eight yards was the only reception by a wide receiver other than the six for 87 yards by A.J. Green. Which meant No. 2 Jerome Simpson and slot receiver Andre Caldwell got blanked. For Simpson, he didn't have a catch in either Steelers game.
Caldwell said Monday that Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau caught the Bengals by surprise with looks they hadn't seen from Pittsburgh all year.
"They pulled some tricks out of the bag and they surprised us," Caldwell said. "They did a lot of stunting up front. They'd fake blitz and drop him back and it confused us a little bit and they got pressure. We just didn't click on the routes. There was pressure, miscommunication (but) it wasn't that they just played good coverage and shut me and Simpson out. We were open; (quarterback Andy Dalton) just couldn't get us the ball sometimes (because of the pressure)."
Caldwell said Lewis is responding kinder and gentler this week rather than lambasting his club.
"We all know what happened," Caldwell said of Sunday's rout.
So Lewis pumped up Caldwell and Simpson publicly.
"The quarterback has to work the ball based on coverage. I thought the good thing for those two guys, and I made note of that this morning (in team meetings), was that I thought they played hard," Lewis said. "They didn't get frustrated, they kept running, and on a lot of those balls that A.J. caught, they did a nice job of doing what they needed to do. Jermaine (Gresham) had a couple of nice catches, too. They did a nice job of being where they needed to be to allow those things to happen. That's part of playing football.
"Particularly at that position, you have to keep doing it until you get your chance and your opportunity. I thought that was a step in the right direction yesterday, particularly for Jerome. I thought he played very hard. Mentally, he did a much better job than some weeks he's had. He really kept some things alive for us, which was good. We got flushed out of (the pocket) a couple of times late in the second quarter, and in the third quarter it would have prevented some of those things, too. But the main thing is those guys kept playing hard."
FAST FORWARD: Mike Nugent may have been slow to the ball Sunday in Pittsburgh, but he quickly took the blame Monday for his blocked 33-yard field goal on the Bengals' first drive in the 35-7 loss.
After watching the tape, Nugent calculated he was about 12/100ths of a second slow to the ball and he thinks that contributed to defensive end Cameron Heyward coming up the middle for the block. The coaches seemed to think that the protection breakdown was as much, if not more, a factor, but Nugent said he's got to pick up the pace.
"When I say I need to be faster, I mean I need to get back to my normal time," said Nugent, who had been virtually flawless in a 21-for-22 season before Sunday. "I was unusually slow. Without a doubt it was my slowest kick of the year."
But we're not talking a good second or anything like that. Nugent says the normal time from the snap to the kick is 1.3 seconds, but he said he was in the high 1.3s.
"Too slow," he said.
But the play before was less definitive when his 28-yarder was waved off because of a delay-of-game penalty.
"It was late. I can admit it. But it was so fast how late it was," Nugent said. "I guess I need to pick up the pace a little bit."
But Nugent reiterated what he said after the game. He had no idea the offense was that close to zero on the play clock because there was nothing out of the ordinary after the coaches immediately gave the signal for the field-goal team to take the field with nobody running on late. He says sometimes there is an issue when he waits for the officials to spot the ball with a K-ball off the sidelines, but he said the swap and spot were normal.
The kick was just late.
Nugent did retain his sense of humor, noting that he and Heyward are Ohio State alums.
"Find his number, give him a call, ask him what he was thinking," Nugent said in mock anger. "But he made a good play." HANGING WITH TATE:Lewis says he's sticking with embattled returner Brandon Tate. He fumbled a kickoff Sunday and in the last four games is averaging 7.7 yards per punt return. But Lewis said the fumble came on a kick return that was well blocked and ready to be broken.
"Brandon has just got to secure the football. He had a lane, and he thought he was about to go score a touchdown," Lewis said. "The guy that's blocked just reaches in and gets a hand on him and the ball comes loose. It's an unfortunate play. He's got to keep the ball a little higher and tighter. We had the thing blocked perfectly. I think he just got so doggone excited. The guy just reaches off the block like that (extends arm), gets a hand in on him, hits the ball and it comes loose. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel from where we are with him. He's made good cuts and good runs, and I think that's important. But you do have to secure the football back there."
DALTON NUMBERS: Like Carson Palmer in 2004, Dalton's first two games against the Steelers were rough. Both went 0-2. Palmer was 33-of-62 for 329 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions for a 64.5 passer rating. Dalton was 26-of-54 for 305 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions for 68.8.
TEX STUFF: Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said Monday his club feels lucky that Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson injured his other hamstring and only mildly, but he was hesitant to say if he'll play Sunday. But as all NFL head coaches, he raved about the upcoming foe in his Monday news conference.
"They're very impressive. I think their defense is fifth or sixth in the league," Kubiak said of the sixth-ranked Bengals. "They've been exceptional all year long. The young quarterback is a heck of a player. It is a tough place to play. It's very loud. I think they've been through a stretch, correct me if I'm wrong, where I think they went Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Pittsburgh or something like that. Anybody would have a tough time with that stretch but they're right in the middle of a playoff race. They are a playoff football team as of right now. It will be a lot like what we just played in yesterday (a 17-10 win over Atlanta). We'll have to do it on the road."