Updated: 11-13-07, 5 a.m.
New kids got off the blocks Sunday, such as rookie defensive backs Leon Hall, Chinedum Ndukwe and Marvin White as well as injury-plagued defensive linemen Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene.
But after the blanking the Ravens for 58 minutes in the 21-7 victory in Baltimore, it was veterans like Justin Smith and Dexter Jackson that felt there is some old-fashioned common sense taking charge of a defense hounded by instability and inconsistency.
"A lot new guys. Guys that weren't even in training camp and didn't even know the scheme and now they know it and we're starting to gel," said Jackson on Monday, a day of rest for the Bengals before this Sunday's match at home against Arizona.
That will be Smith's 105th game as the dean of the defense, and the guy who has seen it all. From playing on a top 10 defense as a rookie to a playoff scheme leading the NFL in turnovers to the current edition that dragged in to Baltimore virtually dead last in yards and scoring and came out with a near shutout and six turnovers.
"It's not always going to be like that; Baltimore did play pretty bad, but we'll take it," Smith said. "And they might have missed some passes, but we were where we were supposed to be. They weren't going to score touchdowns. Across the board, all 11 knew what they were doing. When you play like that, no one has to play like Superman."
No one puts it in simpler or better terms than Smith on why this defense finally strung together 60 minutes instead of a series here and a snap there.
"When we had a fire zone and we were slanting down inside, the backer came up and stacked outside like he's supposed to instead of some times stacking in behind us and (the runner) bounces outside.
"That's what's been killing us all year. But we finally did it. We were where we were supposed to be and trusted that the guy in front of us and behind us was going to do their job."
On Sunday the Bengals rolled out their fifth different starting linebacker combination and their fourth different starting middle linebacker in Landon Johnson. a guy who has double-digit starts in the spot. Smith doesn't know if that's a reason the Bengals stopped the bleeding in the running game and held a back to less than 100 yards for just the third time this season, but he has had this feeling.
The defense rode its stellar effort against the Ravens in the opener into Cleveland the next week and played well until the season changed in the second quarter of that 51-45 loss.
"It basically feels like the first week again. But we can't let the same thing happen. The blown coverages, the wrong fits," Smith said. "It's amazing how quickly you can go from dominating to crap."
After some struggles early, Jackson has been closer to dominating instead of that other thing the past couple of weeks. On Sunday he had a huge pass defensed in the end zone, a fumble recovery, and five tackles. His second-effort tip against tight end Todd Heap that turned into Hall's end-zone interception at the end of the half typified what hustle means to defense and Ndukwe felt his energy. "When Dexter Jackson comes down the alley laying wood .... " Ndukwe said.
"We're looking better. I think it's coming together," Jackson said. "The young guys are getting a lot of playing time and, you've got to understand, we've also got a lot of guys who weren't even here (in camp) at linebacker making calls. It's trial by error. But what better way to learn than by learning from their mistakes?"
Smith is hoping everyone learned from the Cleveland game how quickly it can get away. Even when the bombs start flying and big plays are completed, "guys can't start pressing," he said. "Guys can't start trying to do things they're not supposed to do. No matter what happens, they have to do their assignment."
Smith shook his head.
"It's really simple and easy," he said.
Tight end Reggie Kelly (knee) and defensive tackle John Thornton (neck), both of whom missed Sunday's win over Baltimore, are expected to return. While Lewis said that safety Herana-Daze Jones (knee) and linebacker Anthony Schlegel (back) have a chance to return, he classified right tackle Willie Anderson (knee) and middle linebacker Caleb Miller (back) as "longshots."
RUNNING WOES: The return of Kelly should help the running game, an area that has Lewis quite concerned. Sunday's 70-yard effort on 34 carries in Baltimore marked the fourth time this season the Bengals have rushed for less than three yards per carry. In the last two games, they are averaging a startling 1.9 with 98 yards on 51 carries.
"We got our butt kicked. They were more physical than we were at the point of attack, and you can take your pick at which guy and which time," Lewis said Monday. "I thought collectively, up front, we didn't play very well. We need to get that corrected and get that done better. A good thing was that we were able to make first downs, and the quarterback did a good job at not putting the ball in jeopardy. We took what they gave us, made plays, and were able to move the football. Obviously, we'd like to score touchdowns, which we didn't, but we were able to move the football effectively enough to get the points we needed."
Lewis also said running backs Rudi Johnson (averaging 2.6 on 93 carries) and Kenny Watson (4.4 on 98) have to do a better job of "staying on their tracks." Johnson, who admitted last week his hamstring problem has made him less than 100 percent, came into the season with a career average of 4.1. But dating back to the start of 2006 and his last 434 carries, he's at 3.6.
ROSTER MOVE: On Monday the Bengals released rookie free agent cornerback T.J. Wright (Ohio) from injured reserve. Wright had been waived injured on Sept. 1 with a foot injury, and when he was not claimed on waivers on Sept. 2 he reverted to IR for the completion of rehab.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
In Arizona word is that outside linebacker Bertrand Berry is feared lost for the year with a torn tricep. And Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson is extremely questionable after playing only a few snaps in the second half of Sunday's win over Detroit with a calf problem.
Three of the NFL's top seven receivers are on display Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium with Chad Johnson (852 yards) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (719) fourth and seventh, respectively, and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald fifth with 811. Houshmandzadeh leads the league by himself with 68 catches, Fitzgerald is fifth with 58 and Johnson is tied for 12th with 51.
Two of the league's best kickers also go at it, but it's much more than that. The careers of the Bengals' Shayne Graham and the Cards' Neil Rackers are forever intertwined. Rackers, Cincinnati's sixth-round draft pick in 2000, was set to take a major step in his career under new special teams coach Darrin Simmons in 2003 when he suffered a knee injury trying to recover a bad snap in the preseason finale. When the Bengals didn't want to gamble on Rackers making it through Opening Day or keeping two kickers, they made their best waiver wire pickup since Jeff Blake and plucked Graham off waivers while cutting Rackers.
The rest, as they say, is history, but it's living history. Graham and Rackers meet the week after Graham added yet another franchise record to his passel with seven field goals against the Ravens. He is the team's most accurate field-goal kicker of all-time with the two best accuracy seasons in club history during a run he has twice set the team's scoring record and become the franchise's first Pro Bowl kicker.
After Arizona picked up Rackers midway through the '03 season, he tied an NFL record in 2004 with three field goals of at least 50 yards in a game and then in '05 made the Pro Bowl with Graham when he set the NFL record with 40 field goals in a marvelous year he missed only twice.
Rackers took a lot of heat in Cincinnati when he struggled on the most miserable kicking surface in the league, Paul Brown Stadium's grass field. Since hitting 65.6 percent of his kicks for the Bengals from 2000-2002, he is at 81 percent for the Cards.
"I'm sure he'd like to come back here and do well," said Graham, who plans to have dinner with Rackers Friday night when the Cards arrive. "We've been friends before this."
At the 2002 game Graham tied the Carolina record for most extra points in a game in a 52-31 win in Charlotte over the Bengals, he got tickets for Rackers' mother.
"I'm sure people here have followed what he's done," Graham said. "Anybody who's in a fantasy league knows how good he's been."