Before the Bengals moved on to Sunday's assignment (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) against the Packers at Paul Brown Stadium, Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga took one final look Wednesday at the 20-10 victory over Pittsburgh that kicked off the two-game homestand.
While the offense racked up its most rushing yards against the Steelers in nine years (127), the defense chiseled out a 14-year low by limiting Pittsburgh to 44 on the ground in a sign the trench warfare could be shifting in the AFC North.
Maualuga called it "closure." In the four previous games at PBS he saw the Steelers run for at least 100 yards, topped off by last season's kick-in-the-gut 167.
"Based on we haven't been doing so good in the run-stopping and giving away some big plays," Maualuga said of the closure. "So from our previous time playing against them, that's what we wanted to do, to make sure we were in our gaps and know our assignments and not give them any room to breathe and give them momentum to go down and put points on the board. So by us holding them and doing a good job at that, it helped us at the back end."
But, that was quick. The Packers are bringing the NFL's No. 1 offense to town against a reeling defense trying to cope with three cornerbacks on the shelf and one of its key players in the esteemed defensive line rotation gone for the year when left end Robert Geathers (elbow) went on injured reserve.
So stopping the run might be a good place to start. While Aaron Rodgers tied a franchise record with 480 yards passing last week against Washington, running back James Starks registered the club's first 100-yard rushing day in more than 50 games with 132 yards on 20 carries.
"We were pretty physical in the running game (Monday night)," said Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "So if we can continue that and keep making teams one-dimensional, that helps."
That will be an absolute must because the Packers are fast, efficient and good out of their no-huddle, three-receiver set. There's not going to be a lot of time for the Bengals to sub in their various nickel packages.
That's what happened Monday night when the Steelers went into a lot of hurry-up spread stuff that prevented Zimmer from getting some of his packages onto the field. It's a reason SAM linebacker James Harrison played just 14 snaps.
And it's also a reason Maualuga played 67 percent of the snaps even though the Bengals have been trying to lessen his plays in nickel. He felt like he came out of the game OK with a solid grade from linebackers coach Paul Guenther.
"(It is) 84 percent with 12 tackles," Maualuga said as he looked at his grade sheet. "I don't know where the 84 came from. I think it was pretty solid. I think there weren't any mental errors in this game. Coach Paulie was probably ... 90 sounds too good. I don't want his head to get too big.' I'll take that. As long as I improve every week I'll be fine. All there is now is to get better. To go up. Take it step by step. Next week it might be 85, 86. I'll take that. Who knows how he thinks of 84; 84 ain't bad."
Maualuga is right where he should be when it comes to tackles: second on the team with 21, behind WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict's 25. Despite a horrific personal foul at the end of the opener that prevented the Bengals from getting one last chance to score in a three-point game, Maualuga looks to be on the coaches' good side for the most part.
One of the things they're telling him is not to believe everything he reads.
"Obviously everyone is going to have their input on who they felt lost the game for the team. I don't care. Say whatever you want to say," Maualuga said. "If I come to work and my coach says I did a good job, or I played a good game, or you made a bad decision at the end of the game, I'll take that. If he says, hey I need to get better, I missed too many tackles, this or that, hey, you have to learn from that and improve on that."
It's not exactly Maualuga's kind of game with Rodgers spreading the receivers out in interchangeable formations and Zimmer probably looking at his more versatile players. But the Bengals know they can't let the running game get off or else there is no shot and that's where Maualuga comes in.
"Last week they didn't expect Starks to play a whole lot, but due to injury to (Eddie) Lacy he came out and had a great game with (132) yards rushing," Maualuga said. "Who knows? If we stop the run, they can hurt us with the pass. If we stop the pass, they can hurt us with the run. We've just got to make sure to be on our game and execute every single play."
Maualuga feels like the Bengals have adjusted well to the season-long loss of their best cover linebacker, Emmanuel Lamur. Depending on the package, Maualuga and safety Taylor Mays look to be taking the spot.
"Everyone was synched to their position; everyone knows what they're doing," Maualuga said. "We gave up a big play at the end of the first half (43-yard pass to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) and a couple of plays down the middle. I think that was the longest play we gave up. Other than that, from what I've seen, we're improved in certain areas. We did take steps from the first game.
"It obviously hurt seeing E go down, so we had to put people in situations where we could even our the reps and who would better fit certain packages, bringing Taylor in and things like that. I felt good with the packages I was put in and how I know I could play those roles. Taylor is doing a good job whenever his number is called. So I think overall this group is growing and getting much better."
The backers better be straightened out because of the trauma in the front and back end. With Adam Jones (abdomen), Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring) and Brandon Ghee (concussion) questionable right now, the Bengals signed 2011 Eagles third-rounder Curtis Marsh and it looks like he'll have to be up.
Zimmer isn't concerned about it. One of his best players in the 2010 Thanksgiving Night loss in Jersey was Jonathan Wade, a cornerback who arrived Monday and never had a normal practice before suiting up.
But the loss of Geathers, the backup left end, is tough from a leadership standpoint. He played eight snaps before he got hurt Monday night and after he played 14 snaps in the opener. Wallace Gilberry and tackle Devon Still may take those snaps because it sounded like Zimmer isn't ready to immerse Hunt in a lot of work as the second-round project from SMU continues to develop, although Zimmer did say Hunt's redshirt year may be over.
"He's still got a ways to go. It's hard to continue to focus on him when we're focusing on other teams a little more; he'll be fine," Zimmer said.
But he didn't rule out Harrison getting some snaps at end. Harrison played a similar position as an outside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 defense for a decade and Zimmer agreed with the notion that he'd like to get Harrison on the field in some manner. And pass rushing was his specialty in his prime.
"I don't know; we'll see," Zimmer said.
At least going into this one, Maualuga is no longer stacking himself up with his fellow USC linebacker, Clay Matthews, the fresh new face of the Packers defense. A glamorous outside backer, Matthews just signed a huge extension after being in the top five in sacks two of the last three years. Brian Cushing, the other backer with Maualuga at USC, is holding down the Texans pass rush with end J.J. Watt.
"I'm just concentrating on me," Maualuga said. "I don't know if there was a time frame. Obviously every year when you see their success, I'm obviously thinking about it and I'm like damn, could've, should've would've. One day I'll be on that sort of level that they're on.
"It doesn't drive me. Now I'm just focused on me. I'm just focused on what I need to do to get better and who this Rey Maualuga player needs to be. Only I can control that."