It is shaping up to be their best defense in a decade as the Bengals stack numbers not seen in these parts since Mike Zimmer led them to four top 10 finishes in the five seasons from 2009-13.
That crew went to the playoffs four times and won the AFC North twice and after seven games these guys are in similar company. They've allowed just 128 points, the third best seven-game start for a Bengals defense in this century behind only the 2005 AFC North champs (111), the 2011 Wild Card Bengals (123) and tied with 2009 AFC North champs.
But defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's group did what those Bengals didn't have a chance to do last Sunday in Baltimore when they mystified Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson to barge into a tie for first place in the AFC North. After the 41-17 victory in Baltimore, the defense ranked tenth after the Monday night game and fifth in points allowed.
They also left a template for everybody else to stop what had been the NFL's fourth best offense.
"Coach Lou put together a great game plan and also as well as the rest of the coaching staff on the defensive end. It was definitely different for us," reflected cornerback Chidobe Awuzie on Monday. "There were a lot of questionable faces around on the defense. Playing Lamar you have to change things up. You have to do a different type of defense so it was a game plan that throughout the week we got more comfortable with and by the time the game hit all the questions had been answered. I think it was a result of guys really buying into the game plan and getting real comfortable with the things we had to do."
No one wanted to divulge exactly what held Jackson under 20 points for just the fourth time in his 44 starts. Suffice to say Anarumo added some new wrinkles against the Ravens (more blitzes on every third down to force him to get it out quickly) and kept some (flooding the field with three linebackers), but the biggest difference he'll tell you is how much better the execution clicked.
"I would just say there were more eyes on Lamar and we played a little more zoning off concepts based on offensive routes they like to run," Awuzie said. "That also allowed us to have more eyes on Lamar."
The development of speedy second-year linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, who played his second most snaps of the year Sunday with 39, allowed them to play Jackson with three backers rather than the safeties, although they did some of that, too, with Ricardo Allen playing 15 snaps, but that was seven fewer than last week. Davis-Gaither ended up with five tackles, defensed one of Jackson's many incompletions in a sub 50-percent completion day. And he yanked the ball for a forced fumble that the Ravens recovered.
The reason the Bengals drafted him at the top of the fourth round of the 2020 draft was as clear as why their coaches anointed him the captain of the South defense three months before with that 4.5ish 40-yard dash speed.
"It's huge. It's very huge. Akeem had an elevated role in our game plan this week," Awuzie said. "It's a credit to his athleticism. When he was in there you saw him making plays all around the ball, all around the line of scrimmage and in the passing game. He was able to rip the ball out from the tight end. I definitely think it was just a great job by Coach Lou and the rest of the defensive staff putting us in positions to make plays. They players at the end of the day obviously have to go out there and play so credit those guys in the linebacking corps."
But in the end, a lot of it fell to the edge players and they responded. On the left side, Sam Hubbard had his best game in his four seasons as Bengal with 2.5 sacks. On the right side, Trey Hendrickson continued his pursuit of the Bengals sack record with one that gives him 6.6 already.
Yet it won't show up in the stats (Hubbard had five tackles, Hendrickson one), but it was what they didn't let Jackson do as opposed to what they did.
"Sometimes you have to sacrifice your individual (stats)," Anarumo said. "Hey, I can go get a sack here, but you leave the B gap wide open if I go too far afield. We have unselfish guys who want to do what's best for the team."
While Hubbard, Hendrickson and rookie Cam Sample (32 snaps) patiently hemmed Jackson in the pocket, tackles Larry Ogunjobi (44 snaps), D.J. Reader (32 ), Josh Tupou (35) and B.J. Hill (34) pushed enough to make Jackson unable to move up into the pocket. Plus, Anarumo seemed to make sure at least one of the backers was responsible solely for Jackson.
"Those guys up front were impressive all day. We had a great plan by the D-line guys," Anarumo said. "The thing that impressed me is our guys made it a hard pocket for him to throw in a lot. There were a couple of play-actions they were blocking him up with six and seven guys. But the majority of the time there tough pockets for him to throw in. That's hard for any quarterback."
EDGY DUF: The night before the game head coach Zac Taylor fittingly turned to the only defensive coordinator who led the Bengals to a top 10 finish in the 20 years between the 1989 team that couldn't repeat the AFC championship and the 2009 North sweep.
Popular senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner, known for his hair-on-fire energy ("hair on fire," is a favorite Duffism), got the nod to talk to the team. He didn't want to reveal what he said, but rest assured it was from the heart and no doubt did the job of helping them get in the mood.
Taylor said he had Duffner address the team before the game once two years ago and he again "hit it out of the park," and he wonders if he should have Duffner do it every week now after last Sunday's result.
"I get to hear Coach Duf every day," Hubbard said. "But it was fantastic where he could get in front of the entire team and they get to experience how he inspires us in the meeting room every day. You can tell he was a head coach the way he addressed the team, it was a really good speech. He's got a million catch phrases. They're gold. I can't just give you one. If you just say them, they're out of context. They're not as good."
Dad-gum it, he absolutely no question reminded them about assignment and alignment.
Duffner, a New England coaching legend after losing just five games in six seasons as the head coach at Holy Cross before moving on to Maryland and then the NFL, steered the '01 Bengals to No. 9 in the rankings. He was the mastermind of that season's 21-10 upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens.
Duffner is in his third season after his return under Taylor and had a key role in last week's prep assisting defensive line coach Marion Hobby. Hobby runs the group and coordinates the play time and packages while Duffner helps out in a niche role when the ends convert to outside linebackers. On Sunday he watched Hendrickson, Hubbard and Cam Sample get after it on the edge.
"(Sample) doesn't really play like a rookie. It's not too big for him," Duffner said. "Those two guys (Hubbard and Hendrickson) are relentless. They've got great motors. I don't work with them, but, I'll tell you, those inside guys, D.J., Larry, B.J., they played their (butts) off."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Speaking of Saturday night talks, look for Anarumo to show his defense film clips of Hall-of-Fame safety Ronnie Lott Saturday in New Jersey before they play the Jets. And a great cornerback to be named in his weekly 10-minute pregame speech.
On this three-game road trip, Anarumo is taking each level of the defense and showing his players clips of the guys that "paved the way for them to play the way they play." Because Lawrence Taylor was his favorite player growing up on Staten Island, Anarumo gave Taylor the whole night two weeks ago. Last Saturday night it was two more Hall-of-Famers for their passion and intensity on every play, defensive end Reggie White and linebacker Mike Singletary.
Now there's Lott and a cornerback to be named. He also shows them past Bengals greats, so there could be a clip or two from cornerback Ken Riley's 65 career interceptions, fifth most all-time.
- The AFC stats look like the Bengals draft room envisioned it. Quarterback Joe Burrow is the leading passer and Ja'Marr Chase is the leading receiver. With 754 yards, Chase trails only the Rams' Cooper Kupp in the NFL by 55 yards.
- Burrow has the fifth best passer rating in the NFL (108.9) and is second with 9.23 yards per pass. Only Seattle's Russell Wilson, who has missed the last few games, has more. Burrow's 17 touchdown passes are tied for fourth with Arizona's Kyler Murray and his 68.9 completion percentage is ninth.
- Running back Joe Mixon is third in rushing with 539 yards, 330 yards behind rampaging leader Derrick Henry of Tennessee, but he remains on a 1,300-yard pace …
- Hendrickson is tied for fourth with 6.5 sacks, three behind leader Myles Garrett.
- With Mike White assumed to be the starter for the Jets in Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), the Bengals look to break their three-game losing against quarterbacks making their first starts. Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Tom Savage have got them in the last five years.
- According to Elias, they're 3-6 in this century against quarterbacks making their first starts with wins over Johnny Manziel, Brock Berlin and Jimmy Clausen. They also took losses against Drew Brees and Joe Flacco in the 2002 and 2008 Opening Day games, respectively. Flacco, 9-11 against Cincy, got traded to the Jets from the Eagles Monday but while he could finish it doesn't figure he'll start.