The Bengals defense has played well enough to win the last two weeks by allowing just a total of 33 points and it's no coincidence because their front line is finally playing as well as it did it in the preseason. And they say that's no coincidence, either, because it's the healthiest stretch they've had all year.
Defensive line coach Nick Eason isn't using injuries as an excuse. But he admitted after Friday's practice he certainly likes rotating eight defensive linemen instead of six. They're not quite sure how the Jets plan to attack them Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium since they're ranked last against the run and Jets quarterback Sam Darnold has averaged 30 passes attempts in the three-game winning streak.
But they do know they're healthy upfront and they have to get to Darnold against an offensive line that has struggled with six combinations this season and is poised for a seventh on Sunday. At the half-way point the Jets were on pace for allowing the most sacks with the fewest rushing yards ever until they settled down.
The Bengals' defensive front hopes it has settled down, too, now that is allowing a competent 4.2 yards per rush as it tries to dig out from the first half of the season that has sentenced them to last in overall defense.
"At the beginning of the season my chest was swollen because of all the depth we had," Eason said. "I thought we had the strongest position on defense and one of the deepest rooms on the team. Suddenly, guys like (nose tackle) Josh Tupou and (end) Andrew Brown are playing 40-60 snaps. That's tough sledding. It's no excuse. These guys are doing a better job executing and getting off their blocks better. It's a mindset. And we're playing fewer snaps."
Regular rotational veterans who could play two spots, Kerry Wynn (end and tackle) and Ryan Glasgow (both tackles) played a combined seven games before going on season-ending injured reserve. Pass rusher Carl Lawson, coming off an ACL tear, missed four games with a hamstring tweak he aggravated. Left end Carlos Dunlap missed his first two games in seven years with a knee issue. It's been Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and right end Sam Hubbard, along with tackles Andrew Billings and Josh Tupou that have held the fort. And Hubbard hasn't missed a game fighting a bum ankle early that he's now almost over.
"We realize our situation. What our record is. It's bleep. It's not a good situation to be in," said Lawson of the incentive. "The NFL is Not for Long and when you're associated with a record like that, jobs are on the line. We realize that and we're healthier."
Lawson says it really didn't kick in for him until after the bye earlier this month and in the last two games he's got a sack, (his second of the year) and three quarterback hits while in the same two games Dunlap has 1.5 sacks, a pass defense that led to a red-zone pick, 12 tackles and two of them for loss.
"Carl's back. Carlos had an issue. We lost Glass, but my ankle is feeling better," Hubbard said. "We're playing the right amount of reps. We're fresher. "
Atkins has just 4.5 sacks, but Eason says he's played well and has had to play Atkins a little more than he wanted to because of the injuries. The one benefit of the injuries is that the young nose tackles, Tupou, Billings and fourth-rounder Renell Wren (who has played 20 percent of the snaps the last two weeks) have had to play and they've been quite solid, particularly the last few games against the run.
"Billings has been really good staying on his feet and Tupou has been tough to move, like we've said," Lawson said.
And the massive Wren is showing why the Bengals were calling him "Mt. Wren," on draft day.
"Wren is getting better. Things are slowing down for him," Eason said. "Early on he had to play some end and I think he was swimming a little bit, but he got back on track and has a promising career."
The Bengals don't doubt that while the Jets are 30th rushing the ball, they'll try to give running back Le'Veon Bell his first big day of the season even though they've had just two games they've rushed better than four yards per carry.
"We have to make sure that continues. (Bell) is one of the best backs in the NFL. I can't see them not trying to give him the ball. We know he's a great back," Hubbard said. "I think we're better understanding our (run) fits. But I really can't put my finger on (why the improvement). We're just getting better every week and we've got to be good this week because (of Bell)."
Bell has hit 70 yards rushing just once. But the man's a great back. How many guys can return to a building where he had 185 yards rushing and that's only the third best game of his career? Bell did it for the Steelers in a 2014 victory over the Bengals.
MARQUEE MATCHUP: One of Sunday's most important matchups pits Bengals running back Giovani Bernard against Jets safety Jamal Adams. Adams is the reigning terror in the NFL with 6.5 sacks in the last four games as he sets his sights on the NFL sack record for safeties, which is eight set in 2005 by Adrian Wilson of the Cardinals.
Bernard, the Bengals' third-down back, figures to see plenty of Adams on the blitz. The 6-1, 213-pound Adams' destruction of the Giants' 6-0, 233-pound Saquon Barkley a few weeks ago turned into Adams' sack-strip TD. At 5-9, 205 pounds, Bernard, pound for pound, just may be the toughest player on the Bengals roster. If you want proof, go back and look at one of Andy Dalton's TD passes to A.J. Green in the fourth quarter of a 2015 win in Baltimore and how Bernard kept the marauding Ravens backers at bay.
Bernard's philosophy is simple.
"I don't pay attention to size. Probably about 98 percent of the guys I go against are bigger than me," Bernard said after Friday's practice. "There's a schematic aspect to it. Understanding coverages, reading safeties, understanding how the front is associated with the blitz. But for me, I've always been the type of guy whatever I have to do to get the job done. I'll do it. Just get it done."
Which simply means:
"Put on your big boy pants," Bernard said. "Just pick up the guy no matter how big or small he is. Just do your job. The organization has an investment in the quarterback no matter who the quarterback is. You just want to protect your teammate. That's my job."
Yes, Bernard watches film on his future blitzers. But at the end of the day?
"Put on your big boy pants," Bernard said.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Guard Alex Redmond went on season-ending injured reserve Friday in a roster swap with cornerback Darius Phillips, much to the chagrin of offensive line coach Jim Turner. With left guard Billy Price (back) hurting, the Bengals had repped Redmond for his first NFL start at left guard. But on the last play of last Sunday's pre-game warmups he tore his bicep. That came after he missed the three previous games with a knee and ankle injury suffered in London. And his season began with a month-long NFL suspension.
"I think the world of Alex Redmond. Tough dealing with all those injuries. That one was the icing on the cake," Turner said. "He's resilient. He'll be back."
No, Turner said, in three decades of coaching he never had a player miss a gamer after getting hurt before the game.
"I had a guy sprain his ankle a little bit, but he was OK," Turner said. "Alex's injury was a major deal."
The forgotten guy was Price. He says he took eight snaps during the week of practice with left tackle Cordy Glenn and then suddenly he was in there against Cam Heyward bad back and all.
"He was solid," Turner said. "Billy sucked it up and was solid." …
Phillips, iced since the third week of the season with a knee issue, is back and head coach Zac Taylor said he'll be the fourth corner, which is the first cornerback off the bench. Taylor said Phillips could give wide receiver Alex Erickson a blow returning punts, but it would be hard to see Phillips giving kick returner Brandon Wilson a rest. Phillips had a kick retuned called back because of a hold in the game he got hurt in Buffalo, but since then Wilson has compiled a league-leading 32.4-yard average. The Bears' Cordarelle Patterson is in hot pursuit (30.4) after his 57-yard return for the Bears in Detroit Thanksgiving …
With two tight ends out, Cethan Carter (concussion) and Drew Sample (ankle), look for another move Saturday involving a tight end coming off the practice squad …
Linebacker Nick Vigil (ankle) practiced for the first time this week on Friday. He was listed as limited and questionable, but Taylor expects him to play …
Like last week, defensive tackle Geno Atkins practiced for the first time this week with a full Friday after two rest days and is ready for his 149th Bengals game, tying punter Pat McInally and two behind Chad Johnson …
On Sunday Kevin Huber punts in his 170th Bengals game, passing Lee Johnson for the most by a Bengals punter …