On a mismatched night of depth charts, the one thing that stood out in the stew of uniform numbers Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium is how well the Bengals defensive regulars are stopping the run heading into the Sept. 11 regular-season opener in Cleveland.
For the third straight game they were downright stout even though the Bengals lost, 17-13. Celebrating the season debut of run specialist Pat Sims at tackle, the Bengals No. 1s stoned the Colts for minus-two yards on three carries in the first two series and by the time the rest of them got done in five series against the No. 1 Colts offensive line, it was minus-five yards on five carries.
Of course, the Colts are notorious for not being able to run the ball and without Peyton Manning they look 4-12ish. But in the last three games the Bengals starting front seven has held running backs to 50 yards on 27 carries in carrying out the leather-lunged memos of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
According to the NFL.com stats Friday morning, the Bengals are currently tied for 10th in the NFL vs. the run and only the Falcons and the Jets gave up fewer yards per carry than their 3.3 in four games. And they were tied with the Giants and Jaguars.
"Coach Zim has emphasized stopping the run with seven men and not having to do all that other stuff," said right end Michael Johnson, whose 6-7 wingspan looks like it's going to take off in his third season. He stressed that at camp and we take pride in that."
The front seven did its damage even as Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis sat down his starting secondary so he could look at the kids. Colts head coach Jim Caldwell curiously matched new quarterback Kerry Collins with backup skill players and the No. 1 offensive line.
It turned out the line was no match for Sims, just back to practice a few days ago after missing all of training camp. The fourth-year vet was credited with one tackle for loss, but it could have been at least two as he mauled Jeff Saturday, the estimable Colts center, among others.
"The way I play football, I don't care who the name is," Sims said. "I just go out there if it's Saturday, Sunday, Monday, or whatever it is. It's the same way."
Sims had arthroscopic knee surgery in January, but the lockout prevented him from a good enough rehab that would have had him ready for training camp. Now he says he's about ready for the opener.
"It's good to be back just playing ball. I've got a few things to do, but I'm on the right track," Sims said, "It's been a minute since I played football like that, so I've got to get used to it. I got winded quickly, but I caught my wind. I played a decent amount, but I didn't have a problem with it. I'll be where I need to be come Cleveland."
Johnson was exhorting Sims along in the huddle with, "What are y'all dong to them?" And why not? The pressure up the middle, as it has all preseason, helped Johnson get around the edge and on Thursday night he tortured Colts rookie left tackle Anthony Castonzo. It was a matchup from their college days, when Georgia Tech's Johnson played Boston College's Castonzo his sophomore season.
"He was good in college and he'll be good here," said Johnson, but he wasn't Thursday thanks to him. "The guys inside did a great job pushing so the quarterback can step up. When they do that, I can do my job. Especially singled up. When I'm singled up, I've got to win."
On the first series, Johnson blew up Indy's red zone bid when he came around the outside on second down and hit Collins' arm for an incompletion.
On the second series, he again blew by Castonzo and as if he was playing pickup basketball, and Johnson reached his arm in on Collins and knocked the ball away. Left end Frostee Rucker recovered at the Colts 46 for the first Bengals defensive turnover of the season and it resulted in the Bengals' first score of the night, a 25-yard Mike Nugent field goal that tied it at three.
On the third series, Johnson was getting ready for Cleveland. But it looked like he already is. In a handful of snaps he had the forced fumble, two tackles, and one for a loss.
"This is going to be a big year for us," said Johnson of the defensive line. "I'm looking forward to being part of the group. We finished the end of last season on a roll and that's how we want to start. Zim has been stressing getting off the ball quick and the hands. If we can start how we finished, we'll be OK."
Johnson has been more than OK because he's been tough to block. When healthy and in shape, Sims has always been more than OK against the run. If he wants to be one of the young players heading into the last year of their deals that gets a look-see before the end of the season, all he has to do is play like that consistently.
"Our defense has been playing well," Sims said. "With me being an addition, we're going to keep trying to push and get better. My thing is stopping the run. I'm almost there."
The Bengals would like to think they're not going to get beat in a game they allow two yards per rush, hold the ball for more than 36 minutes, and run nearly 80 snaps. Certainly starting tackle Domata Peko, who only played two series but also got a big red-zone stop, likes the formula.
"Coach Zimmer has really stressed stopping the run and it's not been just the line, but the DBs and linebackers," Peko said. "That's encouraging because of the division we're in."