Sack watch spices D-line play

Robert Geathers

You have to be careful when you talk about sacks. Especially when you're talking about the Bengals "Uso Defense" built on chemistry instead of gadgets, fads and big names. They call themselves "The Brotherhood," and Uso is Samoan for brother or friend, and there is no room for much else.

Coaches like Bengals head man Marvin Lewis and defensive line boss Jay Hayes bristle a bit because it is that kind of stat, like 300-yard passing games, that doesn't translate into victories and because defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's scheme is built on selfless discipline.

Plus, even though the Bengals lead the NFL and are on pace to shatter their 11-year-old team sacks record by 16 with 64 heading into Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-ESPN 1530 AM), they are wary of a Dolphins offensive line they think is the best they've faced this season.

And Hayes is fond of pointing out that last year's co-sacks leaders, Minnesota and Philadelphia with 50 each, didn't make the playoffs.

But talk of sacks drives players like Cincinnati's top two, tackle Geno Atkins (five) and right end Michael Johnson (four), as well as rambunctious left end Carlos Dunlap, 15 sacks in his last 22 games. It was 16 in the last 22, but apparently Dunlap's stop-and-strip of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III two weeks ago has now been ruled by the eyes of Elias that it came on a run.

A lost sack still puts the Bengals in a first-place tie with Arizona with 16 and sharpens the already competitive edge that has been glinting in the D-line room ever since the kids came on board a few years ago.

"I'm tied with (Domata) Peko now," says Dunlap, who now has one this season with the lost sack. "We're all chasing Geno."

Peko, who does his work primarily on first and second down stopping the run, got his last week on the first snap in Jacksonville. They'll take it, but that's not the plan.

"Peko and I work on getting the run stopped," says left end Robert Geathers, "and we let the young guys get after them."

Geathers, 29, and in his ninth season, and Peko, 27 and in his seventh, are the guys the team rallies around. But that doesn't mean the kids let them off easy in the D-line room. In no uncertain terms they've told Geathers they're gunning for his 10.5 sacks from 2006, the only double-digit sack season the club has had in the last 19 seasons.

In fact, Geathers is encouraging it in a room that thrives on each other. The Bengals haven't had double-digit sackers on the same team since linebacker Reggie Williams had 11 and defensive end Eddie Edwards had 10 for the 1981 AFC champs.

"You're right. We should have three (double-digit sackers)," Geathers says. "As long as we're doing what we should be doing and still winning games. The whole thing works as a group. The line is coordinated, the DBs are covering …

"We work well as a group," Geathers says of a defensive line where he has done it all. "We've got some athletic guys that really get after it. Some guys don't even get there with their best rush because we're rushing a group."

You have to be careful when you're talking about sacks. Johnson had a career-high three in Washington two weeks ago and then didn't show up on the stat sheet in Jacksonville the next week. Nothing. Not even an assisted tackle, although he got one of those when Hayes reviewed the tape.

But that's also when Hayes also discovered that Johnson's rushes led to half of the team's six sacks against the Jaguars, the first time since 2001 the Bengals had at least six in back-to-back games.

"I'm sure Mike had some pressures," Geathers says. "That's why Geno got his sacks because (Johnson) was keeping the quarterback in the pocket. Some guys rush up the middle and the quarterback runs around the end. He can't do that if we're rushing collectively as a group. Even though Mike didn't put up numbers he's still holding up his end."

But you don't have to be careful talking about sacks with these guys. The D-linemen talk to Geathers about everything else and so his 10.5 is the number they all want.

"There's a lot of competitiveness in that room," Geathers says.

"Rob has helped me out with everything," Dunlap says. "He's seen everything, he's done everything. When I got here he was already in his seventh year and he'd been to the playoffs, got a big contract, had a lot of different (roles). The thing he's helped me with is stopping the run. I feel like I'm a natural pass rusher, but he's helped me with little things about playing the run."

The Dolphins may have a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, but the Bengals notice that he doesn't play like a rookie since he's playing in his college system with his college coach, Mike Sherman of Texas A&M, and they think he sees more than the average rookie from the pocket.

"He's very accurate," Peko said. "When you get pressure in these good quarterback's faces, good things will happen for the defense."

But it won't be easy. Johnson duels four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long and Dunlap, fighting a groin issue that limited him in practice this week, goes against second-round pick Jonathan Martin of Stanford. The Dolphins have kept Tannehill upright (14th in allowing sacks per pass) with their pressure problems coming from picking up the blitz.

"Keep chopping wood," Peko says. "Working our hands. Working technique. If you can keep offensive linemen's hands off you, you can get to the quarterback."

In true "Uso Defense" hardscrabble tradition, the Bengals pass rush isn't a complex array of stunts and picks and rolls and screens.

"We throw in a couple of games to keep offensive lines honest, but it's all about beating the guy in front of you," Peko says. "If you get one-on-one, we count on you beating your guy."

During the week someone passed along to Peko cornerback Terence Newman's quote about how hard and ferocious the defensive line plays and his advice to keep small children away.

"That's cool. I appreciate that," Peko says. "We're just a bunch of hard workers. We don't have an Ed Reed or a Ray Lewis, or big-name guys. We've got a bunch of no-name guys working hard."

Nothing like sacks, though, to turn no names into big names. Geathers thinks at some point this season he's got a chance to be handing off his double-digit crown.

"It will be interesting to see," he says, "who gets there first."

How about this? The Bengals lead the league in sacks and their best pass rusher, Dunlap, has one.

"Maybe we should get a belt," Dunlap says of a possible award for the top sacker. "A WWF belt."

It's OK. You don't have to be careful talking sacks with these guys.

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