A healthy Geno Atkins, as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger discovered back on Nov. 1, has helped spur Carlos Dunlap's sack run and a friendly rivalry.
Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap has been telling us ever since the spring his goal is to break Michael Strahan's NFL record of 22.5 sacks. The goal is the easy part. Now that he's a sack away from the NFL lead with 8.5 at the halfway point, the Bengals' record is even more intriguing than the mark Strahan set in 2001.
Making it even more interesting is that Dunlap begins his second-half push Monday at Paul Brown Stadium against Houston (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and ESPN) and the man he's tied with for second place, defensive tackle J.J. Watt.
"He's a great player and he works hard and he has an unbelievable motor," Dunlap said Monday. "That's pretty huge to be competing and in the same boat with that guy. I just want to continue to be better and outdo him. That's the goal. To do more than he does. To be that elite guy, you have to outplay elite guys."
After sifting through the mountain of numbers two decades ago, assistant public relations director P.J. Combs, the meticulous gatekeeper of the Bengals record book, discovered that defensive end Coy Bacon rung up 22 sacks in 1976. The NFL didn't recognize the sack stat until 1982.
And if you had asked Bacon after Strahan set the record in the first week of 2002, he would have told you Bengals president Mike Brown paid him for even more than that.
"They gave me $1,500 for each sack and the Bengals paid me for 26," Bacon told Bengals.com several years before he died at the age of 66.
"If Carlos gets the Bengals record, he'll have to get 22.5," said Combs Monday from his Paul Brown Stadium perch. "According to Elias, he'll need 13.5."
Left end Eddie Edwards collected 13 in '83 and it withstood Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins' furious run to that mark in 2012 when he had a career-high 12.5. With Atkins leading all defensive tackles with six, he's in that race, too.
Which is just fine with the ever agreeable Dunlap, one off the NFL pace set by New England's Chandler Jones with 9.5.
"That's why I want to focus on the league one and I feel like those milestones along the way will come with it," Dunlap said. "That's why I try to focus on the big one. That way you can catch all those milestones along the way. Don't get me wrong. I've looked (Bacon's record) up as well."
Dunlap gets it. He may have been in junior high when Strahan broke the record, but he has heard how that last half-sack was controversial. How Packers quarterback Brett Favre may have gone down a little early to give him a little help. Bacon, for one, was hot about it and called it "pitiful."
But Dunlap would have given it to him.
"He worked hard and he deserved it. There are probably a couple of half a sacks or sacks out there that he didn't get credit for," Dunlap said. "Especially nowadays, they come back and take sacks from you all the time. It's about three of them right now that I could have this year. And there was one they gave it a team sack, but it was only one person on the guy. The rule nowadays are different. The rules back then were different, too."
As early as when the Bengals drafted Dunlap in the second round out of Florida in 2010 he says he checked the club records. And he knows something about hot second halves of seasons. He set the Bengals rookie record with 9.5 in the last eight games of 2010.
Cincinnati Bengals host Cleveland Browns in week 9 of the regular season.
It's taken him five more years to threaten his career high and he's told us ever since the season began why. How he worked on his get-off during his revamped off-season regimen. How the return of a healthy Atkins has helped him with the best inside rush in the game. How another Michael Johnson stint opposite him at right end has helped him find more space, as well as the relentless play of the sly veteran Wallace Gilberry.
On Monday he not only talked about how his own preparation has helped, but also how the rest of his team's mindset has helped him. He gets to see how the cornerbacks do it, led by veterans Adam Jones and Leon Hall.
"The preparation of our whole team is why we're playing so well and succeeding," Dunlap said. "I notice it with Andy (Dalton). I notice it with Adam. I notice it with Me. Mike Johnson has always been good with preparation. Vinny Rey has always been good with it. Now we've got the whole locker room preparing the same way. That's why we're in tune.
"When you've got that camaraderie we have and everybody is preparing the same way and everybody is prepared, you don't have that one guy just talking to you. What he thinks or what he expects. You know what you're going to get because you're just as prepared so you can talk it out. That makes it better for everybody. In certain situations with the rush, I know where Geno is going to be and I kind of have an idea what we're going to get in that situation. That makes everything a lot quicker."
Combs pick-axed his way through every play-by-play sheet to put together the stats and found out that Bacon had eight sacks on a play someone else had a sack. Under the old rules, each player got a sack. Combs updated the numbers according to the modern rules of half-sacks, which gave Bacon 22 instead of 26.
Back in 2002, Bengals president Mike Brown didn't dispute Bacon's claim that they paid him for 26. Bengals founder Paul Brown detested the idea of incentives, but Mike Brown believes the Bengals inherited Bacon's contract from San Diego in the trade with the Chargers.
The Bengals traded future Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Charlie Joiner to San Diego after the 1975 season to get Bacon. Even though the Bengals went a franchise-best 11-3, they did it with just 27 sacks and Paul Brown felt he had plenty of depth at receiver (Pro Bowler Isaac Curtis along with Chip Myers and the drafting of Billy Brooks No. 1) and needed a pass rush. The troubled Bacon gave it to them for two years before moving on.
"Deacon Jones didn't have any official sacks, either, but we know what kind of rusher he was," Dunlap said.
But Dunlap has also stressed in the midst of all this record talk that he wants to do it in the scheme of the team.
"I'm winning that. But it's not alone, though," Dunlap said of the sack race. "Mike and Gil have thrown me a couple of lobs you could say. A couple of pretty good passes. And then Geno pushing that pocket goes to contribute to me. And then me, Mike and all that squeezing the edge goes to Geno. So it's a team thing. And then having Adam playing the way he has, that's just locking down everything. Adam Jones is having a hell of a season."
But Dunlap doesn't mind a good individual incentive to get him going. Here's another one from Bacon the week Strahan set the record Dunlap is chasing.
"Let them try to get 26 sacks in 14 games," Bacon said back then.