If there are two guys that symbolize the frustration of the Bengals defense they have to be two of the most physically gifted players on the team in left end Robert Geathers and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Geathers, the franchise's first double-digit sacker in more than a decade when he had 10.5 sacks in 2006, has just four since and .5 this year. Joseph, a first-round pick in 2006 who prides himself on third down, has given up four big ones in the past two games.
The Bengals look their worst on third down, where they are ranked last in the league. So it would follow that they are next to last in generating sacks per pass and Geathers knows what is expected of him.
"It is frustrating, especially since we're not winning. If we get to the quarterback, that's going to be a big help on third down. That was a big part of the problem Sunday," Geathers said. "Part of that is my job, to get to the quarterback. I'm supposed to be that guy. As a group, we haven't been doing it."
Geathers isn't offering excuses. As a fifth-year player he stands as one of the more solid guys in the locker room. Last year he took one for the team when he moved to SAM linebacker for a month and he's still not complaining.
And he doesn't absolve himself of blame this season. But, if asked, he also feels there are reasons why the sacks haven't exactly been piling up.
"I had 10.5 sacks when I came in on third down and I had one job to do. That was the difference that year," he said. "It goes hand-in-hand. There were more points on the board. Offenses were more predictable. You knew they were going to throw the ball. That plays a big part of it. There are a lot of things that make a difference getting to the quarterback."
This has been a miserable season to get sacks. No one in sports, except maybe a pitcher, is more dependent on the circumstances than a pass rusher. The Bengals have never had the lead in five of the eight games. They havent had a lead in the last 173 minutes, or the last 11.5 quarters dating back to Oct. 12 against the Jets.
Plus, Geathers gets some extra attention when offenses "chip" him by sometimes giving their left tackle help on him with a tight end or running back.
"Every play they chip him; that's why he doesn't get any sacks," says wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Geathers says it's not every play, but chipping has made things harder. The offensive line can also slide and put guards on the 270-pound Geathers and 260-pound right end Antwan Odom. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says it's not so much chipping but that players, and not just Geathers, can't get stuck on blocks and have to finish.
Schemes have also been, at times, a deterrent for sacks, like the one the Texans used to allow quarterback Matt Schaub to basically use them as a dart board on 24-of-28 passing. The Bengals have also been showing a lot of blitz looks, so quarterbacks aren't exactly holding on to the ball and they've been getting it out quickly to their hot reads.
"On Sunday they ran a lot of quick slants, a lot of three-step drops. They weren't back there in shotgun at all," Geathers said.
Geathers didn't say it but another factor has been lack of push in the pocket from the tackles on third down. Just two of the six sacks this season have come from the middle men.
All that said, Geathers knows "if I play better, the people around me play better and if the people around me play better, I'll play better." He says the Bengals have to do a better job of putting heat on the passer on the quick throws with hands in the air and diving at the feet. "You only have a few seconds. You have to get off the ball," he said.
Plus, there's coverage. While Geathers is thinking about ways to disturb the quarterback, Joseph is thinking about not thinking. After practice Wednesday, Zimmer said Joseph hasn't played well the last two games and he needs him to play better.
Zimmer isn't pointing the finger at lack of sacks as the sole reason for the third-down failures. He points to the first third down against Pittsburgh two weeks ago when the Bengals blitzed and cornerback David Jones missed the tackle on the ubiquitous Hines Ward on what should have been a checkdown pass.
Joseph fast forwards to the fourth quarter of that game and the Bengals trailing 17-10 with a shot to get the ball back on a third-and-seven in Steelers territory. Cornerback Leon Hall blitzed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had to throw it quicker than he wanted with Hall hanging on him. But Joseph couldn't bat the ball down on the sideline and wide receiver Santonio Holmes got 10 more yards than he needed. A minute later the Steelers had a 24-10 lead with just 8:17 left.
"I'm reaching out extending my arm and the ball goes right in there by the hair on your head," Joseph said. "In the last two games I had four (third-down) plays I possibly could have gotten the ball back for the offense and they get a chance to score. Me, myself, I have to come up with those plays. It doesn't put pressure on me to come up with those plays because I have come up with those plays. There's no added pressure. That's what I'm here to do."
Geathers knows he's here to get sacks. He also can feel the eyes of the league burning through his team after back-to-back blowouts and he's determined not to let it happen again.
"Last Sunday was not a good look," he said. "I get calls from my friends around the league. 'What are you doing?' We have to go back and redeem ourselves and just play for each other."