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Third and nothing

Brandon Johnson

Posted: 7:55 a.m.

Everybody has thrown their two cents into the nickel package so effectively lately that the Bengals defense has turned third down into money.

"The way we look at third down," said Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph, "is if we hold them, we just got a turnover for the offense."

Third down is where the Bengals took over the AFC North the past two weeks against offenses rich with big-play capabilities. They halted Pittsburgh on 10 straight third-down tries to end the game in turning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from a 70-percent throwing Pro Bowler to a one out of every two journeyman. That came a week after holding Baltimore nine out of 10 times on third down and shrinking big-armed Joe Flacco's field to barely six yards per throw.

With the offense jumping to leads of 31-0 and 17-0 in two of the last three games and hogging the ball with the lead late in the last game, the nickel has been the primary defensive alignment. Offenses have had to throw and that leads the list of the melting pot playbook of reasons of why third down has been the last down:

» Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer stepped back during the bye week and cut back his pass defense packages.

» The constant talk during the spring and summer about improving the hands of the defensive linemen on the pass rush has paid off. And in more than the $5 bills that used to be on the line in the spring if a lineman didn't use his hands to block a blow to the chest.

» Zimmer is relying on low-profile role players at every level of the defense who have barged into the spotlight, such as defensive lineman Jon Fanene, WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson, and rookie nickel cornerback Morgan Trent.

While Joseph and Leon Hall have emerged as a Pro Bowl tandem, Trent has stepped out as one of the best late draft weekend finds in years with last week's gutty 43-snap performance in the crucible against Super Bowl MVPs Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.  

Johnson, a third-down and special teams regular, showed what he can do in Pittsburgh on first and second down playing all 62 scrimmage snaps in place of the injured Keith Rivers. But his two pass deflections came on back-to-back third-down plays in the third quarter the Bengals took command with two field goals.

"We've been good on first and second down; that sets up third," Johnson said. "The big thing is the D-line is getting pressure. The guys up front do a great job of understanding protections and Coach Zimmer and Coach (Jay) Hayes get them to attack it. And my corners are great. They really help me."

Here is how the Bengals usually line up on passing downs:

» Robert Geathers and rookie Michael Johnson are the ends. Fanene and Frostee Rucker are the tackles. Different combos can be established with Domata Peko, Tank Johnson and Pat Sims rotating through at tackle and Johnson, Fanene and Rucker able to slide between end and tackle.

» The linebackers are usually Brandon Johnson and middle linebacker Dhani Jones. Trent, in the slot, with Hall and Joseph on the outside, are the three corners with safeties Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe.

"It goes hand-in-hand," said Joseph, who forced one field goal last Sunday when he barely deflected what would have been a touchdown pass to Holmes. "I take pride in making a play on third down, batting a ball away, making a stop. I think the difference this year is we're getting a pass rush up the middle and quarterbacks aren't getting out of the pocket."

Exhibit A through Brandon Johnson's eyes:

"On the last hit of the game, Michael Johnson was able to get the hit because Frostee penetrated and Ben wasn't able to step up."

The biggest mystery is how have the Bengals been able to get even more pressure after their leading sacker was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles? In the three games since they lost right end Antwan Odom, the Bengals have nine sacks. One reason is his replacement, Fanene, has 2.5 and five for the season, stunning numbers for a guy that came into the season with one career sack in four seasons.

"But he hasn't had the chance to play either because of injuries or sitting behind guys," Peko said. "He's strong, he's quick, and he understands what we're trying to do."

Fanene has been talking all season about how Zimmer and Hayes emphasized the hands for the linemen in the offseason. They would go out on the field in April and do drills in which they simply made sure no one else could get their hands on their chest. After watching tape of '08, Zimmer concluded his linemen had allowed themselves to be controlled by getting manhandled with blows to the chest that stopped their rushes.

"We kept emphasizing knocking the hands down," Peko said. "They were saying it was like getting punched (in the groin.) You don't let that happen. It got to the point where we would owe somebody five bucks if they touched our chest."

When Zimmer turned the tape to the 28-17 loss to the Texans Oct. 18, he saw a lot of mistakes as Houston converted seven of 14 third downs. Brandon Johnson said coverage wasn't tight enough, they didn't pass off routes briskly enough and they weren't as focused on shutting off passing lanes.

"We trimmed the package back," Zimmer said. "We do a little blitzing, a little cover, a little zone. Not a lot, which is what I think we were doing earlier in the year."

But if Zimmer is in a groove making the calls, he's got guys that do exactly what he wants and they're not high-priced free agents or top 10 picks. Fanene is a seventh-rounder. Morgan is a sixth-rounder. Johnson was cut by Arizona after playing just nine games in the two seasons after the Cardinals drafted him in the fifth round.

"Opportunity," Johnson said. "I practiced in Arizona but I didn't get in games. And I was playing behind Karlos Dansby. So here I am."

He's long, lean, smart. He loves playing third down because he is used as "The Joker," either dropping into coverage, blitzing or faking both.

"I love that," Johnson said. "You're usually on the back side of the formation and you only have to worry about one or two receivers. It's usually a good matchup for us, so it's fun."

Exhibit B from Pittsburgh: Bengals lead, 12-9. Steelers have a third-and-three from the Bengals 47 with 5:15 left in the third quarter.

"I was blitzing up the middle, but I saw the center and the running back were in there blocking," Johnson said. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to get there, so I wanted to make sure I got my hands up in the passing lane and I was able to knock it down."

Trent knocked down two balls himself, one in the end zone and one that turned into the game-changing play when Rucker tracked down Trent's tip and hauled it into the red zone.

"He was able to get a hand on it even though it was thrown behind him," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle. "He's getting better. He's a work in progress, but he's certainly learning on the job."

Coyle is still wondering how the Bengals got Trent in the sixth round. He's big at 6-1, 195 pounds. He'll hit. He can run. Smart. Great character guy. And Coyle was sold on him after coaching him at the Senior Bowl.

"You target guys before the draft; guys you'd like to get if things break right," Coyle said. "When he was still there, we couldn't believe it."

Trent looked around Heinz Field a few times and couldn't quite believe it himself. When Hall (elbow) and Joseph (back) had to come off for seven or so snaps, Trent was working on the outside.

"Covering Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward, it was surreal," Trent said. "I knew they were going to go after me, and they did."

And he lived to tell about it. He may not be a Hall clone, but close would be good enough. Both are from San Diego. Both went to Michigan. They didn't meet until they got to Ann Arbor, where Trent switched to corner from receiver as a sophomore and the senior Hall mentored him. He's still doing it. They both married Michigan students that knew each other and they are close here. Just this past off night on Tuesday the Trents visited the Halls in Anderson Township.

"He was big for me then and he's big for me now. I'm lucky I can learn from two great corners and watch them prepare," Trent said. "Coach Zimmer has got them guessing and we're playing with a lot of confidence."

Zimmer had the Steelers guessing on their last desperate drive of the game. Fearing the blitz on one of the last two snaps after Zimmer had blitzed the first two, the Steelers kept in their best clutch receiver (Ward) to block. But Zimmer called it off and he still got pressure.

"It's everybody being on the same page," Fanene said. "If we get a rush, we know the DBs are going to be there covering. They've come up big this year."

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