It will be recalled the last time the Bengals flew west, left end Carlos Dunlap went off with two huge sack-and-strips of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the red zone or thereabouts. In a game the Bengals held Rivers out of the end zone to craft a 20-13 victory, those two plays were slightly bigger than the Continental Divide.
Fast forward 364 days later and Dunlap and right end Michael Johnson are facing new tackles and an improved offensive line, not to mention a new and improved Rivers getting rid of the ball quickly enough to be sacked less than twice per game while throwing it efficiently enough to complete an NFL-high 70.8 percent of his passes.
"As well as I've seen him play," said backup right end Wallace Gilberry, who faced Rivers twice a year during his four seasons in Kansas City. "He used to take three or four sacks a game. He's making smart decisions and I think he's got more confidence in his receivers. We've got to get around his feet. He likes to step up in the pocket and not let him throw off his back foot."
Even though Rivers is three-step dropping his way out of last season's disastrous 46 sacks, the Bengals say that won't negate their pass rush. Dunlap, who leads the Bengals with seven sacks, says they'll have to get their hands up quickly and he advises the defensive line to take note of how Johnson does it.
"With a three-step drop, you have to bat the ball down," Dunlap said. "What Mike can do is tip it up in the air and then catch it. We all can take a little bit of that."
That's convenient because if you want a tipped ball, the 6-7 Johnson and the 6-6 Dunlap are your guys. According to the Bengals stats and NFL.com, they are a spire sandwich when it comes to passes defensed by linemen with at least three sacks. Johnson has the most with nine, followed by Denver end Shaun Phillips (six) and Dunlap's four.
But Johnson says the key Sunday is to keep thinking "sack" despite the fast drops.
"What if he pumps it?" Johnson asked. "Your mindset still has to be you're about to win. If you're thinking about putting your hand up, or jumping up, you're not getting there or it may come at the wrong time. It has to come at the last possible second. It's about reaction and jump."
But Johnson has always admitted a tip is more luck than anything.
"We work on it, but you might get your hands up 10 times and only graze two," he said. "That's just how it is. You have to keep moving."
Johnson has an intriguing matchup with rookie D.J. Fluker, the third Chargers starting left tackle of the season whom injured his knee with 24 seconds left last Sunday on the extra point that capped off San Diego's winning drive. He practiced full Wednesday and Thursday and was listed as probable after going limited Friday.
Fluker, the Chargers first-round pick who is a man mountain at 6-5, 340 pounds, has been part of a fluid offensive line that has had six different starting combinations. Some scouts thought he wasn't quick enough to play left tackle and some with the Bengals thought he was more suited to guard. But with Rivers getting the ball out quickly, Fluker has held up.
"I know they've got a ton of weapons," said Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who has allowed Rivers just one TD pass in the last eight quarters. (Antonio) Gates looks really good. (Danny) Woodhead. (Eddie) Royal in the slot. (Keenan) Allen outside. And (wide receiver Vincent Brown). But their offensive line is doing a good job, too. That helps."
As usual, the play in the trenches has defined the Bengals success or failure and on Thursday night that was amplified in a classic AFC North shove match that saw Baltimore hold off the Steelers in the last minute at home, 22-20, as helmets and tempers flew with abandon.
It even had AFC North guru Marvin Lewis shaking his head in both amazement and admiration. It was Lewis's grinding stints with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in his early days in the NFL that made the Bengals what they are today.
"I thought they were going to have to throw somebody out to restore order, but it calmed down a little bit," Lewis said after Friday's practice. "It just shows you how physical the division is all the time. That's the brand of football we end up having to play. It's those players we have to have and that kind of mentality … you have to buckle it up and go."
All's fair in love, war and the AFC North. Although Lewis was surprised Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin didn't get a flag for coming so close to Ravens punt returner Jacoby Jones on a long one, he said Tomlin didn't do it with intent. He also said that the refs made the right call on the half yard-line when they froze the off-tackle play where the ball carrier's helmet came flying off.
Lewis, a member of the NFL competition committee, also defended the helmet-to-helmet hit of Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith on the play.
"Helmet to helmet blows are allowed in football," Lewis said. "You just can't target with your helmet and I don't think either playet was targeting … and it was in the box."