Posted: 9:10 a.m.
This is the 20th anniversary season of the last time a homegrown Bengals cornerback has been voted to the Pro Bowl and they've got a shot at following in the footsteps of Eric Thomas with Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph when the Pro Bowl teams are unveiled Tuesday at 7 p.m. on NFL Network.
Running back Cedric Benson has a chance, too, and while he was a top vote-getter among fans, coaches and players tend to vote stats and he's fourth in AFC rushing behind Tennessee's Chris Johnson, Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, and Baltimore's Ray Rice.
The Bengals dark horse candidate is left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who had a surprising showing in the fan vote and could be the beneficiary of Joe Thomas' Browns having such a bad year.
Hall, a third-year player, and Joseph, a fourth-year player, should draw some votes with their own stats. They are tied for second place in the AFC with six interceptions apiece with Pro Bowl incumbent Darrelle Revis of the Jets, three behind Bills rookie Jairus Byrd.
Hall says he hasn't thought about it: "My deal is handled what I can handle on the field and everything else hands itself."
Safety Chris Crocker doesn't think players vote on stats or "previous accolades." And it helps that defensive players vote for offensive players and vice versa and players can't vote for anyone on their own team.
"If somebody gets three interceptions against three teams that aren't very good, you look at things like that," Crocker said. "I think (Hall and Joseph) deserve it. A number of guys deserve it. Down the line with contracts and whatever, Pro Bowl might mean a little more to them, but it's what they mean to the team. They might not have Pro Bowl behind their name but they mean a heck of a lot to us."
Even in training camp coordinator Mike Zimmer said his defense would play only as well as its cornerbacks and with a No. 4 ranking heading into the last game everyone has the answer despite a slew of injuries. When the Bengals were in the nickel package Sunday against the Chiefs, they had two free-agent rookies (safety Tom Nelson and linebacker Dan Skuta) as well as a sixth-round pick in cornerback Morgan Trent and a third-round pick in defensive end Michael Johnson.
And it's starting to show up with guys like Crocker (ankle) on the bench along with guys out for the year like defensive end Antwan Odom. Zimmer was livid about the lone Chiefs touchdown, a 20-yard pass to a running back on third-and-10 off play-action. He said Nelson could have done a better job, but he also said it just wasn't Nelson and that it was a combination of breakdowns.
Heading into the Dec. 13 game in Minnesota, the Bengals were No. 1 in third-down conversions. Now after letting the Chiefs go 7-for-15, Cincinnati is 10th. But the Bengals haven't had a huge breakdown and that is a testimony to the one position that has remained stable:
"They've helped us overcome some of the other deficiencies," Zimmer said.
The Super Bowl is played in five weeks. Head coach Marvin Lewis says if the Bengals are to get there, Hall and Joseph will be a major component.
"They've had outstanding years. They'll need to finish the next five weeks the exact same way, and we'll be in great shape if they play the way they've played week after week," Lewis said at his Monday news conference. "One game at a time, one play at a time. Literally, the way they've played. They have to be more consistent in some things, and we're going to keep pushing and encouraging them to be better at some things that we can still do better. Overall, as people look at it outside-in, you would say they've played pretty well. We'd like to see them play better. There's some things they need to improve on and they know that, but they've been consistent. They've had that kamikaze-like mentality, and kind of let the last one go and move on to the next play."
MORE ZIMISMS: A lot of the problem on third down is lack of pass rush out of the four-man front. They just aren't getting any.
Some of it is that the Bengals have guys that are beaten down. Tackle Tank Johnson, with his bad foot, has played a lot more snaps than usual the past four weeks with Domata Peko (knee) out. Frostee Rucker was sick last week and didn't practice much. The team that sacked Ben Roethlisberger four times back on Nov. 15 to be among the league leaders with 25, has had just nine sacks in the next six games.
Zimmer is upset because he feels like he's getting the one-on-one matchups he wants up front and his guys are simply not winning. They've had just three sacks in the last two games and two have been off blitzes. Sunday's lone sack came when Johnson stood up at linebacker and blitzed.
"It's taken a turn for the worse; we have to get better," Zimmer said. "The way we're rushing is idiotic. We ran a game and then (the quarterback) ran out the side when we messed up the game. We're undisciplined on the pass rush ... it's disheartening. We have to start manufacturing a better pass rush."
The Bengals may be fourth in defense and they may have held Kansas City to 10 points, but Zimmer says "we can't play like that and do anything in the playoffs."
Sunday's TD still had him muttering Monday.
He thought the Bengals should have held the Chiefs to six points because he can't believe they didn't stop quarterback Matt Cassel's 20-yard touchdown pass to a back on third-and-10.
"There's no possible way," he said. "I think we were in the correct call. It's not like they schemed on us ... play-action pass? Come on. My daughter saw it in the stands and knew it wasn't a run. ... We're better than that."
Zimmer on Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles' 102-yard effort, the second back to go for 100 against the Bengals this season: "We had guys playing pass when it was run and guys playing run when it was pass."