Carlos Dunlap had a smile as wide as December when asked before Wednesday's practice if the AFC Defensive Player of the Week Award is good enough to get him his first start of the season Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) against the Cowboys at Paul Brown Stadium.
"That's a good question; you'll have to ask him," Dunlap said of Marvin Lewis. "He's the head coach. He makes the call. I'm just a pawn in this chess game. I feel like if I have another game like that I should. It shouldn't be a question if I have another one like that."
As large as Dunlap was Sunday in San Diego (two red-zone sacks and strips and a recovered fumble of one of his two forced fumbles), he thought he should have blocked a field goal and an extra point. He says his goal now is to win Defensive Player of the Month and his play underlined just how dominant the Bengals defensive line has become in leading its team to the top of the NFL sack list and an all-out rush on the team's record book.
"I was like, if I would have blocked those kicks that I missed then I definitely would have had it. Just two sacks. I didn't think that would be enough," he said when someone suggested he would win the award. "The first field goal and the extra point right after they had the interception. The first one, it either went through my hands or something.
"The first one must have went right through my arms and the other one he missed it, but I didn't block it. I feel like if I would have blocked those I definitely would have had it, but hey, I still won it. It's a humbling award to accept on behalf of my D-line."
Frankly, Dunlap is the starter in everything but the depth chart, which, as Lewis loves to say, isn't worth the paper it is printed on. Dunlap is coming off close to a career-high 79 percent of the snaps Sunday, which defensive line coach Jay Hayes says isn't that unusual.
"We've had it before where we've had a fifth guy who takes starter's snaps," Hayes said. "When we're in nickel a lot, he's the guy that's out there."
The Bengals lead the NFL sacks with 39 and with his guys racking up 31 of them, Hayes had a bit of a smile when asked about his speech Saturday before the game in which he cited a report in the local paper that said the Bengals defensive line is overrated.
"That's what somebody said," said Hayes, who only heard about the report. "I don't know if it was true or not, but it was good enough for me."
The beat reporter at San Diego's Union-Tribune can't recall such a statement in the paper, but no mind. That's what the Bengals think the rest of the NFL thinks. Before the Oakland game two weeks ago, the Bengals were rankled about an NFL Sirius Radio analyst that suggested they don't have a pass rush despite the fact they went into the game among the league's sack leaders.
"They think we're a bunch of misfit toys, so that's fine," Hayes said. "We've got fourth-rounders and a second-rounder. We've got no high picks."
Apparently nobody asked cornerback Terence Newman, a 10-year veteran.
"It's unbelievable. Playing behind those guys makes playing football definitely fun," Newman said. "It's amazing to put film on and see these guys come off the football. I can sit back and chuckle about it and say, 'Oh man. These guys make my job easy.' It's not an easy job, but that's how they come off the ball."
If the second-rounder, Dunlap, isn't the team's most consistent pass rusher, he certainly is the most destructive. Several of Cincinnati's wins the past two seasons have his fingerprints all over the fourth quarter.
And he now has four sacks on the season, leads the club with three fumble recoveries and is tied for the lead with three forced fumbles. The coaches also gave Dunlap four QB pressures on Sunday to add to his total of 17 that is third behind defensive tackle Geno Atkins's 27 and right end Michael Johnson's 19.
"He can be," Hayes said of the destruction. "Like I tell him, when he shoots his gun, there's not a lot of people that can block him if he gets off on the ball. Run or pass."
Dunlap is feeding off the rotation, which looks now to be the most lethal in team history. Think of it. We're not even talking about Dunlap and the Bengals are on the verge of having their first multi double-digit sackers since 1981 when the tandem of outside backer Reggie Williams (11) and left end Eddie Edwards (10) sparked Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme to an AFC title. Atkins (9.5) and right end Johnson (8) are in good shape with four games left.
"It's a humbling award. It's an honor I take on behalf of my D-line because I don't feel like I was out there by myself and I feel like it was one of those things that happened on chance because at any given time Geno or Mike could have got there before me," Dunlap said. "Hey, just got to keep grinding and make sure I am there first. We treat it like the Hunger Games; whoever gets there first. Especially when we know it's a pass, me, Geno and Mike are licking our chops like we hadn't eaten all day, ate at like breakfast, now we got to eat."
Dunlap wasn't able to munch last December with a bad hamstring injury that wiped him out of the Dec. 11 PBS game against the Texans. That's when the Bengals blew a 19-10 lead in the final 5:31 when one more sack most likely would have sealed it as rookie T.J. Yates dropped back to pass nine times in the winning 80-yard TD drive and got sacked once.
"When we have that type of situation, me and Geno and Mike, we get together and we say, 'This is our moment. This is where we have to put the team on our back,' " Dunlap said.
"When Geno and Mike get that sack, we celebrate as if we all got that sack. That's one of the things that's been key for us in being a young team making it fun and keeping it fun is going to do numbers for us down the road."
Dunlap says the deep rotation, along with the work he did in the offseason and continues to do with his core and legs, have kept him healthy. And on a defensive front that has been nicked up in the two previous playoff runs (at one time or another Dunlap, Pat Sims, Robert Geathers, Domata Peko), the fact that all are healthy for December is quite noticeable.
"There's no dropoff when a guy like (Wallace) Gilberry comes in here," Dunlap said. "He's been like our swingman playing inside and outside and with Robert (Geathers) relieving me and me relieving Robert, plus Domata, Pat and Mike, that's a pretty good rotation."
Lewis kept it up Wednesday with an even bigger smile when asked about Dunlap.
"Just continue to be the new Carlos, and don't go back to the old Carlos," said Lewis, who didn't have to ask him if he was starting this week. "The team asked him. The team put it to him, so I didn't have to."
Hayes says, "He's streaky and it looks like he's putting it together at the right time," and Dunlap is trying to find the key to consistency that will placate Lewis.
"Continue to get better each week. That's one of the goals I've been doing. Studying a lot more on things I did wrong," Dunlap said. "I was fortunate enough to get two sacks you guys were talking about, but there's three of them where I got a hand on him but didn't get him down. So, that's my focus, like the two kicks I missed. Just highlighting on those and capitalizing on other plays because if you have two sacks and 50 bad plays that doesn't mean anything to me. That's been my goal."
That's why he kept talking about Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. He's next and Dunlap says another performance like Sunday "should" get him that start.
"He's pretty good in the pocket, but when you get there you have to make sure you get him down because he's very good moving out of the pocket and making the pass downfield," Dunlap said. "He's very good at that. He's like (Ben) Roethlisberger. We've got to make sure we get him down when we get to him because he can be slippery."