That dog-eared it-all-starts-and-ends-up-front football cliché actually hardens into reality Sunday when the Bengals challenge the physical philosophy of the Giants (1 p.m.-WLW-AM 700) that has brought them two Super Bowl titles in the last five years.
"We've got to have a good week. This is a big week," head coach Marvin Lewis said of his offensive and defensive lines. "We didn't have a great week last week. Both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively. It's going to be a key to this football game this week. So, it's important that we play well as a football team, led by our guys up front."
The Giants defensive line is the NFL gold standard. Long like an NBA four man, athletic like an Olympic hurdler, versatile like a journeyman utility infielder, they've left their signature on Patriots Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady's two fourth-quarter bids to win championships since 2007. The Bengals offensive line is coming off a tough five-sack afternoon against the Broncos in which it seemed like quarterback Andy Dalton never had enough room to operate at a high level.
And the Bengals kids on their own defensive front are watching. Led by 24-year-old Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, they're supposed to be the NFL's next best thing up front as the Bengals prep for the league's best pass-protecting offensive line.
"They've got Super Bowl rings; I don't," right end Michael Johnson said of the Osis, Justin Tucks and Jason Pierre-Pauls. "I want to get where they're at."
Atkins's seven sacks are tops for the Bengals and the 25-year-old Johnson's six compute to Cincinnati's best 1-2 sack punch in three decades. And the best Bengals pass rusher, 23-year-old left end Carlos Dunlap, hasn't had a sack in 40 days.
The Bengals are coming off their first sackless game in two years and that's tough duty for a defense that feeds off those young guys up front as their NFL-leading sack total fueled the 3-1 start. After his two interceptions against the Broncos last Sunday, cornerback Terence Newman pointed to the D-line's corner and talked about how well they played.
They did play well against the run, holding Broncos running back Willis McGahee to less than three yards per 23 carries. But they never touched quarterback Peyton Manning, underscoring the delicate balance between playing the run and rushing the passer and, oh yeah, trying to make the greatest decision-maker of all time at his position hold the ball.
What defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says is that rushing the passer changes every week. Different offensive lines, different emphasis, different schemes. Different scores.
For instance, he says the Steelers revamped their pass protection the week they played the Bengals. And since the last four games have been decided in the fourth quarter, the Bengals haven't been able to tee off on the pass.
Johnson says days like Sunday "are going to happen sometimes." But he thinks the Giants display a good model for the Bengals to emulate.
"They get off the football and they play," Johnson said. "They get off the ball and go and if somebody gashes them with a run, oh well, they come back and they keep getting after it. They love to have fun out there. That's what we try to do."
Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham says the stat to watch on Sunday for both lines is first and second down. If the Bengals let quarterback Eli Manning do what big brother did the week before and give him third-and-threes, third-and-fours, it's a long day.
On Sunday, two weeks after getting gouged by Pittsburgh's Jonathan Dwyer for a 100-yard rush game, the Bengals were determined to stop the run. Lapham says when there's a commitment to the run, "you have to sacrifice some pass rush. That's just a fact. If you're sitting there two-gapping, you can't do two things at the same time."
"The hardest thing is as a rusher when teams come out throwing the ball when it's a run down or you expect them to run the ball and they're showing run and they throw it," Johnson said. "You come out and you're engaged on the guy, that's where he wants you. He's just trying to grab you. You may push him back in the face of the quarterback and all that, but sometimes that's not enough. You're blowing your guy back the whole game, putting him on the quarterback, but if you're not getting off of him clean and putting a body on the quarterback, then he's getting too much time to throw to make completions. That's not good enough."
It's not like the pass rush has been splattered in the four-game losing streak. The Bengals have had seven sacks in that stretch and Atkins still leads NFL tackles. But they had 11 in their last two wins and since then weren't able to take advantage of rookie quarterbacks and banged up lines. None of that Sunday with Eli coming with two Super Bowl MVPs and his line giving up the fewest sacks per pass in the NFL.
"Sometimes they max protect," Johnson said. "Eli likes to get the ball away. They have a talented group of people. Their receivers are open. They do some chipping. There's really no secret formula. We just have to play football."
The no-nonsense Atkins is an open book. He just cares about winning and isn't thinking about the other Pro Bowl pass rushers in this game.
"I get pumped up thinking about going against the offensive line and these guys are good; we've got a big task," said Atkins, who doesn't feel that double teams are happening more than usual. "Here and there. It still doesn't matter. We have to get there as a collective group.
"I had some one-on-ones that I didn't win (last week). Overall, they did a good job of blocking all of us. You just have to do some different moves and change it up a little bit. And when I do bull rush, use another move to get off the bull rush."
That's really what pass rushing comes down to. The rush concepts are tied to a team concept, but the individual has to execute it. So Atkins went back to the drawing board this week. When the 6-5, 268-pound Tuck comes on the field and starts jumping between tackle and end, you'll realize just what a unique interior rusher the 6-1, 300-pound Atkins is.
"The only thing they have in common," said Bengals left guard Clint Boling, "is that they're both great players. They have completely different styles. No one in the league is built like Geno and plays like he does."
Atkins, Johnson and Dunlap are looking to make Giant strides. They only have to look across the aisle. The Giants have given up their share on the ground. They're 19th in the NFL against the rush and have given up four 100-yard games, the most recently last Sunday when Pittsburgh's Isaac Redman went for 147.
"We've got to get out on the run enough so we can stop the pass," Johnson said. There may be times he hits us with a run and they're expecting pass. We're just going to have to take the good with the bad. We're just going to have to go for it. We can't play tentative. You just have to go. If they get you on something, then they've got to get you when you're going full speed. That's how the game is."