As the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in 2000, Marvin Lewis was in charge of a unit that surrendered 165 points all season – the fewest ever allowed during a 16-game season.
So was Cincinnati’s defensive performance last Sunday in Pittsburgh reminiscent of the dominant efforts that Lewis directed 12 years ago?
“It was except that we let the other team score a touchdown,” Marvin said with a laugh. “Those guys (in Baltimore) never wanted to let the other team score. But yea, it was a great, great defensive day.”
It was the latest in a string of them.
Over the past seven games, the Bengals defense has allowed an average of 272.3 yards and 12.1 points – both figures would lead the NFL if they were season totals.
“I have a lot of confidence in these guys and the way that we’re playing,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. “I feel like if we continue to play the way we’re playing and do things right, I think we have a chance to go up against anybody and put up a great performance. But we have to go out each and every week and do what we’re supposed to do. Right now we’ve been on a hot streak and I hope it continues.”
Is it a defensive that gives the Bengals a shot to beat anybody that they will face in the postseason?
“We have to keep playing soundly, but to answer your question simply, yes it does,” said Lewis. “We’re doing a great job of taking away what we feel are the offensive strengths and making the other team work into their weaknesses a little bit more. I think that’s a key to playing great defense down the stretch. Our players are cerebrally recognizing what’s important and they’re working on that during the week as the game plan unfolds.”
Of course it helps to have a wrecking ball in the middle named Geno Atkins.
With 2.5 sacks against the Steelers last Sunday, Geno ranks 5th in the NFL with 13 this season. That’s nearly twice as many as the next-best defensive tackle – Ndamukong Suh – who has 7 for Detroit. Suh was the second overall pick and first defensive tackle selected in the 2010 NFL draft. Atkins was chosen with the 120th pick and was the 15th defensive tackle selected.
“Honestly, we targeted Geno in the draft,” said Zimmer. “I’m not saying it was me, but I said, ‘If this guy is there in the fourth round we need to take him.’ At that point in time we were looking for an inside pass rusher. We felt like we had some ends that could rush and if we could get a little bit of an inside pass rush that it would really help. Obviously I didn’t know that he was going to be this good or he would have been drafted a lot higher. I remember in the rookie minicamps and OTAs, some of the offensive players walked over and said, ‘Is this guy going to do this when we get the pads on?’ Geno’s been doing it ever since.”
With Atkins leading the way, the Bengals rank second in the NFL with 47 sacks (one behind Denver). Defensive lineman have accounted for 38 of those sacks – a figure that is better than 23 NFL team totals.
It’s a defensive unit that clearly loves playing for Zimmer and doesn’t want to let him down.
“It makes me feel like I don’t want to let them down either,” said Zimmer. “I want to make sure that I put them in the best position to win each and every week. To make sure that they understand exactly what the other team’s offense is trying to do and how they’re trying to do it. We really have a team concept. We don’t have selfish guys. Geno Atkins is a perfect example. He might have 20 sacks if he was playing on a team that just rushed the passer on every single down. We have guys that want to do things within the framework of the defense and play together. I always talk to them about being a smart defense and playing together with great effort and intensity. Once we can get them to buy into that and not get frustrated because they’re not necessarily making plays, then you have a chance.”
While Atkins is undoubtedly the Bengals’ defensive MVP, Chris Crocker is the unsung hero. The 32-year-old veteran did not join this year’s team until the fourth game of the season and didn’t become the primary strong safety until the eighth game vs. Denver.
Through the Denver game, the Bengals only held one of eight quarterbacks to a passer rating under 90.4 (Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert at 78.8) and the average QB rating against Cincinnati was 99.4. Over the past seven games – despite facing the likes of Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, and Ben Roethlisberger – no opponent has managed a passer rating higher than 75.4 vs. Cincinnati, and the average has been 64.9.
“That’s a beautiful thing isn’t it?” said Zimmer. “When we started going into this stretch we talked about how it was going to be the murderer’s row of quarterbacks and our guys have risen to the occasion quite a bit.”
It’s easy to forget that going into last year; the Bengals were coming off of a 4-12 season and were widely expected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL. Instead, the “Andy and A.J.” era has started with back-to-back playoff appearances.
“We have so many young players,” said Lewis. “The quarterback and receiver continue to be at the focal point of things and the fact that we have a lot of young defensive guys that aren’t even seeing the field is really a plus as we go forward. There’s a strong, strong foundation that’s been built and I think that was the key thing when we got started again prior to the 2011 season. We needed to really drill down and lay some pillars and I think we’ve got that done now. Now we continue to build upon it, and every time that we add a guy, it’s a big plus.”
Marvin Lewis won a Super Bowl ring with a Wild Card team a dozen years ago. Perhaps it’s a longshot, but his goal is to do it again over the next month.
“Our goal is to be World Champions and now we’re in it and we have to go forward,” said Lewis. “We’ve got ourselves into the tournament – not exactly where we wanted to be because we wanted to win the division – but we’re in the tournament and that’s all you can ask for at this point.”
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