INDIANAPOLIS – Ask almost any NFL coach what wins games on a consistent basis and an answer could come like a 32-voice choir, 'Defense.'
Cincinnati is 3-2 on a season that is one week into its second quarter and for the last two weeks it can lay claim to a position it has not experienced since 1983. The Bengals possess the NFL's top defense.
The Bengals assumed the position after a week four victory over Buffalo, 23-20, limiting a Bills attack that has them fighting for early supremacy in the AFC East. The Bengals followed the win over Buffalo with a 30-20 road win against Jacksonville, and they held the Jaguars to 296 net yards.
The Bengals are surrendering 279.6 yards per game, while its 1983 unit allowed but 270.4. The current average would rank sixth in team history. Cincinnati ranks seventh against the run (88.6) and third against the pass (191.0). Four of five opponents have been limited to 20 points or less and the club's 18.8 points per game defensive average is tied for sixth-best in the NFL. The Bengals are surrendering only 33.3 percent of third-down conversions defensively, and the team leads the league in number of drives (33) where opponents have not gotten first downs. The team nearest the Bengals is eight possessions behind in the category.
Such numbers have contributed to a successful start, and Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell is aware of the challenge his club will face.
"They've played great defense, that's one thing. It's the number one defense in the league at this point. They do a tremendous job," said Caldwell. "They've created some problems for teams in terms of getting them in third-and-long situations that they haven't been able to convert. They've been able to mix sort of a blitz and blitz-looks together to create some confusion.
"More importantly, the eight guys that they have up front in their defensive front they rotate them in, and it's a formidable group. It's really the strength of their defense. Their linebacking corps is very good as well. (Rey) Maualuga in the middle there and (Thomas) Howard's been playing well. It's a very, very good defensive team. When you couple that with guys that can rush the passer and can also defense the run, they're big people. This might be as big a group as we've faced in a while. They're tall, they've got girth and they have tenacity. That's where I think it starts. They've done a great job in that area."
Cincinnati has had an upward trend defensively for the past few seasons. The club jumped from 27th to 12th in 2008. Mike Zimmer was the new coordinator that year, moving to Cincinnati after serving with Dallas and Atlanta. The unit ranked fourth in 2009 at 301.4 yards per game as the Bengals won the AFC North. Last year, nine veterans who would have started or made contributions were injured and the team ranked 15th. Cincinnati used a more varied approach to defense the Bills before returning to its 4-3 concept last week. Jacksonville had 12 first downs and allowed three sacks. Additionally, defensive tackle Geno Atkins had a scoring fumble return to cap the outcome.
Indianapolis started quickly last week against Kansas City, scoring 24 points and totaling 291 net yards in the opening half. The offense had limited opportunity in the second half of a 28-24 loss. Quarterback Curtis Painter will be making his third start this Sunday. It will be his sixth career appearance. With 281 yards at Tampa Bay and 277 last week against Kansas City, he has become the first Colts quarterback in the Indianapolis era to throw for more than 250 yards in the first two starts of a career.
Like Caldwell, Painter sees a talented defensive opponent.
"They're playing well together," said Painter. "The front is doing a great job putting pressure on quarterbacks, and that always helps the secondary. Each phase is doing things right and doing things well together. They're helping each other out. There's no one real area you look at and say, 'Maybe they're not as good here.' They're doing well all around. They're at the top of the list in almost every category. They're certainly playing very well and playing well together as a unit, so it's certainly going to be a challenge for us."
Indianapolis has won the last seven series meeting, including a 23-17 affair last November 14 in Lucas Oil Stadium. To extend the streak, Indianapolis must face a Bengals offense that has talented contributors.
The Bengals spent their top two draft picks this year on wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has been a day-one starter, and he has hit 93-of-157 passes for 1,047 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions. He set a club rookie mark with 322 yards at Denver and his consecutive 100.0 ratings in his first two career games placed him with Dan Marino as the only NFL rookies since 1970 to achieve the feat.
Green has started each game as well, and he tops the team with 24 receptions for 402 yards. His three scoring receptions tie for the club lead. Green and Dalton paired 10 times for completions at Denver the all-time single-game league best for a rookie duo. With receptions for 58 and 40 yards against Buffalo, Green became the first Cincinnati receiver in 23 years with two 40 receptions in the same game. He leads NFL rookies in reception yards.
The Cincinnati ground attack is paced by Cedric Benson's 401 yards, and he has topped 100 rushing yards twice this season.
"Offensively, they just haven't made very many mistakes, and they've run the ball extremely well," said Caldwell. "(Cedric) Benson is averaging about four yards per carry, and doing a nice job in that area. The quarterback just hasn't been making many mistakes, and he's found two guys that he loves to throw to. (A.J.) Green's got three touchdown passes and (Jermaine) Gresham's got three. Green is their leading receiver with 24, I think. Gresham's right behind him, and (Jerome) Simpson is right behind him. They have a good group, and they're playing extremely well."
Caldwell was among a Colts contingent that saw Dalton throw prior to the draft, and he was impressed with his abilities.
"We did work him out, and I think it's pretty common knowledge that we did," Caldwell said. "(He is) a talented guy, very bright, a very good student of the game, can throw the ball, good leadership qualities, good player. We were impressed with him."
Defensive end Dwight Freeney is a veteran of five Colts-Bengals clashes. He anticipates the next one, and he expects nothing but the best effort Cincinnati can muster since he has seen it on all prior occasions.
"They're playing pretty good ball," said Freeney. "Defensively, they're at the top of the league. I don't know how different they are until after we play them. As far as their mentality, it's always been pretty much the same. They always play hard, and it's always a challenge. Obviously, we've had success against them, but that's why you play the games on Sundays. It doesn't matter what happened in the past."
BENGALS QUOTE-UNQUOTE: Head Coach Marvin Lewis (on 3-2 record) "We're not exactly where we hoped to be, but we're doing some good things and moving in the right direction. We just have to keep doing that." Lewis (on Andy Dalton and A.J. Green) "Both players have really got off to good starts. They, at times, still show that they are very, very young, and we just have to keep pushing them and pointing them in the right direction. They, obviously, have a lot of talent and ability, and this game's not going to be too big for them." Lewis (on Dwight Freeney)
"He is probably at the top, if not (the best). He's a very elite player, and he plays very, very hard. People, I think, really don't give him enough credit for how he plays the running game, how he chases plays down from behind and does the things he does. He's a very explosive and physical guy in his hips and lower body. When you look at pass rushers, you're trying to look for guys that have that. He's not a big, long 6'5" guy, but Dwight Freeney has that explosiveness in his lower body and hips, and he just uses it and uses it well. I saw him when he came out of Syracuse. I was at the workout that year when he came out. How he has progressed and what he has done is not a surprise, because I thought he had a real gift for rushing the passer." Lewis (on preparing for Freeney and Robert Mathis) "I have (Dwight) Freeney and (Robert) Mathis tapes everywhere. I have (John) Teerlinck tapes." Andy Dalton (on preparing for Colts defensive line) "They've got a lot of speed, they're explosive off the ball and they're making plays. It's something that we've definitely taken note of, and we're going to know where they are." Dalton (on playing right away as a rookie) "I feel like I've come in and the more and more games I've played, the more experience I have and the more comfortable I feel. Since I've come in (I) basically was handed the job, and took a lot of reps early in training camp. They were kind of pressing for me to win this, so I feel like everybody is kind of rallying around me and have responded to what I've been doing." Dalton (on the buzz around Cincinnati) "I think there's a lot of excitement going on. You can kind of feel it around here, just because of what has happened in the past. Hopefully we can just keep winning and the excitement will be more and more."