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Looking for late-game saves, Bengals want to be better defensive 'closers'

"We have to be better closers," Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. George Gojkovich/Getty Images

CINCINNATI -- He had the NFL's No. 2 scoring defense in 2015, and led a unit that very nearly carried an Andy Dalton-less Cincinnati Bengals team to the franchise's first playoff victory in 25 years.

So what -- other than more disciplined play from two of his best players -- is defensive coordinator Paul Guenther looking for from his defenders this season?

He wants each to channel their inner Aroldis Chapman, and do a better job of closing out games.

"We only lost five games," Guenther began, "but we lost on a one-minute drive at Arizona. Obviously the playoff game. To a certain extent, the Denver game. Those nut-cutting times at the end of games, we have to understand and practice those situations and talk through them. And I constantly talk through situational football with the guys, because it may not be a first-and-10 at eight minutes left in the first quarter that wins you a game. It may be that first-and-10 with two minutes left."

Of the five games the Bengals lost last year (that total includes January's playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers), four were decided by a combined 12 points. The other, a 33-20 Week 14 loss to Pittsburgh, was practically handed to the Steelers in the first quarter when Dalton left with what proved to be a season-ending broken thumb injury.

Here's how the Bengals lost those four other games:

  • In the 10-6 Week 10 loss to Houston, they weren't able to respond to T.J. Yates' 22-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins with 14:20 left.

  • A week later, the Bengals fell at Arizona, 34-31, following a final-minute Cardinals comeback drive. On a pivotal third down with six seconds remaining, Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko was controversially flagged for allegedly yelling out Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer's cadence. Peko claimed he was simply telling his teammates to "Get set, get set," prompting Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis to later quip the penalty was a "phantom call." The 15-yard infraction gave Arizona a first down and moved the Cardinals into the red zone for a game-winning, 32-yard field goal seconds later.

  • The Week 16 game at Denver was lost when backup quarterback AJ McCarron mishandled an overtime shotgun snap, fumbling the ball into the hands of Broncos defenders in the walk-off defeat. To Guenther's broader point, the Bengals didn't close out the first half as cleanly as they would have liked defensively. They allowed a 23-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining. The score came at the end of a 60-yard drive that began just before the two-minute warning.

  • In the playoffs, the Bengals' fifth-straight early exit came when, while trying to run out the clock with a lead in the final two minutes, running back Jeremy Hill fumbled to give the Steelers one last possession. Across nearly all of the final 1:23, Pittsburgh drove from its own 9 and into the Bengals' red zone, thanks in large part to successive personal foul penalties from Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones. A 35-yard field goal in the closing seconds gave Pittsburgh the come-from-behind victory.

After that litany of end-of-game and end-of-half problems, it would appear Guenther was onto something.

"That's when the best players have to come up and be ready to play," Guenther said. "We have to be better closers."