- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Perhaps the toughest challenge besides facing the Cincinnati Bengals defense is naming who's a part of it.
Johnathan Joseph? The cornerback bolted to the Houston Texans in free agency for a $49 million contract. Tank Johnson? The veteran defensive tackle has been out of football since the Bengals cut him in the middle of August. Dhani Jones? The team's leading tackler the past three years is currently dabbling in a couple of TV projects.
While the Bengals don't lead the league in recognizable names, they do top the NFL in defense. For the first time in 28 years, Cincinnati ranks No. 1 in fewest yards allowed, a distinction that comes as a reward after quieting the NFL's top-scoring offense.
The Bengals are proving that it's not about who you have on defense. It's about how you play defense as a team.
So, how many starters on the Bengals defense can an average fan name?
This isn't the Baltimore Ravens, who trot out two former defensive players of the year along with two other Pro Bowl defenders. This isn't the Pittsburgh Steelers, who return every starter from a defense that guided them to the Super Bowl.
This is Cincinnati where a guy named Domata Peko stuffs the middle of the line, the leading tackler is in his first NFL season as a middle linebacker, and a rebuilt secondary is among the best in getting offenses off the field.
Teams can't run on the Bengals. Cincinnati allows an NFL-best 3.1 yards per carry.
And teams can't extend drives against the Bengals. Cincinnati is third in the league in stopping offenses on third down (32.1 percent success rate against its defense).
"That’s what defense is. It takes 11 guys to work together what they set out to do," Lewis said. "You can’t have a guy be selfish and get out of responsibilities. That’s when you’re susceptible to big plays."
Skeptics will point out the fact that the Bengals' strong defensive run started against the Browns (17th-ranked offense), Broncos (24th) and 49ers (28th). But last Sunday, Cincinnati silenced the high-scoring Bills, holding them to 13 offensive points after they averaged 37.7 points in their first three games.
The Bengals' next three games come against the three worst offenses in the NFL: the Jaguars (31st), Colts (30th) and Seahawks (32nd).
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer wouldn't talk to Cincinnati reporters about the top ranking. "Ask me at Thanksgiving," he said.
Maybe that's why the players were greeted in the defensive meeting room with a couple of mousetraps with cheese sitting on them.
"Don't bite the cheese," Maualuga told Bengals.com about the significance of it. "Don't feed off what everyone is talking about."
The Bengals fell into a trap like that last season. After ranking fourth in defense to end the 2009 season, Cincinnati dropped to 15th last because it gave up too many big plays.
The defense got overhauled during a lockout year, changing six starters from a year ago. Cincinnati signed outside linebackers Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson along with cornerback Nate Clements. The Bengals promoted defensive tackle Geno Atkins, defensive end Michael Johnson and free safety Reggie Nelson to the starting lineup.
To increase the level of difficulty for this group, the defense didn't have time to jell because the offense was starting a rookie quarterback.
"They’ve known since the start of the season, in order for us to have an opportunity to win games, they’re going to have to play at a high level," Lewis said of his revamped defense. "We didn’t have time for them to ease into this. It had to be right from the start."
No starter on the defensive line -- Peko and Atkins along with defensive ends Robert Geathers and Johnson -- were drafted higher than the third round. But this underrated defensive front, which has a deep rotation, doesn't budge against the run.
The Bengals are allowing 3.09 yards on runs in between the tackles (which is third-best in the NFL), according to Jason Vida from ESPN Stats & Information.
"You have to be physical up front, and I think guys understand how they fit the scheme," Lewis said. "You have guys who are in their gap and where they belong."
That allows the Bengals' linebackers -- Maualuga, Lawson and Howard -- to chase down running backs.
After two seasons as an outside linebacker, Maualuga has moved to the inside, where he leads the team with 40 tackles. He had his second 12-tackle performance last Sunday against Buffalo, which followed a key forced fumble against San Francisco the previous week.
When it comes to middle linebackers, Marvin Lewis acknowledges he has high standards after working with a young Ray Lewis for six seasons.
"I’ve been spoiled," Marvin Lewis said with a laugh.
By shutting down the run game, the Bengals can get their effective nickel package onto the field. When they play with five defensive backs, they limit teams to 4.3 yards per pass attempt -- which is nearly three yards fewer per play compared to the NFL average for nickel defenses (according to ESPN Stats & Information).
Cincinnati is running fewer blitzes than recent years, which means the front four is getting pressure and the secondary is playing solid coverage. Three of the Bengals' starting defensive backs are former first-round picks: Hall, Clements and Nelson.
"We’re just trying to play sound and our guys are great learners," Lewis said. "They understand the defense. Zim [Mike Zimmer] does a great job of giving them the tips and tendencies. They go into the game knowing the opponent pretty well."
All of this has resulted in the Bengals' first No. 1 ranking on defense since the end of the 1983 season. Six starters on this year's defense weren't even born then.
“We have 13 more weeks to go. But it’s good to be there," Lewis said. "Those guys have worked hard, and now they just have to keep working to stay there. If we can stay at or near the top, things will end up the way we’d like to this season.”
Perhaps the toughest challenge besides facing the Cincinnati Bengals defense is naming who's a part of it.Johnathan Joseph? The cornerback bolted to the Houston Texans in free agency for a $49 million contract.