Defense coming together, Bengals win 3 straight
CINCINNATI -- The Bengals have done what's necessary keep themselves in playoff position a fourth of the way into the season. The toughest part begins later this month.
At 3-1, they've given themselves some wiggle room that they'll likely need.
Cincinnati remained tied with Baltimore atop the AFC North with a 27-10 win at Jacksonville, their third straight after they got drubbed by the Ravens 44-13 in the season opener.
The Bengals did it with a defense missing its two starting cornerbacks and an offense riding the Dalton-to-Green combination to a lot of big plays.
"We're definitely ahead of where we were last year," quarterback Andy Dalton said on Monday.
They are on offense. The defense is something of a mess, but playing well enough to keep the winning streak intact heading into a home game Sunday against Miami (1-3).
Cornerbacks Leon Hall (hamstring) and Nate Clements (calf) missed Sunday's game with injuries. Hall, their top defender, has missed the last two games, cutting into the depth in the defensive backfield.
After two tough opening games, the defense is starting to come together, improving from 29th in the league to 19th with a solid showing against Jacksonville. The Bengals had six sacks on Sunday and lead the league with 17 overall.
It was a major improvement over a 38-31 win at Washington the previous week.
"I think we just played pretty well," cornerback Terence Newman said Monday. "(Coach Mike Zimmer) has been on us pretty hard because we haven't been playing up to the potential the guys on this team are able to play up to. All week, he's been just pretty much down our throats and wanting us to hustle to the ball, finish plays, finish games.
"Honestly, you would have never thought we had won the game last week (in Washington) when we came in the meeting on Monday. He was pretty mad."
The return of defensive end Carlos Dunlap has made a huge difference in the pass rush. Dunlap missed the first two games with a sprained knee, suffered in the first preseason game. Left end Michael Johnson had a career-high three sacks against the Redskins with Dunlap on the other side of the line, and tackle Geno Atkins had two on Sunday at Jacksonville.
"I'm really excited about Dunlap and Michael Johnson and Geno," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, who had a sack on Jacksonville's first play. "They're all excellent pass rushers. In the league right now it seems like there's a lot more passing, so you've got to be good at rushing the passer."
The offense has been at its best during the three-game stretch, taking advantage of teams attempting to cover receiver A.J. Green with one defender. Green had the best game of his career -- nine catches for 183 yards -- in the win against Washington, which used a lot of man-to-man coverage.
The Bengals expected less man-to-man coverage by the Jaguars, who tried Washington's approach and paid for it. Green had six catches for 117 yards, most in the second half when Dalton saw the single coverage and looked Green's way.
"Going in, we thought we were going to get a lot of (double coverage), but that wasn't how they were playing it," Dalton said. "He didn't have a catch in the first quarter, then he had several the rest of the game. We keep finding ways to get him the ball."
The most pleasing development has been the play of the offensive line. Left guard Travelle Wharton tore up his right knee in the first preseason game. Center Kyle Cook hurt his right foot and ankle in the final preseason game, a significant injury that could end his season. The Bengals signed free agent Jeff Faine to replace him. They're also starting rookie Kevin Zeitler at right guard, leaving the middle of the line in flux.
So far, it's done a good job of protecting Dalton, who ranks fifth in the NFL with a 103 passer rating. Dalton leads the league in fourth-quarter passer rating at 151.7 with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
"Just the knowledge of the offense is a lot better than last year and that's how it should be," Dalton said. "We've got to keep getting better."
The Bengals are in the middle of a stretch of five consecutive games against quarterbacks who are either rookies or in their second year. The schedule gets much tougher in mid-October, starting with games against Pittsburgh, Denver and the Giants.
A quarter of the way into the season, they've gotten the wins they needed.
"The second quarter is going to be just as tough, if not tougher," Newman said. "The third quarter is going to be tougher than the second, and the fourth is going to be the most difficult. As long as we can maintain and stay healthy I think we'll definitely be OK."
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Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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