James, O'Neal lead pick parade

CHICAGO -- Having experienced both the scrap heap and the top of the heap at various junctures in their careers, Bengals cornerbacks Tory James and Deltha O'Neal admit they have a lot in common.

And they acknowledged, too, following Sunday's 24-7 victory over the Bears, that taking circuitous yet similar paths, which happened to converge serendipitously in a suddenly resourceful Cincinnati secondary, might put the undefeated Bengals on the road to the playoffs.

"We're very close and, yeah, maybe the fact we've both had some ups and some downs has something to do with it," said James. "But from the first day Deltha pulled into camp, he was my best friend. I've had a lot of good friends since I've been in the league, but no one's been as close as Deltha has been. We do a lot of things together with our families. We hang out a lot, we think a lot the same way and I think our mindset is the same. It's just kind of come together for us, really."

And, as a result, things have certainly come together in a Bengals secondary that through three games is playing like the NFL's premier unit.

Sunday's thorough thrashing of the Bears, who managed only 255 yards and 16 first downs, moved the Bengals to 3-0. It's their first such start since 1990, which is the last time the Bengals made the playoffs. In fact, in the 15 years since their last 3-0 start, Cincinnati has started 0-3 on seven occasions.

Not since 1988, when Cincinnati went 12-4 in the regular season and advanced to Super Bowl XXIII under then-coach Sam Wyche, have the Bengals opened at 4-0. But with a home game next Sunday against the Houston Texans and the defense taking the ball away at a franchise-record clip, the Bengals are off to the strong start that head coach Marvin Lewis said would be a key for his team this season, and it certainly looks like a serious contender in the AFC North.

And it's not just because Cincinnati has an explosive offense.

"I know when most people think about our team," said second-year free safety Madieu Williams, one of the NFL's emerging interior secondary stars, "they generally think of our offense. And that's fine. It's how it should be, because those guys are great. But we feel like we can play with anybody on defense, too, and we're trying to go out and make a case for ourselves."

Right now, district attorneys across the NFL could charge the Bengals defense with grand larceny and have little problem making a case.

In pestering Bears rookie quarterback Kyle Orton on Sunday and mostly blanketing his receivers, Cincinnati's defense recorded five interceptions and one fumble recovery. It marked the second straight game in which the Bengals intercepted five passes and they became the first team since the Cleveland Browns, in September 1971, to have consecutive games with five or more pickoffs.

In just three games, the Bengals have a dozen interceptions, only eight fewer than they registered for all of 2004. The franchise record, 34 interceptions in 1996, is under attack. And so are opposition quarterbacks, who are finding it increasingly difficult to locate any open areas in a Cincinnati secondary that has melded nicely.

Combined with four fumble recoveries, the Bengals have 16 takeaways already and a gaudy plus-12 takeaway/turnover differential. The six takeaways against the Bears were turned into 17 points, including touchdown receptions by wide receiver Chad Johnson of 18 and 40 yards and one field goal.

Of the 88 points Cincinnati has scored in its three victories, 41 have come after defensive takeaways, including five of the team's 10 touchdowns. The Bengals have had 16 scoring drives and nine of those followed takeaways. In large part because of the opportunistic defense, Cincinnati has started seven scoring drives beyond its own 45-yard line and five scores came on possessions that originated on the plus-side of the 50.

"They're making it a lot easier for us, that's for sure, and we hope they keep it up," said running back Rudi Johnson, who rambled for 84 yards on 25 carries, on an afternoon when the offense rang up just 11 first downs and 244 yards. "They keep giving us the ball in great position. People are going to have to start paying attention to those guys. I mean, they're flying all over the place, making plays, getting in front of balls."

The ability to play the ball, in fact, might have been the most impressive element of the Bengals' victory on a soggy Sunday afternoon by Lake Michigan. The first of the five picks came on Chicago's initial offensive snap, when safety Kevin Kaesviharn tipped a quick slant pass intended for wide receiver Justin Gage and weakside linebacker Brian Simmons plucked the carom out of the air.

But the other four thefts -- one each by Williams, O'Neal, James and nickel safety Keiwan Ratliff -- were more a function of playing the ball and being in optimum position to make a play. It wasn't so much that Orton threw the ball to the wrong place -- in fact, the Bengals defenders believed the rookie fourth-rounder from Purdue made some excellent pre-snap reads and knew where to go with the ball -- but that he threw poor passes.

In his postgame review, Orton suggested he was "confused at times" by Cincinnati's coverage packages. But the Bengals secondary, like sharks chasing chum in the water, was simply poised to pounce on every mistake, it seemed.

The five interceptions marked the second most ever thrown by a Bears quarterback and the most by the same passer since 1968.

It didn't hurt that Chicago's offense, which, despite the praise heaped on Orton locally, remains pretty rudimentary. Fifteen of the Bears' first 20 snaps on first-and-10 situations were inside runs by Thomas Jones, who rushed 27 times for 106 yards. Orton had just one completion of more than 17 yards. At halftime, the Bengals defense had as many interceptions (four) as Orton had completions.

Clearly, offensive coordinator Ron Turner is trying to keep things simple in an effort to keep Orton out of difficult situations and to reduce errors. But even when the game got lopsided, the Bears didn't deviate from the nuts-and-bolts approach. Neither did coach Lovie Smith ever think about replacing a harassed Orton with veteran Jeff Blake. And notable, too, is that first-round tailback Cedric Benson never left the sideline.

Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered very much what moves Smith and Turner made vs. a Bengals secondary that feels like the ball belongs to it every time it goes into the air. For the game, the unit's aggregate stat line was an impressive one -- 21 tackles, the four interceptions, seven other passes defensed and one fumble recovery. Of the 12 pickoffs in three games, the secondary has 10, and O'Neal leads the gang of thieves with four steals.

The four interceptions equal O'Neal's total for the entire 2004 season. It has been four years since the former University of California star posted nine interceptions, playing in Denver at the time, a performance that earned him a Pro Bowl berth in 2001. But think about this: The Broncos staff had soured so much on O'Neal in 2003 that coach Mike Shanahan switched him to wide receiver. And then, in the spring of 2004, the Broncos gave up entirely on their first-round pick in 2000 and traded him to the Bengals.

The acquisition of O'Neal came only one year after Cincinnati signed James as a free agent in the spring of 2003, after Oakland released him. James went out and snagged eight interceptions last season, earning a Pro Bowl berth, and now has 14 picks in his 35 games in a Bengals uniform. O'Neal has eight interceptions as a Bengals starter now, in only 15 games.

If the two aren't the highest-profile cornerback tandem in the league, they might rank now among the most dangerous. Clearly, they work well together, have developed the kind of non-verbal communication skills outstanding cornerbacks require and seem to push each other to higher levels of excellence.

"It's not a rivalry, because we're in this together, you know?" O'Neal said. "But we do feed off one another. He got that interception today [in the second quarter], and then all of a sudden, I started thinking like, 'OK, now it's my turn.' It gets contagious."

So contagious, in fact, the Bengals are turning interceptions, and takeaways in general, into an epidemic. As the undefeated Bengals exited Soldier Field, they were greeted by a small but raucous crowd that made the drive from Cincinnati and which had broken out into a rash of orange and black stripes.

Suddenly, the old "Who dey" chant, not often heard even in Cincinnati very much in recent years, broke out. Who dey? Well, it certainly won't take many more dominant performances from the Cincinnati secondary for the rest of the NFL to find out.

"The scary part," said Williams, "is that we can get even better. We felt like we left a few [interceptions] out there today. We never want to do that. One interception and we want two. Two and we want three. That's just how it goes with these guys. We're getting around the football and making plays, and that makes us a team to be reckoned with."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.