The Cincinnati Bengals' ability to identify quality defensive linemen outside the first round of the NFL Draft is fueling their playoff push.
The Bengals snuck into the playoffs with a 9-7 record but looked like one of this season's disappointments with a 3-5 record at midseason. They have rebounded with four straight wins and face a critical home game today against Dallas.
The key has been a defensive line that leads the league in sacks with 31. (Buffalo's defensive line ranks third in sacks with 28.)
The best player on the Bengals' team is Geno Atkins, arguably the best defensive tackle in the league. Atkins leads all DTs with 9.5 sacks. He had 7.5 last year and was second-team All-Pro. A fourth-round pick out of Georgia in 2010, Atkins was viewed similarly to the Bills' Kyle Williams coming out of college. He was very effective attacking the line of scrimmage and playing with leverage but he was considered a bit undersized, at 6-foot-2, 293 pounds. Like Williams, Atkins plays like a rolling ball of butcher knives.
The Bengals' other D-line starters are Carlos Dunlap, a second-round pick from Florida in 2010; Michael Johnson, a third-rounder from Georgia Tech in 2009; and Domata Peko, a 322-pound, fourth-rounder from Michigan State in 2006.
Johnson has eight sacks, Dunlap four and Peko two. The Bengals rank No. 1 overall in sacks with 39.
“We treat it like the Hunger Games,” Dunlap told the Cincinnati Enquirer this week regarding the team's pass-rush mentality. “Whoever gets there first. Especially when we know it's a pass, me, Geno and Mike are licking our chops like we hadn't eaten all day. [We] ate at like breakfast, now we got to eat.”
Said defensive line coach Jay Hayes: “Basically, [head coach] Marvin [Lewis] and Zim [defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer] have told them how the D-line plays is how we're going to play, and they've taken it as a challenge. They know that for us to do what we need to do they have to come through, and that's what they're trying to do.”
Johnson has an elite frame. The knock on him coming out of college was he's more potential than production. Dunlap was widely viewed as a freak athlete but had character question marks. He has had maturity issues in Cincinnati, too, but the Bengals take plenty of chances on character-risk players.
The Bengals started their run with a 31-13 win over the Giants. Since then they've beaten Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego. How legitimate are they? Today's game will be a good test. Next week they visit Philadelphia. Then they face a huge game at Pittsburgh Dec. 23.
Texans D vs. Pats O
The strategic matchup of the week is the Houston run defense vs. the New England run offense in what could be a preview of the AFC title game on Monday night. The Patriots are giving Tom Brady the best running-game support that he's had in his career. They're averaging 147 rushing yards a game, eighth best in the league.
Houston's defense ranks second against the run, allowing only 88 yards a game. New England's three losses this year have come against teams (Baltimore, Arizona and Seattle) with defensive fronts that have dominated the line of scrimmage.
The Pats will spread the Texans out in order to run. New England leads the league in percentage of runs (73.5) against defenses with five or more defensive backs, according to ESPN.com.
As the Bills know, the Pats accentuate that edge by using a hurry-up attack, which allows Brady to exploit the weakness of the defense. The Pats ran 94 snaps (counting penalties) in their win over the Broncos, and they're averaging 80 plays a game.
The teams with the most offensive plays this season: 1, New England (883). 2, Detroit (867). 3, Denver (864). 4, Indianapolis (857). 5, Houston (846).
Tice's ball control
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice is doing a nice job managing an attack with a sub-par offensive line and playing to the strength of a great defense.
The Bears are 30th in yards gained, but they're 10th in rushing yards and third in time of possession. That's just the way head coach Lovie Smith likes it, keeping his defense fresh. It makes for an interesting matchup today in Minnesota because the Vikings want to execute the same physical style. The Vikes aren't doing it as well. Despite ranking third in rushing and having a solid defense, Minnesota is 28th in time of possession. That speaks poorly of quarterback Christian Ponder's ability to keep the chains moving.
Tice has QB Jay Cutler run a mostly short passing offense, which protects his offensive line.
“We're getting rid of the ball quickly,” Cutler said this week. “I think we have good game plans going into it. Mike's done a great job of mixing it up and spinning the play-calling and keeping teams off-balance.”
Cobb breaks out
The league leader in all-purpose yards this season is not Minnesota's Adrian Peterson or Detroit's Calvin Johnson. It's second-year quadruple threat Randall Cobb of Green Bay.
Cobb has 675 receiving yards on a team-high 64 catches. He has 132 rushing yards. He has 851 kickoff return yards and 242 punt return yards. That's an even 1,900 all-purpose yards.
If Cobb can keep up his pace of 158 yards a game, he would finish with 2,533, fifth most all time. Darren Sproles set the all-purpose record for New Orleans with 2,696 last year. Fred Jackson is fifth on the list, with 2,516 yards for the Bills in 2009.
He has eight TDs this season, seven receiving, and three kick-return scores in 27 games.
“Randall Cobb is a playmaker,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “That's how we view him. Playmakers need the ball in their hands.”
• Brady is the first starting QB ever to win 10 division titles.
• Calvin Johnson, who leads the NFL with 1,428 receiving yards, is the first player with four straight games with at least 140 receiving yards in a single season.
• There have been 43 games in which the winning points were scored in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime. It's the second most ever through 13 weeks.