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Cincinnati Bengals' Top-Ranked Defense Is Justified

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 02:  Fred Jackson #22 of the Buffalo Bills is tackled by Rey Maualuga #58 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the game at Paul Brown Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 02: Fred Jackson #22 of the Buffalo Bills is tackled by Rey Maualuga #58 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the game at Paul Brown Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Initially we were cautious about making a big deal regarding Cincinnati's top defensive ranking Monday morning for two reasons. One the weekend wasn't over with two teams remaining for Monday Night Football. Two the Bengals defense hasn't been challenged yet to really promote the team's defensive ranking as a grandiose achievement.

Now it's time to briefly amend both.

Currently the Cincinnati Bengals have allowed a league-low 275.5 yards of total offense through four games this year. There's a chance that either the Indianapolis Colts or Tampa Bay Buccaneers could supersede the Bengals as best defense by Tuesday morning. And by chance, we mean that Colts have to give up less than seven yards of total offense and the Buccaneers will literally have to post the best defensive performance in the history of the NFL with -52 total yards allowed.

Alright so the chances aren't probable.

Save for an aberration in 2010, this is the defense Bengals fans expected to carry over from the 2009 season when Cincinnati ranked fourth in the NFL. How good are they? The rankings alone tell that story:

  Statistic Rank
Total Defense 275.5 1st
Rushing Defense 86.8 7th
Passing Defense 188.8 3rd
Scoring Defense 18.5 6th
Third Downs 32% 3rd
1st Downs Allowed 16.0 4th
Yards per Play 4.4 t-1st
QB Sacks 10.0 t-12th
Forced Fumbles 6 4th

The curious nature of being a Bengals fan includes the perfected art of finding ways to be suspicious of a Bengals achievement. Not only can't we accept the fact that Cincinnati beat an undefeated team, we'll find ways to complain about the nature of that win. It wasn't that the Bengals beat the Bills, it was that the Bengals were gift-wrapped favorable calls from the officials. After all the Bills aren't really that good; swelling Cincinnati's defensive rankings. So forth and so on.

Yet these people do exist, and God love 'em we've been their brothers and sisters for the better part of 20 years. Pessimism is strongest among older fans, having gone through the period that must not be named after Paul Brown's death and before Marvin Lewis' arrival.

That begs the question, do you have a problem with someone shunning Cincinnati's defensive ranking, pointing out three of the offenses the Bengals have played are ranked outside the top 20?

Personally I don't have a problem with someone making the argument; I just have no reason to use that as a crutch holding any of us back from the praise that these guys deserve.

Before Sunday's meeting against the Buffalo Bills, the Cincinnati Bengals already sported the league's third-best defense; so the whole defensive thing didn't come out of nowhere. We were anxious for this contest because it would be the best measuring device to really gauge Cincinnati's defense. Buffalo came into the game averaging 37.7 points/game (1st in the NFL) and 431 yards (3rd). When the Bengals defense used up the Bills like recycled toilet paper, Buffalo fell 17.7 points and 158 yards shy of those averages.

After Mike Nugent converted a 21-yard field goal to reduce Cincinnati's deficit to 11 points, the Buffalo Bills jogged onto the field with 11:23 remaining in the third quarter, marking their first possession of the second half. From their own 20-yard line, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick handed off to running back Fred Jackson. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins was literally an immovable object, even through the attempted strain of an attempted double team, clogging the point of attack. Michael Johnson crashed down neutralizing the outside while Thomas Howard and Rey Maualuga made the tackle for a limited two-yard gain after Jackson realized he had nowhere to go. You could almost see it now, singing a country song. They took my running lane, away ran my dame...

On the following play, Fitzpatrick stood behind center in shotgun with an empty backfield. Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins, on the right (from the defensive perspective), bull rushed their perspective offensive linemen until Johnson detached into Fitzpatrick's legs a full second before Atkins knocked Fitzpatrick's upper body sideways. The second down quarterback sack virtually ended the possession before third down.

Early during the fourth quarter, the Buffalo Bills were preparing to record their 17th play during a possession that began with 5:26 remaining in the third. Three third downs had already been converted and the drive was the Mona Lisa of ball control. However the Bills accidentally fell behind schedule two plays prior with an incomplete to Donald Jones (pass was low) and a no-gain Fred Jackson run during the Robert Geathers' comeback tour.

Third down and ten from the 12-yard line with 12:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. A conversion was possible but a touchdown would wreck Cincinnati's chances for a comeback, expanding into an 11-point deficit. A field goal was manageable, keeping the Bills within striking distance of a single possession. The Buffalo Bills call a running back screen over the middle to Jackson. As the running back tried stretching to the left, Morgan Trent forced him back up the middle and tackled Jackson from behind with a little help from Rey Maualuga.

"We knew as a defense that we wanted to be big. We knew their offense was very good, and this was a test for us. We wanted to come out and give it everything we had. We wanted to prove that we are a legit defense. We let some big plays get through, but overall I think we did a good job."

Yes, you'd be right. This is the first time we mentioned Morgan Trent since preseason.

The concession for a field goal over the elation of a touchdown was huge. Most offensive possessions that accumulate 15 snaps or more tend to end only when touchdowns are scored. One could argue that a 17-play drive isn't productive of a top-ranked defense whereas someone else could easily point out that's exactly what a top-ranked defense would do; preventing the touchdown.

With 2:07 remaining in the fourth quarter, Ryan Fitzpatrick walked to his center and shouted instructions with five wide receivers stretched along the line of scrimmage. Five yards were needed for a first down. As Fitzpatrick dropped into his fifth step, defensive end Carlos Dunlap turned the corner forcing the quarterback to step up into the pocket.

Jonathan Fanene penetrated just enough to force Fitzpatrick to reassess his sudden predicament. Scramble on third-and-five for positive yards and a prayer of picking up the first down? Or throw the football and hope someone makes a play to sustain the drive that could win the game during a 20-point tie and two minutes remaining? Truth is Fitzpatrick was forced into the decision with Atkins flashing (not that flashing) into the quarterback's peripheral vision. And just as Atkins laid out the quarterback, Fitzpatrick threw a prayer down the left sidelines that fell incomplete. Brian Leonard does a Chuck Norris on the Bills and the Bengals win.

In the end... Comparing this defense to any defense in the league isn't an objective that's worth debating. Because here's what we know. They can rush the passer, force three-and-out possessions and hold some of the league's top running backs like Peyton Hillis, Frank Gore and Fred Jackson to well under 100 yards. There's no hidden meaning, no arguments to fuel an anti Mike Brown passion and nothing more than good ol' fashioned defensive football.