It was supposed to be a strength this year. Yet the defensive line had become more disappointment this year.
Heading into Sunday's game against the New York Giants, the overwhelming story highlighted New York's front four, with names like Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Linval Joseph foaming like "rabid dogs". It was answered convincingly, with Pierre-Paul laying the only hand on Andy Dalton all afternoon. Think of it this way: How many times were their names referenced?
Yet the storyline still contained a "front four", but it wasn't the Giants. In fact the general question shifted, asking how New York would answer Cincinnati's front four. The Bengals defense had intended that shocking reversal this whole time -- those wiley ol' goats.
"One of the chips we had for this week was to out-play their defensive line," said Carlos Dunlap. "We knew we had the ability, but we just have to go out there and do it — don’t talk about it, be about it."
Dunlap and crew received much of the glory from Cincinnati's defensive effort against the Giants, but that would be completely inaccurate. Most of Cincinnati's pressures and quarterback sacks were during situations that forced Eli Manning to hold onto the football. Great coverage all afternoon from Leon Hall, who "shadowed" Victor Cruz into nonexistence with a yawn-inducing three receptions for 26 yards. Terence Newman, Nate Clements, Dre Kirkpatrick, Adam Jones and Chris Crocker contained the remainder of New York's passing offense, laughing off any attempted stake in relevancy.
With 9:14 remaining in the first quarter, the Cincinnati Bengals rush four. Robert Geathers lines up as the left defensive tackle, with Carlos Dunlap on his left shoulder and Geno Atkins to his right. Eli Manning takes the third down snap from the Giants 41-yard line, looks downfield... and looks downfield. In the meantime Geathers pushes aside Chris Snee's block, hits Manning with Atkins and Dunlap converging behind. Someone was getting to Manning; it was a matter of time with Cincinnati's coverage.
Benefactors from sustained coverage that held New York's receivers into obscurity.
Even though it wasn't classified as a quarterback sack, the pressure was often enough to unsettle Eli Manning in the pocket, resulting in minimal gains or turnovers.
Carlos Dunlap stoically took up his customary left defensive end spot third and four from the Giants 37-yard line with 12:54 remaining in the second. Manning looked downfield when he got a whole lot of Chris Snee shoved in his face, courtesy of a nasty Geno Atkins bullrush. Looping around is Dunlap, who drags down the scrambling quarterback, managing only one irrelevant yard gain.
Perhaps no quarterback sack was as important as the one Cincinnati recorded with :48 seconds remaining in the first half. New York was driving, reaching Cincinnati's 14-yard line during a "two minute offense" while keeping their final timeout in their pocket. Much like the entire afternoon, Manning held onto the football when his initial reads were covered -- in this case Adam Jones (with help from Rey Maualuga inside) and Leon Hall covering Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz (in the slot) respectively to the left.
By the third read, Carlos Dunlap has already bullrushed David Diehl a good five yards, in the process of disengaging around the right tackle to lay the initial hit on the Manning. Geno Atkins fought off Snee's block to forcefully end the play, splitting the sack between both players. As a result Lawrence Tynes converts a field goal two plays later, reducing the deficit to 11 points -- instead of a touchdown which would made it a 17-10 Bengals lead. This would essentially be the final meaningful score for the rest of the afternoon by the Giants.
New York's offense opened the second half, but it was a quick recital from a game that was already all too familiar. On second and ten from the Giants 26-yard line with just over 14 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Manning takes his third quarterback sack of the afternoon. Instead of the more common coverage variety we've observed earlier in the game, this was simply Robert Geathers and Domata Peko beating their blockers, meeting each other in the middle while Manning pealed himself off the turf.
But again it's the idea of pressure, not just the quarterback sack, that dramatically shifted Sunday's game.
With the Bengals maintaining a 17-6 lead with 7:22 remaining in the third quarter, Manning looks right but again, holds onto the football. He checks to another receiver when a face full of Geno Atkins flashed across his face. Manning spun out of the pocket, rolling to the left. Noticing that his tires were smoking like a victory burnout in NASCAR, Manning could only assume that Atkins latched onto his jersey. Get rid of the football. Atkins jabbed a shoulder into Manning's back as the quarterback released the football. Not unlike a shanked punt, Pat Sims reached out with both hands in a dead sprint, intercepting the football and returning it three yards.
The Bengals would take a 24-6 lead on a Jermaine Gresham touchdown reception.
Same quarter, different down, identical results. Third and five with 5:49 remaining in the third, Atkins beat his guy, grabbing Manning with a fist-full of jersey with the strength of an alligator's bite. Manning thought it was wise to throw it anyway, especially seeing Carlos Dunlap bearing down for a mid-waist shot. The football was a lame duck, hanging in the air for Nate Clements to intercept. The veteran cornerback returned it 21 yards.
The Bengals would take a 31-6 lead on a Mohamed Sanu 10-yard touchdown reception.
Wallace Gilberry joined into the act with a fourth quarter sack, dislodging the football for another turnover, recovered at New York's 41-yard line.
Obviously the credit is established for Cincinnati's front four with an endless assault lodged at Eli Manning. But it wasn't the pass rush that affected him so much; rather the coverage that forced Manning to hold onto the football and take the shots all afternoon.
Credit one or the other if you must; but it was a unified effort that brought New York down.