Through the first three games of the 2014 regular season, the Cincinnati Bengals are one of three undefeated teams, dominating the league with a +47 point margin (seriously, the Falcons are second with +31... and the Bengals beat them by 14), and are being lauded by many as early-season favorites for the Super Bowl.
While it's a bit early to prognosticate something that won't even happen until February, one has to ask if the start to the season could have gone any better? Save for Wallace Gilberry and Reggie Nelson spoiling Baltimore's last-ditch effort to wipe out a seven-point deficit in the regular season opener, the Bengals haven't just won every game... they have barely faced much of a deficit.
The Bengals were winning 15-10 against the Ravens when Steve Smith evaded a preoccupied Adam Jones for an 80-yard touchdown reception, giving Baltimore a 16-15 lead with 5:46 remaining in the fourth. Cincinnati rebounded with a juggling 77-yard touchdown reception from A.J. Green with 4:58 remaining in the game, reclaiming the lead and eventual 23-16 win. In other words, the Bengals haven't played with a deficit except for the 48 seconds between the Smith's touchdown reception and Green's response.
That's how you do it.
One reason... defense.
When Mike Zimmer departed for Minnesota, linebackers coach Paul Guenther was given the nod -- and it's almost like Cincinnati hasn't even missed a beat.
"Coach Paul (Guenther) is doing a good job providing many schemes for us," said Domata Peko following Sunday's win over the Tennessee Titans. "The game plan was very good, and we went out there and executed it. We are now 3-0. We have been playing our tail off.
"The coaches have done a great job preparing the game plan," said Peko. "Our defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, is coming into his own. We believe in him, and we've got his back."
Currently, the Cincinnati Bengals are the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL, allowing only 33 total points and an average 11.0 points per game. Ranked second are the Chicago Bears, who have allowed 43 points... and that's prior to their Monday Night game against the New York Jets. The Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and Jets are tied for third with 45 points allowed. In other words, Cincinnati will enter the bye week as the top-ranked scoring-defense in the NFL.
And they've done it without defensive end Michael Johnson, currently in Tampa Bay, all-star linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who's been dealing with concussions and the All-Pro-version of defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is slowly regaining his confidence from last year's ACL tear.
One could praise the rise of George Iloka, who ranks as the team's top pass defender, per Pro Football Focus. Iloka has defended against six passes, allowed no completions, intercepted two passes and defensed two more.
"We're happy with the results right now," said Iloka. "There’s a lot of things we're still trying to work on so we can peak at the right time."
Of the 33 points allowed this season by Cincinnati, 23 have come in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati hasn't even allowed a touchdown in the first half yet (only three points allowed in the first quarter and no points allowed in the second).
And how does this season compare to former iterations of Mike Zimmer's defense? His best scoring-defense season was 2009 when Cincinnati allowed 291 points... or 18.2 points/game. Guenther's defense is on pace to allow 176 points this year, 11 points shy of Baltimore's record-setting defense in 2000.
The players are not content. Like Iloka, linebacker Rey Maualuga preaches more work.
"I think we're far from proving things at this point," said Maualuga. "Obviously, we're 3-0, we're excited, we're happy and take a lot of pride in what we do. But you know, we have a tough road ahead of us. This bye week, I think came too early. It will be great for all the injured guys to rest up, though."
"When this team is healthy and we've got everyone back, I think nothing but great things from here on out. When everyone’s healthy and when everyone comes back and we prepare for the Patriots, we'll see where this team can go."