Three things have changed about the Bengals, who enter Heinz Field on Sunday tied for the AFC North lead with the Super Bowl champion Steelers:
1. Marvin Lewis is not kidding around. Not many things I see on video make me sit up and say, Whoa. But when HBO's "Hard Knocks'' captured Lewis ripping the tar out of his team after a sloppy preseason loss to St. Louis, I thought, Marvin's tired of getting pushed around.
Lewis screamed at his team to "be f---ing pros!'' And it not only got my attention -- it got his vets' attention. "Oh, I remember the moment,'' said cornerback Johnathan Joseph. "His message was pretty clear -- whether it's the preseason or regular season, he's not going to tolerate us playing like that.''
2. Cedric Benson makes Carson Palmer have to be a quarterback, not a savior. The Bengals haven't had a productive workhorse back (24.6 carries, 104.7 yards per game) like Benson in a while, and it allows Palmer to play ball-control, not bombs away. Watch the Cincinnati offense. I bet Palmer throws a deep ball three times a game now, not eight. He doesn't have to. This has become a move-the-chains team. That'll be tested against Casey Hampton and friends Sunday, but at least Cincinnati will come in with some ammunition.
3. Mike Zimmer's established a defense teams have to respect. When's the last time midway through the season the Bengals were in the top five in the league in points allowed? When mastodons roamed the earth? The Bengals' second-year coordinator has survived the loss of pass-rusher Antwan Odom to an October Achilles tear to continue some quality choreographing. It's helped to have two quality cornerbacks, Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, playing at their peak.
That's what I'll focus on here -- how well the defense is playing, and who in the world these guys are. It's hard to fly under the radar in today's NFL, but when the keywords are "Bengals'' and "defense,'' well, it gets a little easier to be invisible.
The Bengals are fifth in the league in scoring defense (16.9 points per game allowed), seventh in average yards per rush allowed (3.79 yards), and they're the only team in the league with two corners with four interceptions.
"The best thing we have going for us,'' Zimmer told me this week, "is we've got no stars. And nobody wants to be one. Our guys are tough, smart, willing to work, not sensitive, and they play for the love of the game. I love that part of it. All they want to do is win, and when you have that attitude among your players -- and it's real -- you've got a chance.''
You know the guy with the brunette hair fluffing out of his helmet, down to the small of his back? Well, you don't know him. His name's Domata Peko (DOE-mata PECK-oh), and he's at the core of the league's most underrated run defense. "He's a really good nose tackle, probably the best I've ever coached,' Zimmer said. "Tough, physical, will go at you all day.'' Having Tank Johnson -- with something to prove after being let go by Dallas -- next to him helps. Without Odom, Jonathan Fanene (fuh-NAY-nay) has stepped into the pass-rush void, with three sacks and several near misses.
USC bookends Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga flank Dhani Jones at linebacker -- Maualuga is being groomed to take the 31-year-old Jones' place at middle 'backer in the next couple of years -- and the threesome has given Zimmer good sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability. In the back end, Zimmer took Chris Crocker off the street last year, and he's become a credible free safety, playing alongside (talk about someone with something to prove) Roy Williams. But the key has been the play of Joseph and Hall.
Last week, it was interesting to watch the self-assured Joe Flacco face the Bengals. He kept fading back to throw, then looking, looking, looking ... because Hall and Joseph locked up the Baltimore receivers so well. "We want to disguise coverages and show Flacco a lot of different looks,'' Joseph said. "That's the key to playing any quarterback.''
Overall, Joseph said it's been faith in Zimmer's aggressive scheme that's helped Cincinnati play this well. "We've had a full year in the system now,'' he said, "and we know it, we're confident in it, and if we play it right, we're convinced we'll win.''
The Bengals know everyone's looking for their bubble to burst Sunday in Pittsburgh. They've been a nice little story, going 4-0 in the division so far, including a sweep of the Ravens. Now, at Pittsburgh, we'll find out everything about them. Zimmer is challenging his players this week to play smart -- and to not let that big tree-trunk in the Steeler backfield to roam free.
"We can't let Ben Roethlisberger out of the pocket,'' Zimmer said. "Bad, bad things happen when you let him out of the pocket. And we can't let [Rashard] Mendenhall get to the perimeter either.'' Tall orders. This Cincinnati defense has responded to challenges so far, holding Denver to 12 points, Baltimore to 14 and seven, and Pittsburgh to 20. It might need to hold Pittsburgh under that Sunday to win.
We can't ignore Jay Cutler's carelessness any longer, but we also have to blame the leakiest offensive line in the league south of Green Bay for some of this madness.
Cutler, after his five-pick night in San Francisco, has 17 in nine games. Kyle Orton, Tony Romo, Brett Favre and David Garrard, combined, have 17 interceptions. Late in the game came this Tweet from Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett: "If I was on the chicago team, 'JAY CUTLER' is walking his ass home. In his uniform!''
Chicago's offensive line is contributing to the damage Cutler is inflicting. I'd say the fault is 60 percent Cutler's over-aggressive forcing of the ball, 37 percent rarely having a pocket to set up and survey the field, and 3 percent the amateurish snapping of center Olin Kreutz.
The Bears are in a vicious cycle: Because they can't run the ball consistently, they're forced to let Cutler try to make every first down, and because the defense knows he'll be throwing so much, the rush can break down the pocket and lead Cutler to mistakes. How to fix it? The only way to put scotch-tape on it now is to max-protect more with an extra blocker on every pass play, either with an extra tight end or extra back -- or both. And in the offseason, GM Jerry Angelo will have to spend every waking moment finding a tackle and at least one guard. Blaming Cutler is fine, and much of it's deserved. But it's also the easy way out. In football, it's never as simple as blaming one person.
Jarraud Powers and Jacob Lacey, CBs, Indianapolis.
Last week, the two rookies -- Powers a third-round pick from Auburn, Lacey a college free agent from Oklahoma State -- started in tandem for the first time because of knee injuries to both Indy starters, Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden. Though the Colts will play lots of nickel Sunday night and help Powers and Lacey in coverage, they still have this fact staring them in the face: Two of the most important players trying to stop Tom Brady and Randy Moss -- on the rug in the Indy dome -- will be rookies who a year ago were in the SEC and Big 12, respectively. That's a tough way for the Colts to enter the game.
1. Whether Aaron Rodgers has learned how not to take sacks. To have 260 attempts and 37 sacks in eight games is downright irresponsible on the part of Rodgers, and even though Mike McCarthy has played it down the past couple of weeks, everyone in Green Bay knows the Cowboys are coming to town with a good inside (Jay Ratliff) and outside (DeMarcus Ware) rush to get to the quarterback. Rodgers simply has to dump it off when he sees the roof caving.
2. Brett Favre's mobility. Never is heard a discouraging word out of Minnesota about the strained groin muscle Favre nursed through the bye week. But he's been limited in practice this week, and the obvious question is whether Favre, at 40, and starting his 300th straight game (including playoffs), can hold up for the next two-plus months if he can't move the way he needs to move.
3. Curtis Lofton answering the bell for Atlanta. Falcons at Panthers. Carolina sure to try to throw a 35- or 40-carry run game against Atlanta, so Matt Ryan stays glued to the sidelines. That's why Lofton, a legitimate top-five middle linebacker, needs to overcome his knee and ankle woes and be the roadblock for DeAngelo Williams. Lofton practiced fully on Wednesday, so it sounds like he's good to go. He'd better be.
4. Philip Rivers strafing the Eagles. With two of the Eagles' top four corners -- Ellis Hobbs (neck) and Joselio Hanson (league suspension) -- out, Rivers has to be licking his chops to send 6-foot-5 monsters Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd and Kassim Osgood deep in San Diego Sunday.
5. The Patriots taking Dallas Clark away from Peyton Manning.Rodney Harrison said the other day at NBC that the Patriots, above all, would not let Clark have the kind of chains-moving day he had against Houston last week, when he caught 14 Manning passes. My guess is the Pats will try to occupy the move tight end with a safety or corner as much or more than with a linebacker, and try to slow him in the five-yard bump zone.
6. Denver to struggle again. Just because the Broncos are at 2-6 Washington, don't look for a walkover. The 'Skins have a legit top-eight defense. Albert Haynesworth's going to pressure the pocket and Andre Carter will get around the edge enough to bother Kyle Orton. Tough road trip for Denver.
7. Brady Quinn trying to stick it to his own team. So Quinn at the start of the season was given the starting job for 10 quarters, then yanked, and became a nobody around the team. Then, because Derek Anderson was downright awful as the starter, Quinn gets another chance ... Monday night, against Baltimore. He badly wants to prove himself. But Quinn had better not push too hard. That never helps.
8. Motivation in Indianapolis. This is odd, because Pats-Colts is always such a big game. But this year, why, exactly? If the Patriots lose and exit the weekend with a one-game division lead, do you doubt they'll win the AFC East? If the Colts lose and lead the AFC South by three, there's still no chance they'll lose the division. Now, each team will be beyond fired-up to play this game, because it's such a good rivalry, and Manning and Brady will go nuts if they see a teammate not treating this game like the seventh game of the World Series. But when you really think about it, this game is great for the drama and the showdown. It's not great for the significance.
9. The perfect week for a bye. The Giants and Texans have the last two byes in the league, and it's the best time for a bye -- with nine games down and seven to go. You'd prefer your bye to come a little bit after the midpoint of your season, so you can get more people closer to healthy.
10. A break from Chad Ochocinco. I like the guy. He's fun, he's different, he's full of life. But enough already with the sixth-grade crappola, sending deodorant to the Ravens defensive backs (what does that mean anyway) and being stopped by his coach from sending mustard to the Steelers defensive backs (what does that mean anyway) and waiving a dollar bill at an official, "hoping'' he'd change his call. Can we have a week with just football with this guy? Just one?