Cincinnati is 5-0 for the first time in Marvin Lewis’s 13-year tenure. Pessimists will still point to the franchise’s recent playoff futility, but the true measure of growth isn’t just wins and losses
CINCINNATI — Forgive Bengals fans for living on the edge of their seats. Though Cincinnati took a 4-0 record into its showdown against the defending NFC champs on Sunday, it was hard not to think of last year’s “hot” start: three straight wins followed by a sobering 43-17 beatdown at the hands of the Patriots. Would the other shoe drop, yet again, against one of the NFL’s premier teams?
It sure seemed that way as the Seahawks took a 17-point lead late in the third quarter, but two hours later, the men inside Cincinnati’s locker room were talking about a “statement game.” It wasn’t just about mounting a comeback to pull out a 27-24 win on Mike Nugent’s 42-yard field goal in overtime. The confident vibe reflected something much more important about this oft-mocked franchise. The Bengals are finally doing one of the most important things Super Bowl contenders can do: reaching into its depth chart and replacing great players with great players.
“The Seahawks are one hell of a team,” a breathless Maualuga said after overcoming a 17-point deficit. “But everybody clicked when we needed to. We stayed in the game. The fans stayed in the game. I’ve never been in a game so surreal.”
In the same way that defensive tackle Geno Atkins’s torn ACL knocked the defense down a few pegs following the 2013 injury, losing Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict to microfracture knee surgery during the offseason should have been a major obstacle for Cincinnati this fall. But luckily the Bengals had Vincent Rey.
An undrafted free-agent in 2010 who spent four seasons as a reserve before starting 13 games last year, Rey is listed on the roster at six-feet but stands no taller than 5’10” in cleats. His presence had never been felt more than it was on Sunday. The former Duke linebacker was the constant bane of quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Thomas Rawls, collecting a team-high 13 tackles (he now ranks third in the NFL) and leading a defense that held Seattle to drives of 11, 6, 18, 6, 18 and -6 yards while Cincinnati rallied to become one of the NFL’s six undefeated teams.
Rey’s biggest contribution was a last-second audible that demonstrated a Burfict-esque understanding of the game.
As the Seahawks took control of the ball with 3:37 remaining in the fourth quarter, trying to build upon their 24-21 lead or at least chew up the clock, the Bengals needed a three-and-out to give Andy Dalton enough time to either tie or win the game. Rawls ran on first and second down, setting up third-and-4 from Seattle’s 26-yard line. At that point, Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther radioed in a “double call” to the defensive play-caller’s helmet. Which means, Rey says, “I have the responsibility to make one call or another, based on what I see. I might change it in pre-snap once a game, or 10 times a game.”
The Bengals initially showed blitz, with Rey and fellow linebacker Emmanuel Lamur standing a few feet away from Wilson, who began gesturing an audible at the line of scrimmage. Behind Rey, safety George Iloka began screaming for the second call, but Rey didn’t hear him. At the last moment, Rey made the switch on his own, calling for both linebackers to retreat six yards into coverage instead of going after the quarterback. “I just had the feeling to go to something different,” Rey says. The tight end who would’ve been open for a first down behind Lamur was now covered. The result: Atkins sacked a flustered Wilson at the line, Seattle punted, and Dalton led a game-tying drive to force OT.
“The coaches gave [Rey] the keys to this Ferrari that is this defense,” Iloka says. “They trust him, and we trust him.”
“You give the players three or four calls you’re going to make in that situation,” Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther says. “Usually Vontaze does that stuff. But Rey is a smart guy, studies hard, takes great notes on the film. He really understand—and they all understand—what we’re trying to do.”
The Bengals also understand something else about themselves in 2015: They’re never out of it.
That much has become apparent with Andy Dalton playing the best ball of his life. He has a 67.5% completion rate, with just two interceptions. Of his league-leading 1,518 yards, 495 have gone to wideout A.J. Green, as have three of his 11 touchdowns. There’s a feeling in the Queen City, stronger than ever, that Green can and will come up with a big play at any time. Says Iloka, “We already know A.J. is going to eat. The only thing that would surprise me now would be if he caught a ball with no hands.”
Green did just that on the opening drive—the eating part, that is—by reeling in passes for eight and 14 yards as Cincinnati jumped out to a 7-0 lead. But the Seahawks soon took over, scoring 24 straight points and seemingly putting the game away in the third.
With eight minutes left in the quarter, Rawls took a handoff out of an I formation and cut back, from right to left, just beyond the reach of defensive end Michael Johnson, who was too far upfield to put an arm on the runner because he feared the quarterback would keep it. (“I told the ends we had to watch the boot because Russell will keep the ball,” Guenther says.) Rawls then zipped past several defensive backs to score the first rushing touchdown against the Bengals this season.
Five plays into Cincinnati’s ensuing drive, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner scooped a Rex Burkhead fumble and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown, putting Seattle up 24-7 with 6:41 left in the third.
“In the past around here, some guys might have hung their head and said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to get this one,’ ” Guenther says. “It’s a credit to our guys. We made the adjustments.”
As Dalton and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson engineered the comeback—a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Eifert with 12:18 left to play, a five-yard Dalton TD run with 3:38 to go, and a 31-yard Nugent field goal to force overtime as time expired—the defense neutralized both Rawls and Wilson. Defensive ends minded their depths, and linebackers Rey, Lamur and Rey Maualuga shot gaps with reckless abandon. Maualuga finished with eight tackles, second only to Rey.
“The Seahawks are one hell of a team,” a breathless Maualuga said as he sat at his locker. “I don’t want to say the past Bengals would have given up in that situation...”
“We kept our composure,” he continued. “We obviously gave up some plays we wish we didn’t. But everybody clicked when we needed to. We stayed in the game. The fans stayed in the game. I’ve never been in a game so surreal.”
This was a big win, perhaps as big as they come in the first half of an NFL season. The Bengals are 5-0 for the first time in head coach Marvin Lewis’s 13-year tenure. What does that mean in the bigger picture? To cynical, weary fans, not much. This team has had no trouble winning important regular season games and making the playoffs in recent years. Last season, Cincy topped division-rival Baltimore at home and on the road, and then beat Peyton Manning’s Broncos in Week 16 by a couple scores, only to lose the wild-card game in Indianapolis, 26-10. What looks like a breakout season and a possible MVP bid for Dalton won’t be validated until he improves his atrocious and oft-cited playoff record (0-4).
But the optimist will look at the little things: the way the Bengals ruthlessly and consistently attack weaknesses and create mismatches on offense; their resiliency in the face of a scoring onslaught; and the rare ability to acquire depth and plug in contributors when injuries occur.
Ironically enough, Rey could have been wearing a Seahawks uniform on Sunday if not for a last-minute deal near the end of the 2010 season. After the Bengals stashed him on the practice squad, agent Brian Hamilton began negotiating a deal with Seattle to sign him. The linebacker’s bags were even checked on a plane headed to Seattle and the airline was calling his name at the Cincinnati terminal when his agent worked out a deal with the Bengals to retain Rey. Four years later, he was a key factor in arguably one of the biggest wins in the Andy Dalton Era.
The true growth of this Cincinnati team shouldn’t be measured in wins, but in how role players have become starters and game-changers. Judge these Bengals by the answer to one simple question: Would Rey have felt comfortable making that critical third-down audible a year ago?
“Ooh, I don’t know,” he says, “We didn’t have the chemistry. We have a lot of veterans on this team and they trust me to get everyone on the same page. Last year, I don’t think I make those checks, but we’re a veteran team now.”