For Bengals defense, it all starts up front

CINCINNATI – Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have many frustrating days but he had one last Sunday. The Green Bay quarterback dropped back nearly 50 times to pass the ball against the Bengals. He was sacked four times, hit another four times and pressured enough that he was forced to run on his own three other times and throw 17 incompletions.

Eight of his incompletions were passes broken up by the Bengals’ defense, including two by defensive end Carlos Dunlap and one by Michael Johnson on the final drive of the game, which ended in the Bengals getting the ball back on downs and running the clock out on a 34-30 victory. Rodgers’ passer rating of 64.5 was his lowest in four seasons.

There has been an abundance of hype and recognition thrown the way of the Cincinnati defensive line this year. It’s been earned. What it did to Rodgers and the Green Bay offensive line in disrupting one of the NFL’s top passing attacks only gave further credence to all of the praise the unit has received.

“I think every year has been getting better and better and we’re just scratching the surface,” said defensive tackle Domata Peko. “We’ve got a long way to go. We made a lot of big plays (against Green Bay) but we left a lot of plays out there that we could have made.

“As long as we keep working hard, that’s what we try to do every day at practice. That’s where we get better at, and we all have that right mentality of just wanting to get better, wanting to improve. We’re not there yet. If we keep doing that and improving as we go on we could be one hell of a D-line.”

They are already pretty good. Geno Atkins is the first name that pops out because of his two Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro selection from last season but Peko, Johnson and Dunlap and reserves Wallace Gilberry, Devin Still and Brandon Thompson have followed his lead. Atkins, Johnson and Dunlap all received big salary upgrades in the offseason.

Opponents are paying more attention to Atkins this season, but that comes with consequences.

“Geno is a man-child,” said Dunlap. “It frees us up a little bit. When he’s getting doubled it’s usually the center and a guard, so they still have a tight end and a running back for me and Mike. It just depends on how many receivers they want to release. The Steelers, sometimes they only released two receivers. That’s (eight) guys blocking.”

Johnson has 14 tackles this season with 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one pass breakup and leads the team with 12 quarterback pressures. Dunlap has 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four quarterback pressures and leads the defensive line with three pass breakups.

The Bengals haven’t allowed a 300-yard passer in their last 17 games. The last quarterback to surpass 300 yards passing against them was Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden in Week 2 last season at Paul Brown Stadium. Weeden threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-27 Cincinnati win. Eight times the Bengals have held teams to less than 200 yards net passing (passing – yards sacked) and only Denver has topped 265 yards passing against the Bengals in the last 17 games.

Weeden won’t be starting this week when the Bengals head north to Cleveland; Cleveland native Brian Hoyer will start for the second straight game after Weeden suffered a thumb injury against Baltimore in Week 2. Hoyer completed 30 of 54 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns last week as the Browns got their first win of the season, 31-27, on the road at Minnesota.

Cornerback Leon Hall and safety Reggie Nelson have not practiced this week, both because of sore hamstrings, and their availability for Sunday is up in the air. The Bengals signed veteran safety Chris Crocker on Wednesday. For those trying to read tea leaves, that signing points to Nelson missing this game. Brandon Ghee has returned to practice this week from a concussion he suffered in training camp.
 
If the secondary is going to be down one or two starters, the importance of the defensive line putting pressure on Hoyer increases. He did throw three interceptions against the Vikings but completed a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron with 51 seconds left for the game-winning score. Josh Gordon returned to the Cleveland receiving group last week after serving a two-game suspension and caught 10 passes for 146 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown.

Cleveland has given up 14 sacks in three games.

“We’re basically watching the offensive coordinator tendencies, Mr. (Norv) Turner who was in San Diego for all of those years, because he’s going to stick to what he knows no matter who they plug in at quarterback,” said Gilberry, who has one sack and five quarterback pressures while playing about half of the defensive snaps this season.

“We’ve just got to take care of business. We’ve got to hit him, we’ve got to be physical with the offensive line. They’ve got two Pro Bowlers in Mack and Thomas (center Alex Mack and left tackle Joe Thomas). Those two there are going to carry the weight of the offense so it’s up to us to go in there and take care of business.”