CINCINNATI — A bad hamstring has forced Rey Maualuga to watch from the sidelines the last four games as the Bengals defense has progressively slid down the NFL rankings. It’s been a particularly hard slide when it comes to teams running the football against them.
"I don’t even know where we’re at," said Maualuga on Wednesday as he stood in front of his locker. "Twenty-something?"
Try No. 31 out of the 32 teams in the league.
"Ooo! Weee!" was Maualuga’s reaction of surprise through a scrunched face.
It is a shocking number indeed given how well the Bengals have played defensively the past five seasons. They have been a top-10 unit overall four of the last five seasons and were fifth in the NFL last season against the run, allowing an average of just 96.5 yards per game on the ground, but that number has expanded by nearly 50 yards a game this season. Teams are gaining 4.5 yards a carry against them, which is 27th worst in the league.
New Orleans is this week’s opponent. The Saints have the reputation of throwing the ball all over the field — which quarterback Drew Brees is certainly capable of and competent at doing well — but they are sixth in the league in rushing and third in yards-per-attempt.
"We’ve got to do better. We’ve all got to do better, coaches and players alike," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "We’ve got to play better upfront. We’ve got to play better at the linebacker position, regardless who’s in there. So it’s a work in progress right now. We obviously know the numbers; I know the numbers. And we’ve got to get better."
Guenther has given his players a message this week: get your act together or he’ll find someone who can.
"It’s not so much doing what they’re told, it’s the technique and shooting our hands and staying low at the line of scrimmage and controlling the line of scrimmage. That’s what we need to do better, regardless of who’s in there. I’m not using that as an excuse right now," said Guenther. "They know I mean what I say. It’s all good and dandy when things are going good but when things aren’t going good, I told them regardless of the situation in the game, whatever it may be, we’ve got to go do our part, period."
Cleveland ran the ball 52 times for 170 yards in last Thursday’s 24-3 win at Paul Brown Stadium. The circumstances of the game, the fact that the Browns never trailed and generally were in favorable third-down situations because of their success on first and second downs, dictated why they were able to run the ball as many times as they did, but it was the sixth time in nine games this season the Bengals allowed 132 or more yards rushing.
The fact that they’ve been playing most of the season without their starting linebackers has been one of the problems. Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur are the first names across the depth chart but they have yet to all three start and finish a game this season.
Burfict has had two concussions that have knocked him out of two games and forced him to miss two others before he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Oct. 29. He’s missed the last two games against Jacksonville and Cleveland and did not practice on Wednesday. Maualuga returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since being injured late against Carolina on Oct. 12. Lamur injured his shoulder late in regulation against Carolina and missed the following game at Indianapolis.
Vinny Rey, Jayson DiManche, rookie Marquise Flowers and Nico Johnson, who was signed from Kansas City’s practice squad last month, have played more than expected.
Maualuga was limited in practice Wednesday but has a good chance at playing against the Saints if he continues to progress. His strength is playing the run on first and second down. He’s not often used in nickel packages.
His return alone won’t change the defense. His return plus a healthy Burfict and healthy Leon Hall at cornerback would help matters but it’s not a simple matter of healthy bodies. Those healthy bodies have to play the scheme the right way.
"I don’t like talking about myself. I don’t want to say yeah it’s been missing," said Maualuga. "They’ve had their struggles and the good thing about it is it’s coachable. The good thing about it is it can get fixed and it will get fixed. Based on what (Guenther) said I have every confidence in the world we will come back, we will bounce back and I promise you we’re not going to finish the season 31 in the run. That I can promise you."