Monday, November 29, 2004

Defense Saves Best for Last


Deltha O'Neal celebrates after his 31-yard interception return sealed Sunday's wild 58-48 victory. (AP Photo/David Kohl)
You’ve got to remember.

When Marvin Lewis was the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens in 2000, his unit allowed an NFL-record 165 points.

So you’ll have to excuse him if he sounded a little numb after the Bengals head coach watched Cincinnati and Cleveland combine for 106 points in just 60 minutes Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

Even if his team won, 58-48.

“Sometimes there are spurts like that, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it continue as much as it did through the third quarter,” Lewis said of the 35-point explosion. “I looked up and there were three minutes gone in the third quarter, and there were already two touchdowns scored. But we are happy to win. We made it harder than it needed to be, but our guys kept fighting, and they made the plays.”

Defense comes up with the big play
Still, it was the defense that saved the day. End Robert Geathers protected a 51-48 lead with a drive-ending sack as he continues his late Rookie of the Year run with 3.5 sacks on the year. And cornerback Deltha O’Neal sealed it on his 31-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:43 left.

“At least," said defensive end Duane Clemons, “we were able to hold it together long enough to make those two plays. We lost our way for a little bit.”

As well as the Bengals defense has played since the Browns lit it up for 233 yards on just four plays in the Oct. 17 loss in Cleveland, it played as badly Sunday in a second half the Browns erupted for 35 points behind backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb’s 348 passing yards.

"Too many big plays and not enough good ones," said linebacker Brian Simmons. "But when we need to make a play, we get it. That's what we've been doing. That's become a trademark of our defense."

Since that day in Cleveland, the Bengals hadn’t allowed a wide receiver to catch a ball longer than 27 yards, hadn’t allowed a running back more than 20 yards on a carry, hadn’t allowed a play longer than 37 yards, and had allowed just five touchdown passes in the past five games.

But Holcomb hooked up on a 55-yard touchdown pass to wide open receiver Antonio Bryant that appeared to be a blown coverage between cornerback Tory James and rookie safety Madieu Williams. Wide receiver Dennis Northcutt caught balls of 39 and 21 yards, tight ends Aaron Shea and Steve Heiden combined for three catches of at least 20 yards and three touchdowns, and running back William Green rattled off a 46-yard run.

“Who knows why?” asked Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons. “You can’t look at that second half with any logic.”

“It was crazy. Just crazy,” said James, whose NFL-leading seventh interception with 19 seconds left in the first half proved to be one of the last acts of sanity.

Linebacker Kevin Hardy broke it down from a personal standpoint, praising the Browns for spreading out the Bengals.

“And then they were able to make good throws,” Hardy said. “They would spread it out, and widen it off a little bit and (run pass routes) then cut back behind us. I have to do a better job of getting my hands on guys and keeping them in the area.”

But Hardy had plenty of company.

“You can’t turn the ball over offensively, nor allow explosive plays on defense,” Lewis said. “We have to do a better job communicating and staying on the same page. We freed them up a lot. As I said, we have to make sure we are on the same page. That’s enough said.”

Game-saving pick

O’Neal said it all with the defense’s fourth touchdown of the season, one off the 1983 team record. It’s the kind of game-saving, difference-making play the defense has come up with all year and is so uncharacteristic of Bengals teams in the past. They now have 15 interceptions, one more than all of last season.

“I thought he was going to throw it in the middle because he was looking there so long,” O’Neal said of Holcomb. “At the last minute, he looked my way, so I just jumped it.”

O’Neal, flanked out on Shea on the right side, made the kind of play that always seemed to happen to the Bengals at the end of the half or game.

“It was zone coverage. It was bad judgment on him,” O’Neal said. “I don’t think he saw me in the area, or he didn’t think I could get there fast enough. It was kind of neck and neck with them. We needed to pull away and that was the perfect opportunity.”

James has been jumping on opportunities like that all year. He was all set to strip Bryant of the ball on pass over the middle as he came up behind him when the pass bounced off Bryant’s hands.

“I just grabbed it, and caught it,” James said of a play that turned into three points on Shayne Graham’s field goal with two seconds left in the half.

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