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As the national radar repeatedly pings on elements of the Cincinnati Bengals offense that have driven the franchise-best 8-0 start – Andy Dalton’s hot hand, Tyler Eifert’s emergence, A.J. Green’s sustained supremacy – the defense has gone largely undetected.
But that could change tonight when the Bengals return to the primetime stage to face the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football.
The Cincinnati defense has put together back-to-back strong performances against Pittsburgh and Cleveland, holding both teams to 10 points while limiting them to 7 of 24 (29.2 percent) on third down.
Dating back to the second half of the Buffalo game Oct. 18, the Bengals defense has allowed only three touchdowns in the last 25 drives.
Since LeSean McCoy ran for 33 yards on the first play of that Buffalo game, the Cincinnati defense has allowed one gain of more than 29 yards in the last 184 snaps (DeAngelo Williams’ 55-yard run in Pittsburgh).
“What we want to do is eliminate the big plays,” defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. “We’ll give you 5 (yards) and you can dink and dunk down the field all day. You’re not going to beat us doing that. We know that. Soon they will know that.”
Houston’s offense is averaging 369.4 yards per game and is ranked ninth in the league. Brian Hoyer already has thrown for a career-high 13 touchdown passes, and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has emerged as a star in his third season in the top five of the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Where the Texans have struggled has been in the run game. They rank 29th in the league and will be without Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster for the rest of the season.
It’s been an improved run defense – which coincides with the return of Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict – that has sparked the resurgence.
“He was missed,” linebacker Emmanuel Lamur said of Burfict, who made his season debut two weeks ago at Pittsburgh after recovering from offseason microfracture surgery.
The Bengals were ranked 22nd in total defense before Burfict’s return. They jumped 10 spots to 12th in the short time he’s been back.
“The energy just changed when he came back,” Lamur added. “We have a lot of leaders on the defense, and now everyone is healthy and it’s a really good thing we’ve got going on.”
The Bengals have only played two snaps this season with Burfict and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga on the field at the same time. Maualuga suffered a calf injury on the second snap in Pittsburgh and hasn’t played since. But he was a full participant in practice all week and is expected to start tonight, which means it could be the first game this season the Bengals defense has had everyone available for an entire game.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien said he knows what that means.
“Their front seven is a very, very good front seven,” he said. “I hold Geno Atkins in high regard. He’s one of the best three techniques in the league. He’s a very difficult guy to block. They have those two defensive ends (Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson), both about 6-6, 6-7, playing real well, It’s a big challenge for us. Our guys are understanding of the challenge.”
If the Cincinnati defense can post a third consecutive dominating performance, the whole league will begin to understand the challenge the Bengals present on the other side of the ball.