Even though AJ McCarron had seen NFL game action before, he had never started a game. For as much as he claimed he wasn’t nervous, he must have been feeling some obvious stomach grumbles before the game. His task and burden were made much lighter when members of the Bengals’ defense promised to raise their level of play. They did that and more in defeating the 49ers.
Coming into the 2015 season, the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive unit had a mission to accomplish. They were aiming to propel themselves back into the group of elite defenses around the league. The goal was to once again be ranked among the top 10 units in the league. Last year was a bend-but-don’t-break approach, with injuries and key parts missing. But this year has been vastly different. The Bengals’ defense has been downright dominant at times.
With McCarron making his first start of the season, the Bengals naturally had some worries. Would he wilt under pressure from the blitz? Could he manage a pro offense for a full 60 minutes? They found out that he could with a little help from his friends.
Bengals’ defensive end Carlos Dunlap was one of many players on the unit to rise up. His strip of Anquan Boldin helped get the Bengals offense moving in the right direction. Blaine Gabbert had found the speedy receiver for a quick-hitter that gained 12 yards. Boldin turned up field and was racing down the sideline when Dunlap hawked him down. He batted at the ball, wrestled it away, and returned it to the San Francisco 11-yard line. That set the tone for the defense.
“I saw the way he was carrying it and it was an opportunity for me to make a play,” Dunlap explained, per the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Because we came into the game with the mindset that we wanted to step it up on defense, make it easier for AJ over there at quarterback and that was an opportunity. I took advantage.”
Making things easier for McCarron was the theme of the day for the defense. They performed at playoff caliber and shut the Niners ground game down. WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict had a monster game and played the most snaps since returning from an injury. He was quick to point out the defensive mindset in the game.
“Everybody is playing together. Nobody is pointing fingers,” Burfict said. “If you mess up, you say it’s your fault. Next play you make up for it.”
The Bengals defense swarmed and buzzed about, causing tons of chaos. In the first half, the defense smothered the Niners and swiped two Gabbert passes. The effort was a complete turnaround of what happened the week before against the Steelers. The Bengals played well in that game, given the circumstances, but felt they could do much better. The effort against San Francisco proved they could.
Cornerback Adam Jones returned to the lineup with a bang. He intercepted a pass and had the chance for another. Diving to pick off the pass, the ball bounced off his arm and into the hands of Torrey Smith. Up to that point, the Bengals had held the Niners to zero conversions on third down.
The defense was pitching a shutout late into the third quarter. Jeremy Hill’s fumble gave San Francisco a short field and some heart. If not for that turnover and short mental lapse by the defense, the Bengals may have put a goose egg on the scoreboard for the Niners.
The Bengals are adamant about not letting teams score on them. Carlos Dunlap made another great play when he blocked a field goal attempt. According to ESPN, the 14 points allowed helped to propel the Bengals back to the No. 1 spot for fewest points allowed. It’s been a seesaw battle between Cincinnati and Denver. It creates fitting scenario for next week’s Monday Night Football finale.
Bengals safety Shawn Williams ended the last scoring threat when he picked off a pass intended for Jerome Simpson. McCarron delivered his part of the pact. The Bengals’ defense kept their promise. Now, the next step is to do it five more times.
[Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]