CINCINNATI -- Pick your adjective: tough, persistent, disciplined, ugly. According to the Cincinnati Bengals, all apply when discussing their formidable eighth-ranked NFL defense.
One look at the unit's recent performances, particularly inside the red zone the past two weeks, and it becomes hard to disagree with any of those descriptions. When the Bengals needed a pair of big goal-line stops in consecutive games, each of those traits came out. When they did, key goal-line stands were made, momentum was established and an entire team was galvanized.
Oh yeah, and wins were had, too. Cincinnati beat both New England and Buffalo in back-to-back weeks to extend its winning streak against the AFC East to three games. Before the streak began, the Bengals had lost six in a row to teams from that division.
As the Bengals continue through the regular season, they will need to sustain what has so far made them successful. They'll have to keep leaning on their intimidating defense, the hardscrabble table-setter of their apparent playoff-bound organization.
Sure, their offense, one that racked up nearly 500 yards against the Bills on Sunday, remains a vital piece to the season. So does their special-teams play, which on the overall appears to be turning a corner and finally settling in at a consistently good clip.
But, if we're speaking candidly, it is the identity of the Bengals' defense that actually paces the entire team. It's the brash and boisterous play of coordinator Mike Zimmer's unit that gets the rest of Cincinnati's sideline going. It's the fearless, unflinching mentality that the defense adopted in the wake of Week 4's loss at Cleveland that really has gotten the rest of the team believing that it should and ought to be taken seriously.
Of course, no Bengal will admit that. Football is, to quote the cliche of cliches, a team game. When speaking inside the camera lenses and tape recorders that are allowed in their locker room, they'll be quick to say that the entire team shares the same tough, intimidating style of play. Maybe a player or two will say it starts with head coach Marvin Lewis. Maybe a few others will say it begins with the types of players the front office has brought to Paul Brown Stadium. None of them would be wrong.
The thing is, though, whatever they say, just know this: the physicality of this team comes from the defense.
Consider what Lewis said Monday about the physical nature of his overall team.
"We have to play physical. That's what we are," he said. "We're not cute and pretty. We have to be physical. We have to keep doing it that way. That's a great asset that we have. Not only the ability to do that, but the ability to do it throughout the football game, and we can't let that waiver."
Offenses can be physical, but they're mostly cute and pretty. Defense is an ugly man's game. The Bengals, in the most affectionate sense possible, are an ugly team.
"We've been working really hard this offseason," defensive tackle Domata Peko said when asked to give his State of the 4-2 Team address. "They've been working hard upstairs and the coaches have been working hard. Hard work pays off. It's really good to start seeing the fruits of our labor. As long as we keep our nose to the ground and keep striving to be the best, good things will happen."
More than halfway through the final period, Cincinnati's defense stood in the shadow of its own end zone as Brady led the Patriots 75 yards to the Bengals 1. Another touchdown drive from Terrific Tom appeared to be in the works. After all, he had led touchdown drives in each of the 52 games that came before this one. Why couldn't he add another?
After a run for no gain, a Bengals timeout and a pair of incomplete passes, including one that cornerback Adam Jones punched out of a receiver's hands in the end zone, Brady didn't lead a touchdown drive for the first time in 53 games. Cincinnati's ugly side showed up, forcing a field goal. Since the Bengals ended up winning by a touchdown, that crucial stop later proved clutch.
So did their goal-line stop this past Sunday in Buffalo, when they turned back the Bills on a four-play stand that began with tackles by Geno Atkins and Vincent Rey, and ended with a dramatic sack by James Harrison.
"That was a hell of a play," defensive back Taylor Mays said of Harrison's stop. "We've got a tough defense."
Where does that toughness come from?
"We've got tough players on our team and Zim has a tough mindset, regardless of whether they drive 98 yards to our 1-yard line," Mays said. "That's kind of how the defense thinks. It starts from the top down and we have players that really buy into that."
Harrison's touchdown-denying sack gave the Bengals offense the ball at its own 2. Nine plays later, running back Giovani Bernard weaved around Bills defenders after catching a shovel pass from quarterback Andy Dalton, and capped Cincinnati's fifth 90 yard-plus scoring drive of the season with a 20-yard touchdown reception.
The defense paced the offense.
Asked to share his thoughts on the Bengals' defensive identity, Rey, one of the standouts of Cincinnati's goal-line stands, paused for 13 seconds.
"I'd say, in my opinion," be said, deliberately, "that we're disciplined, smart players that run to the ball. Period."
Isn't that what defense is all about?
"Well yeah, but we try not to make it lip service here."
That's why the Bengals believe they play tough, persistent, disciplined, ugly football. Period.