Bengals, once again, paced by defense

CINCINNATI -- Within an hour of their 41-20 win over the Cleveland Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals were informally polled about which play in the eventual rout was the biggest of all.

They had quite the selection. Was it a 9-yard interception return by linebacker James Harrison late in the first quarter? Was it tight end Jermaine Gresham's 25-yard touchdown at the start of the second? Maybe it was Shawn Williams' tipped punt that led to a Bengals go-ahead touchdown? How about Jayson DiManche's blocked punt that was returned for another score?

The possibilities seemed limitless.

Overwhelmingly, all of those who spoke to reporters after the game considered Harrison's pick the turning point. After that play, Cincinnati scored 31 unanswered points -- all in the second quarter. One of those scores came when fellow linebacker Vontaze Burfict forced a fumble and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.

It was safe to say the Bengals, as they have been all season, were paced Sunday by their defense.

"The defense did a really great job of getting some turnovers and getting us jump-started on offense," coach Marvin Lewis said.

Before Harrison's interception, the Bengals were staring at the long odds of overcoming a 13-0 deficit against one of the NFL's top defenses. At the time, spirits inside Paul Brown Stadium were mostly low. On the drive before, some 13 minutes into the start of the game, thousands of fans began booing the Bengals' offense after its third three-and-out of the quarter.

While some players noticed the fans, others tried to tune it out.

"There was so much game left, and you can't get down at that point," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "It's kind of how I've been and how I am. I try not to get too high or too low with whatever's going on in the game. We didn't let it affect us. We came and we kept playing. We got some big plays on special teams and defense that helped us out and gave us some spark."

Cincinnati ended up with 224 yards of total offense; 93 of which came from Dalton's right arm.

Not only did Harrison's interception set up the avalanche of scoring, but just before it, the Bengals' defenders held firm on a pair of drives that ended with them playing with their heels on the goal line. After the Browns entered the red zone, the Bengals prevented them from crossing the goal line. Two early field goals kept the score at 6-0 ahead of Joe Haden's interception return for touchdown which put the Browns ahead 13-0. Had the field goals been touchdowns, the Bengals could have been looking at a 21-0 deficit before Harrison's interception.

"The defense was put into a couple of tough situations [Sunday]," Lewis said. "I expected us to play good on defense and I thought we really did."

All season Cincinnati's defense has come to its offense's rescue.

Against Green Bay in Week 3, it was the Bengals' defense that negated four offensive turnovers by forcing a fumble, scooping it and scoring what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes. One drive after the go-ahead recovery, the unit remained stout when defensive end Michael Johnson swatted a fourth-down pass at the line of scrimmage to preserve the win.

Two weeks later, at home against the Patriots, the Bengals escaped with another victory when cornerback Adam Jones caught a game-saving interception in a driving rainstorm with 16 seconds left. Despite gaining 341 yards, Cincinnati's offense only got in the end zone once.

Then, against the Lions in Week 7, it was the defense that had a timely third-down quarterback hurry ahead of a short Detroit punt. Following the punt, quarterback Andy Dalton moved the Bengals into field goal range, where they won on a 54-yard walk-off by kicker Mike Nugent.

When the Bengals' offense has been down, the defense always seems to be right there to pick it up.

"It goes both ways, you know?" Johnson said. "When they're feeling down, we try to get them up. When we're down, they get us up. We're a team, a family. We fight for each other."