Bengals expect AFC North-style slugfest

CINCINNATI -- Before the first half of Thursday night's game between the Steelers and Ravens was over, players from both sides had to be separated by officials three times.

The energy between the teams was so intense that Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis joked Friday that he was waiting to see if someone would be ejected before order would be restored.

Nope. Not a chance.

Welcome to the AFC North, where the extracurriculars before and after plays are mild compared to what happens between them.

The division prides itself on physicality that you won't find in many other parts of the league. So when the Bengals were watching film of their Sunday opponent, the San Diego Chargers, some of the defensive linemen were taken aback by what they saw. While studying the Chargers' offensive line, they felt like they were watching the Ravens, Steelers, Browns or even their own front blocking on the screen.

"They're a big offensive line," Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "They're real physical. That's the type of offensive line that we love to play against, a smashmouth type of team."

San Diego isn't faring well in the rushing game, ranking 18th in the league in rushing yards and 21st in rushing average, but it has been more committed to protecting quarterback Philip Rivers in the passing game.

Rivers was sacked 49 times last season, but he has been sacked only 20 times in 2013. He entered the weekend leading the league in completion percentage at 70.8 percent and is on pace to have the most passing yards (just more than 4,900) in a single season in his career. At least one component of his success stems from the physicality of his offensive line.

"From the first day we got here as a staff, we said, 'It's not just about Philip. It's about everyone,'" first-year head coach Mike McCoy said. "The whole team has to play better and give Philip the opportunity to do things. The offensive line had to protect better, the running game had to do better, receivers had to get separation and get to their spots quicker. Just let Philip be who Philip is and what he's done is not surprising."

Although the stat sheet says the Chargers don't have the league's most potent rushing attack, the Bengals believe San Diego's proficient passing numbers are a direct reflection of how good its ground attack has been as a change of pace. For that reason, Cincinnati's top priority will be the same that it is every week: stopping the run.

"It all starts with No. 24 [Ryan Mathews] and their running game," Peko said. "They have one of the best running attacks right now. We take a lot of pride in our run defense, so we've got to really attack this offensive line and get after them and make them one-dimensional."

Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry believes the same. The former University of Alabama standout spent the offseason training with fellow Crimson Tide product and current Chargers rookie offensive tackle D.J. Fluker. The time with the young lineman taught Gilberry one thing: expect holes to open for running backs.

"[Fluker] loves run-blocking, and he brings that sense and that force to the offensive line that they've been missing the past couple of years," Gilberry said. "He's one of those guys we have to get after. Get after him early, hit him in the mouth. Let him know that it's going to be a slugfest. That's what we're going to do. We're just going to go out there and do what we do. We're not going to get outside the box. We're going to get out there and do what we've been coached to do and hopefully it's enough to win the game."

What Cincinnati and other AFC North teams do best is play physically. That's why Gilberry felt watching Thursday night's game was a good reminder for him and his teammates to consider taking their style and applying it on the West Coast this weekend. If they don't bring it, they know the Chargers' offensive front will let them know early that they didn't.

"Guys on the defense, we like that," Gilberry said. "We don't like going sideways, east and west. We want you to come hit us in the mouth because we're going to hit you in the mouth. That's the kind of ball we play around here."