Playing role of 'eraser,' Bengals' defense shows it can save offense

CINCINNATI -- When their offense collects nearly 400 yards in a game, it can be easy to overlook the Cincinnati Bengals' defense.

But there was no way that was happening Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

A case could be made that if it weren't for the Bengals' often timely defensive play against the San Diego Chargers, the result might have been a lot closer than 24-19. If certain post-turnover series had gone differently, this game also could have easily ended in a loss for the Bengals instead of a win that will take them into next week's division opener at Baltimore undefeated.

Just call Cincinnati's defense the "eraser."

"They bailed me out," running back Jeremy Hill said.

Twice Sunday, the defense erased a pair of turnovers from Hill with shutout drives. After Hill had a ball ripped right out of his hands during a first-quarter fumble, the Bengals' defense responded by taking San Diego to third down and forcing a loose ball of their own. Outside linebacker Chris Carter fell on a Philip Rivers fumble to negate the Chargers' scoring possibility that arose after Hill's miscue.

Two quarters later, Hill lost the handle on a pitch as he ran wide right on a sweep. The ball bounced into the hands of Chargers defenders, bringing Cincinnati's defense back out for another hold. On a short field, the Bengals forced a three-and-out. On the ensuing field goal try, Chargers kicker Josh Lambo pushed a 47-yard kick wide left. Once again, the Bengals had a hand in preventing a score.

"Anytime you turn the ball over like that it kills your team. It kills the momentum of the game," Hill said. "They did a good job bouncing back and making sure we were able to bounce back from that. The defense was huge."

Along with erasing the two turnovers, the defense also went 4-for-11 on third down and got a couple of timely stops from cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on a series of busted plays that also could have turned into touchdowns. Once, he grabbed Chargers running back Melvin Gordon's shoulder pad in desperation, throwing him out of bounds before he broke loose for a long scoring carry. Another time, on a third down with San Diego in the red zone, Kirkpatrick stopped a ball carrier inches short of the first down. It led to a made field goal instead of a touchdown.

The defense's game-saving day was capped when linebacker Vincent Rey intercepted Rivers with 53 seconds remaining to effectively end the game.

"Our coaches always tell us: tackling, third down and takeaways. We want to take the ball away and get it back to our offense," Rey said. "We're trying to get them as many touches as possible. So it was big for us to get the turnovers we got. As you see, it was a five-point game."

For as many points as the Bengals' offense scored, their defense was pulling points off the board.

That will come in handy for Cincinnati. There will be days when turnovers aren't the only issues the offense has. There will be days this season when the yards aren't being racked up or when the scoreboard isn't being lit up. When those days arrive, the Bengals have to know they can trust their defense to step up and play well.

On Sunday, they learned their "eraser" has the potential to do just that.