Seven years into the remaking of the Cincinnati Bengals, Marvin Lewis' defense is finally a keeper.
It took three different defensive coordinators, nine different starting middle linebackers and the first back-to-back losing seasons of the Lewis era in Cincinnati.
The defense that the Bengals' head coach brings back to M&T Bank Stadium for Sunday's first-place showdown against the Ravens is almost certainly better than any of his Cincinnati predecessors'. Forget the numbers. Here's what you need to know:
This Bengals defense can rush the passer; end Antwan Odom already has eight sacks this season.
This Bengals defense has a pedigree; the two outside linebackers, Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga, both played at Southern California, and its two cornerbacks, Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, are first-rounders.
This Bengals defense can take the ball away; last week in Cleveland, it forced two red-zone turnovers against the Browns in an overtime win. Since 2003, the Bengals have logged 198 takeaways, second only to the Ravens' 205.
"Right now, it's early in the season," Lewis said during a conference call this week. "I don't know that we've played real good yet. And so I'm anxious for each and every Sunday, so we can play better and better."
Even so, the Bengals (3-1) are one fluke pass completion away from a 4-0 start, and are tied with the Ravens for the AFC North lead. Going back to the second half of last season, the Bengals have won six of their past seven games. A big part of that success has been the improvement on defense.
It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see at least a resemblance to the defense Lewis built with the Ravens, where he was defensive coordinator five seasons (1996-2001) and helped win a Super Bowl.
That defense had two first-round picks at cornerback in Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, a premier pass rusher in Peter Boulware and a dominating middle linebacker in Ray Lewis.
Lewis, the linebacker, relishes playing against Lewis, the coach.
"The teacher and the pupil, from Day One," Ray Lewis said. "It's always about what he's thinking over there and what he's telling the guys. So the bottom line is that you always have to prepare for that. You always have to prepare for the little things that he's going to tell them about you or tell them that they can do this or they can do that. You're always trying to counter it one way or another."
There were no Ray Lewises on Marvin's doorstep when he went to Cincinnati in 2003. The free-agent signing of Dhani Jones last season ended a revolving door at middle linebacker for the Bengals. Jones last year became the ninth different starter at the position since 2003; the Bengals started four rookies during that time.
Without a certifiable leader, the defense languished. The Bengals finished in the bottom six in the NFL in total yards allowed in four of Lewis' first five seasons. Then he hired Mike Zimmer, and the team jumped to 12th in total defense last season.
Zimmer, an NFL defensive coordinator the past nine years, replaced Chuck Bresnahan and finished the 2008 season with a rush: The Bengals went seven straight quarters without allowing a point and nine quarters without allowing a touchdown.
Cam Cameron, the Ravens' offensive coordinator, can see the stamp of both Lewis and Zimmer on the defense.
"I think there's definitely an influence [from Zimmer]," Cameron said. "But I think it's a group effort. You know, the head coach's philosophy is all over that defense, and he was one of the great coordinators in this league."
Nose tackle Kelly Gregg was a sixth-round pick by the Bengals in 1999. He also played on Marvin Lewis' last Ravens defense in 2001.
"It's a good system, and Marvin's a great defensive coach," Gregg said. "I think they have been searching for a guy like Ray [Lewis]. They got that in Maualuga now. You've got to have that emotional leader."
Maualuga was a middle linebacker at Southern California but plays strong side for the Bengals and appears to be the heir apparent for Jones, who is in his 10th NFL season.
Marvin Lewis said the key to Cincinnati's improvement this season is familiarity with the system.
"I think guys understand their responsibilities and where they need to be," he said. "[We were] pretty consistent last season, and as the season went on they prevented big plays for the most part. That's how you get better on defense."
The Ravens swept the Bengals last season, winning 17-10 and 34-3. They gouged an injury-marred defense for 809 total yards and five offensive touchdowns, four for more than 30 yards.
Asked what he learned from playing the Ravens last year, Lewis was succinct: "I learned that if we give up big plays, we're not going to win."
Lewis has the least-experienced team in the league (an average of 3.77 NFL seasons) and the third-youngest team in the AFC (26.13 years on opening day). But Ravens coach John Harbaugh says health alone makes the Bengals better than last year.
"They're just better than they were a year ago in terms of their talent, and they're healthy," Harbaugh said. "And obviously, they're on a roll. It's a really good team with a lot of talent, playing very hard."
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