Nationals

Bengals' D-line blossoms into one of best

201212301356502045517-p2.jpeg

Bengals' D-line blossoms into one of best

CINCINNATI (AP) Michael Johnson towers over blockers at 6-foot-7. At 6-foot-1, Geno Atkins often gets dwarfed on the line. Domata Peko is gregarious. Carlos Dunlap tends to cut off interviews after a few questions.

The Bengals' defensive line is an eclectic mix of players from far different backgrounds with very different personalities and body types. Together, they formed one of the NFL's best units this season, one of the main reasons Cincinnati is in the playoffs again.

The Bengals set a club record with 51 sacks this season, 40 of them coming from a line that is more of a melting pot than anything else.

``We're very different,'' Dunlap said. ``Mike's from Selma, Ala. I'm from Charleston, S.C. Geno's from Fort Lauderdale. You've got a whole bunch of guys from miles and miles away from each other, probably a 10-hour drive to get to each destination.

``But when we're in this locker room, we're a few feet away as we are on the field and in sync with one another. I hope this young group can stay together and go on for a long time and be part of something special.''

They're having a special season, one of the main reasons the Bengals have reached the playoffs as a wild card for the second straight season. It's also one of the main reasons they think they can knock off the Texans on Saturday in Houston and get their first playoff win since 1990.

These guys know how to get to the quarterback.

Atkins led all interior NFL linemen with 12 1/2 sacks and was voted a Pro Bowl starter for the first time. Johnson had 11 1/2 sacks, giving Cincinnati its first pair of players with double-digit sacks totals since 1981, when the Bengals reached the Super Bowl for the first time.

The reserves have done well, too. Wallace Gilberry has 6 1/2 sacks. Robert Geathers has 3.

The Texans' offense struggled down the stretch, contributing to three losses in the last four games. Houston scored 16 or fewer points in those losses. If the Texans can't slow Cincinnati's front four, they're in trouble.

``They've been so good because they're very talented up front,'' Houston offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. ``They can pressure well with the four guys or adding any number of guys to it. It's a unique challenge for us.''

It starts with four linemen who seem to have little in common except a commitment to getting to the quarterback.

Two of them arrived together. Dunlap was a second-round pick in 2010, while Atkins slipped to the fourth round because of his lack of stature. Atkins quickly developed into one of the league's best, able to use his low center of gravity to push his way into the backfield.

Dunlap was more of a project, known for wanting to do things his way. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer made him understand the need to change.

``I figured one of us was going to lose the fight and it wasn't going to be me,'' Zimmer said. ``They're much easier to mold the way you want them molded when they're young rookies. Michael was not as bad as Carlos. Carlos was a guy that had to be pushed, confronted, threatened at times, not let play at times.

``Either they figure it out or they don't figure it out, one way or the other. Both those two guys are smart guys. I do think they understand that you're trying to help them as opposed to trying to ridicule them or something like that.''

Johnson, a third-round pick in 2009, had a reputation for not playing hard the entire time. The Bengals moved him between end and linebacker earlier in this career. Once they decided to use his quickness and height at end, he began to blossom in his role.

It helps to have Dunlap on the other end, Atkins getting a push up the middle and reserves who can spell them during the game and keep them fresh.

``It's not just one guy,'' Johnson said. ``It's a collective effort of us being in our pass-rush lanes and being in the right place, and it just comes to you like that. And it comes in bunches. Let's see if we can set some sort of playoff record for sacks. (We'll) work on that next.''

Peko is the oldest member of the line, finishing his seventh season. He's also the leader - Peko organized voluntary workouts for the defense during the NFL lockout before last season.

The defense has given Cincinnati a chance to go back to Houston for the second year in a row. The Bengals lost 31-10 in the wild card round last year in Houston. Zimmer thinks his crew is better this time.

The defense has scored a touchdown in each of the last three games on fumble or interception returns. Cincinnati has held opponents to 13 points or fewer in six of the last eight games.

``Boy, that's incredible in the National Football League,'' Texans coach Gary Kubiak said.

Dunlap likes to think they're just getting started after taking a few years to come together.

``It can't be sunny days all the time,'' Dunlap said. ``After the rain is the rainbow - that's what my mom would tell you. Right now, we're on the better side of the rain and we want to keep that going and try to find that gold at the end of the rainbow.''

---

NOTES: K Josh Brown was chosen as the AFC's special teams player of the month. He was signed on Dec. 6 to replace the injured Mike Nugent and made 11 of his 12 field goal tries, the only miss on a 56-yarder in Pittsburgh. ... S Chris Crocker didn't participate in practice on Thursday. He's got a bruised thigh.

---

AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

doolittle-umpires.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Images

Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

WASHINGTON -- Sunday afternoon’s discussions still revolved around Saturday night’s close, which Washington manager Davey Martinez referred to as a “fiasco” on Sunday.

Chicago manager Joe Maddon started a chaotic situation when he popped out of the dugout following Sean Doolittle’s first pitch in the ninth inning Saturday. Maddon contended Doolittle’s “toe-tap” was an illegal delivery, akin to when Chicago reliever Carl Edwards Jr. tried to add a pause in spring training, but was told the move was illegal.

The umpires told him, and Doolittle, the delivery was legal. Chicago filed a protest with the league. After consulting with Major League Baseball and MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, Joe Torre, the Cubs dropped their protest Sunday morning.

A point of differentiation is whether the pitcher is taking a second step. Umpires previously determined Edwards was taking a second step. They determined Doolittle was not. This is a judgment call for the umpires and is not reviewable.

Official Baseball Rule 5.07(a) states in part: “The pitcher may not take a second step toward home plate with either foot or otherwise reset his pivot foot in his delivery of the pitch. If there is a runner, or runners, on base it is a balk under Rule 6.02(a); if the bases are unoccupied it is an illegal pitch under Rule 6.02(b).”

The league, according to Maddon, said there is a difference between Edwards placing his full foot on the ground and Doolittle grazing the mound with a cleat when he delivered. Maddon continued to not agree with the interpretation.

“We went through the whole process,” Maddon said. “Our guys in the office spoke to MLB and I talked to Mr. Torre. The whole thing I wanted to really get done was protect Carl. I really didn’t anticipate a whole lot to be done with it. Even though I still don’t agree with the conclusion, because I think it’s exactly what Carl did, only a different version of it. But the point was, I would not be a good parent if I had not spoken up for my guy. And that’s what I was doing last night and, again, it’s just to eliminate any gray area there just for future because it’s going to happen again down the road somewhere and you’re just trying to delineate what is right and what is wrong. In my mind, it wasn’t a judgment call, I thought it was black-and-white. It wasn’t gray.”

Maddon said multiple times that Doolittle tapped with his toe in addition to grazing the mound, both of which, he contended, were not legal or different than Edwards' attempt at deception.

The congenial Doolittle was steamed postgame Saturday and remained irritated Sunday. Saturday, he took multiple shots at Maddon during his postgame commentary. He also taunted the idea when throwing warmup pitches while Maddon argued with umpires by making exaggerated kicks with his leg and multiple stops with his foot. Doolittle switched to a delivery without any stops -- one he often uses -- after the protest as a way to show Maddon he didn’t need the tweak to be successful.

“In that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure.

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."

Asked Sunday if Doolittle’s comments were relayed to him, Maddon smiled and said yes.

“Listen, I have no issue with that whatsoever,” Maddon said. “We’re all emotional. I’ve said a lot of things I didn’t want to say years ago -- even in this ballpark. I think if he understood the entire context, he might have had a different opinion. Even if he was the manager himself -- if he was me -- or if he was being protected by his manager under similar circumstances, I think his stance may be different.”

No one -- the league, Maddon or Doolittle -- changed their perspective a day later.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS:

 

Quick Links

NHL Playoff 2019 Roundup: Blues shutout Sharks 5-0 to win Game 5

usatsi_12741143.jpg
USA TODAY sports images

NHL Playoff 2019 Roundup: Blues shutout Sharks 5-0 to win Game 5

The St. Louis Blues won a decisive Game 5 against the San Jose Sharks 5-0, pushing the Sharks to the brink of elimination.

The Blues are now one win away from their first Stanley Cup Final since the 1969-70 season, where they lost to the Boston Bruins in a sweep.

St. Louis started the scoring early when Oskar Sundqvist netted his second goal of the series in the first five minutes of the game. 

Jaden Schwartz then tallied his first goal of the game off a juicy rebound in front of Martin Jones to start the scoring in the second period. It was Schwartz's 10th goal of the playoffs, which tied him for third all-time in Blues history for goals in the postseason.

Vladimir Tarasenko added to the Blues lead off a penalty shot. He's the first player in Blues franchise history to score a penalty shot goal in the playoffs.

Schwartz then added two more goals in the third period for a hat-trick. The first came on a 5-on-3 power play advantage off a scramble in front of the net, and the second came from a backdoor one-timer pass from Tarasenko.

Schwartz now has 12 goals these playoffs, and it's his second hat-trick of the playoffs.

Blues goalie Jordan Binnington recorded 21 saves for a shutout, and he's the first rookie goalie to accomplish that feat for the Blues.

MORE CAPITALS NEWS: