Capitals

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

The only question in net for the Caps is not who the backup will be, but how much he will play

holtby-copley-usat.png
USA TODAY Sports

The only question in net for the Caps is not who the backup will be, but how much he will play

As excited as fans may be about prospect goalie Ilya Samsonov’s first season in North America, it was Pheonix Copley who entered the preseason as the No. 2 goalie behind Braden Holtby.

After a strong performance in the Capitals’ first preseason game on Sunday in which he turned aside 21 of the 22 shots he faced, Copley is doing his best to cement himself as the Capitals’ backup for the upcoming season.

“He knows the challenge that's in front of him and I thought he was real solid [in Sunday’s game],” head coach Todd Reirden said to reporters Monday.

“A number of big saves early on. We were a little bit slow to get going in the game, so we needed him. We needed him in the beginning of the game. He was there for us and I thought he really sent the message in game one that he's prepared for that opportunity." 

Copley, 26, has only two games of NHL experience in his career. He does not generate the same buzz as a player like Samsonov who is believed to be the team’s starter in net. Add in a rough season for Copley in Hershey in 2017-18 and it has led many to believe there is an open competition for the backup goalie this season.

The reality is, however, that this has always been Copley’s job to lose.

As he tries to make the transition from the KHL to the North American game, getting Samsonov as much playing time as possible in the AHL will be better for his development than sitting him on the bench behind Holtby.

While Copley prepares for the NHL, Holtby will have to adjust as well to having a backup not quite as established as Philipp Grubauer to rely on. The relationship between Holtby and Copley, however, is already a strong one and Holtby is excited for the opportunity this preseason brings for his new backup.

“It’s his first chance to get a few good starts in, and my job's just to be there to support him, make sure we can work through things together,” Holtby told reporters on the first day of camp. “I can learn things from him, he can learn things from me and vice-versa.”

Regardless of how Copley plays in the preseason, however, there is risk involved with pinning such an inexperienced goalie as the team’s backup. Until he gets a few starts at the NHL level playing against NHL competition, we ultimately do not know how good he will be. Until that question is answered, we also do not know how much he will play.

Grubauer played in 35 games last season as Holtby struggled. Regardless of how good the Caps may feel about Copley as the backup, it seems safe to assume the team is not expecting Copley to see quite that much action this season. If they believed he would need to, the team likely would have considered other options.

Holtby, for his part, said he is ready to take on a larger load again as the starter.

“Hopefully I play a few more games or something like that would be nice,” he said, “But whatever it is, we're just trying to make sure that our goalie department is as good as we can be from top to bottom."

Holtby seemed to benefit from the extra rest as he elevated his game in the postseason, but he disputes that. Instead, he said it was the heavy workload of the postseason that helped him settle in.

“I'm not a guy that likes time off,” he said. “Through the playoffs was the best I've felt because I was playing every day. That's just the way I like to do it. I find it easier when I'm playing. I find it really difficult when I'm not. That's just the way I work."

With no Grubauer backing him up and Samsonov still developing, Holtby is likely to get his wish of more games.

But while Copley was a major question mark for the Caps heading into the season, Sunday’s game could go a long way towards assuaging those fears and justifying the confidence the team has put in him to be their No. 2 this season.

MORE CAPS NEWS:

Quick Links

The Redskins’ inconsistency is a consistent issue

The Redskins’ inconsistency is a consistent issue

A home loss to a team that was 4-12 a year ago, 0-1 this year, has a rookie head coach, and is clearly in rebuilding mode is more than just a mark in the “L” column. In the case of the Redskins’ loss to the Colts on Sunday, they also lost an opportunity. 

The Eagles lost Sunday, and the Redskins’ loss cost them a chance to have sole possession of first place in the NFC East. That doesn’t mean much two games into the season, but it would have been a psychological boost for the team and its fans. Instead at 1-1, they are in a three-way tie with the Eagles and Cowboys. 

What’s worse for the Redskins, however, is what is ahead.

They will be decided underdogs at home to a Packers team with an apparently healthy Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. After their ridiculously early bye, they travel to New Orleans, the scene of their worst loss of 2017, a game where they blew a 15-point lead late in the game and lost in overtime. The Saints have been struggling but they will be solid favorites. Then the Panthers come to town and the Redskins have not beaten them since Cam Newton become their quarterback (0-4). 

If coming events follow form, the Redskins will go into their Week 7 game against the Cowboys at 1-4. If they had won Sunday that could have been a much more palatable 2-3. 

But just like it was futile to predict that the Redskins would steamroll the Colts, tread carefully if you want to buy a parlay ticket on Washington going 0-3 between now and the end of Week 6. They have looked good and they have looked bad. It would not surprise me in the least if they came out for the Packers game playing at a very high level. 

The Redskins are not the only inconsistent NFL team. The Ravens and Jets posted impressive Week 1 wins and lost in Week 2. It works both ways. The Falcons couldn’t get anything done in the red zone in their opening loss to the Eagles. Yesterday they were 4-4 there and beat the Panthers. 

Still, the egg they laid at home in concerning. Following an impressive win with a deflating loss isn’t an occasional thing with this team, it’s a pattern.

Since 2015, the team has had two four-game winning streaks, one to close out the 2015 season and one in Weeks 3-6 the following year. Other than those, they have not had a winning streak of longer than two games and they have had just three of those. 

Simple math will tell you that a team will have a tough time making the playoffs if it can’t string together an extended winning streak or at least multiple two-game streaks in a season. 

So, while losing to the Colts isn’t the end of the season for the Redskins, it is an indication that they still are having problems stringing wins together. If they are going to contend for the playoffs, something that needs to happen if they are going to fill FedEx Field and if Jay Gruden is to stay employed, they will need to do better than win one, lose one. 

MORE REDSKINS NEWS: