The Secret Behind the Bengals’ 6-0 Start

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Shawne Merriman, Senior Correspondent - The Players' Tribune

Think about something at your job that you do every day that requires the help of another person. If you’re on TV or radio, think of your co-host. If you’re a lawyer, think of your assistant or paralegal. If you work at Starbucks, think of the barista making lattes next to you.

Now, replace that person with somebody else.

How much more difficult did your job just get?

Even if the new person is just as qualified, just as talented and just as smart and motivated as the person you’re used to working with, there’s one thing they could never walk in the door and just have right away: Chemistry.

Your co-host knows how to set you up. Your paralegal knows your pet peeves. That barista knows you like to roll to your left away from the espresso machine.

Some things can’t be overstated. The importance of chemistry is one of them.

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It’s about that time of the season when we start having the “Which undefeated team is most likely to run the table” conversation. There are five teams still undefeated at 6-0 — the Patriots, Broncos, Packers, Panthers and Bengals. Of those teams, the Panthers and the Bengals stand out as pretty surprising. But when it comes to the Bengals, what’s more surprising is how they’re winning: Andy Dalton is playing out of his mind and the defense isn’t giving up a lot of points.

And there’s one big reason behind that.

Chemistry.

You ready for the secret? The Bengals are still fielding the same 53-man roster going into Week 8 as they did when they made final roster cuts in September. That’s unheard of. To play six NFL games and have nobody so much as roll an ankle or pull a hammy is just crazy.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re not all 100 percent. I’ve talked to some of the guys in the Bengals locker room, and they’re all banged up, just not to the point where they’re missing any time. They’re able to stay on the field and work through their injuries. But that’s normal. From the time the first ball is snapped in Week 1, nobody in the league is 100 percent. Everybody is playing at 70 or 80 percent and battling bruises, stingers, strains and whatever else. That’s just the nature of the game.

Andy Dalton has only been sacked six times this year. A big reason for that is the fact that he’s had the same five guys blocking for him all year. If one of those guys went down, defenses would go right after the new guy — the weak link. They’d throw stunts at him and design their blitz packages to attack him.

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How many times do you see a cornerback come up limping and head to the sideline for a play, and the very next play, the offense throws right at his replacement? Offensive and defensive coordinators are always looking for the weak link. That’s a lot harder to identify when you’re rolling out the same 11 guys on either side of the ball every week, even if they’re not 100 percent.

I remember back when I was playing and I was battling knee and ankle injuries. I wasn’t really myself, and everybody knew it. But after games, offensive coaches from the other team would come up to me and say, “We still had to block this play like you were 100 percent because we didn’t know when the real Shawne Merriman was going to show up.”

Just the fact that I was on the field, even though I wasn’t 100 percent, kept them honest because they never knew when I was going to run down a counter play from the backside. If I came out of the game, they’d go right after my backup with that counter play because they know he couldn’t run it down like me.

Some things can’t be overstated. The importance of chemistry is one of them.

When a guy goes down, it sends ripples through the entire unit.

When I was in San Diego, I worked great with Jamal Williams, our nose tackle. I knew he was always going to require a double-team. I always knew how much space I had and that I didn’t have to worry about a double-team when Jamal was on the field.

Another example is when I played with Kyle Williams in Buffalo. When I was on the field working with him, I could just work off of his stunts naturally. I just knew that if he was getting up the field, I was coming around to cover him up. Or if I came up under, he’d wrap around and fill that void where I was supposed to be. We just always knew the timing and had a great feel for each other — we always knew where the other one was going to be.

The reasons guys study and practice so much is so on game day, they don’t have to think about where they’re going and what their job is. They can just go out there and let their instincts and athletic ability take over. Everything else is second nature. When you’re a linebacker like me and you have guys in front of you who you know are going to shoot certain gaps or jump certain plays, it gets to the point where you don’t even have to communicate anymore. You just feel it, and it totally changes the game. It makes it easier.

Oct 11, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (96) and linebacker Vincent Rey (57) line up during the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati defeated Seattle 27-24. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

And that goes for every unit. Wide receivers running pick routes. Offensive linemen blocking, whether it’s zone or man. Safeties and cornerbacks in coverage. That’s all timing and understanding what the guy next to you is doing.

Seven weeks into the season, I can’t even imagine how comfortable the Bengals feel with each other on both sides of the ball because it’s all the same guys every week.

Whenever someone else rotated in for Jamal or Kyle on the defensive line, I could always tell the difference. I had to think a little more. I had to pay more attention to what they were doing. He could have been just as good a player as Jamal or Kyle, but we didn’t have that chemistry, and in a game that moves so fast, that split second of extra thinking could be the difference between a tackle for a loss or a big play for the offense. The margin for error is that small.

I have no doubt the Bengals have the talent on their roster to compete every time they step on the field and to make a run deep in the playoffs. The real question is, when the injuries start happening — because they will, this is the NFL — how long will it take them to adjust? Developing chemistry with new guys doesn’t happen right away. It can take weeks of repetition. The Bengals may be 6-0, but they only have a two-game lead on the Steelers in the AFC North. Will their talent be enough to compensate for a lack of chemistry when injuries inevitably happen? Enough to hold off a Steelers team on the verge of getting Ben Roethlisberger back?

That’s just one of the beautiful things about the game of football.

We’ll find out.

merriman

Story Time With Shawne Merriman and Nick Hardwick

For this edition of Story Time, we asked former San Diego Chargers teammates Shawne Merriman and Nick Hardwick to each separately provide their versions of the same event. Warning: may contain adult language.

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