Justin Smith thinks so. The sixth-year defensive end, who had three sacks in the 23-10 victory Sunday at Kansas City, said the 2006 defense has a chance to be a top-5 unit.
"We have the guys in here we need to do it," Smith said after the game.
The Bengals' defense might have another big game Sunday against the Browns in their home opener. Cleveland struggled offensively, gaining just 1 yard passing and 1 yard rushing in the first quarter of their loss to New Orleans. Quarterback Charlie Frye was the leading rusher on six scrambles for 44 yards.
On Sunday and Monday, Lewis has spoken only in generalities about his defense and has not paused long on the seven-sack performance at Kansas City.
"This team is better than it was last year when we finished the season," Lewis said. "We've just got to keep proving it every week and just keep playing offense, defense, and special teams one week to the next week."
In Baltimore, Lewis needed three rough seasons as coordinator before he could piece together the dominating Ravens season that propelled the team to victory in Super Bowl XXXV against the Giants.
In Lewis' first three seasons, the Ravens were ranked 30th, 25th and 22nd in total defense before stringing together three consecutive seasons (1999-2001) as the league's No. unit. The Ravens also went from 28th in points allowed in 1996, Lewis' first season as coordinator, to setting the single-season NFL record in 2000 (165).
This year is Lewis' fourth in Cincinnati.
And though Lewis is not coordinator with the Bengals -- he has had two, Leslie Frazier and Chuck Bresnahan -- his fingerprints are all over the defense. In fact, it's a commonly-held position among some members of the team's front office and executive staff that they expected a better defense sooner with Lewis as coach, though they are thrilled with the overall improvement of the team and the wide array of talents Lewis has exhibited as head coach.
It takes time to build a good defense.
There are 10 overall holdovers remaining with the Bengals from the team Lewis inherited. Only three of them -- Smith, linebacker Brian Simmons and backup safety Kevin Kaesviharn -- are on defense. It has taken time and turnover of the initial group of players Lewis acquired. Gone are free agents he signed, such as linebacker Kevin Hardy, safety Kim Herring and defensive end Duane Clemons.
The turnover is deeper by a couple of degrees on defense, where Lewis has frankly struggled to build the style of Ravens defense that made him a top head-coach candidate.
Seven of Lewis' 30 Bengals draft picks have come and gone, including five
defensive players from his first two draft classes.
Lewis has drafted seven linebackers in search of the type of player he wants and needs at that position. Only one, Khalid Abdullah, drafted in the fifth round in 2003, is no longer with the team.
Lewis, for his part, appears to have high expectations for this defense.
"We won the football game but we've got a lot of work to do, a lot of things
to do better," he said.
- QB Carson Palmer came out of the opener Sunday saying his surgically
repaired knee "felt great." His solid play and continued health is having
his desired effect, to show his knee is "a non-issue."
- RB Rudi Johnson, who complained sometimes in 2005 because he didn't get
enough carries, enjoyed his 28-attempt effort in the opener at Kansas City.
Coach Marvin Lewis diverted some of coordinator Bob Bratkowski's calls into
Johnson's hands to eat clock.
- TE Reggie Kelly, while having one receptions and one drap against the
Chiefs, is an invaluable blocker in pass protection and for the run game. He
accepts the role, though he has said he understands why some fans are
frustrated with the lack of pass threat the team's tight ends pose.
- WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh said he made the decision that his injured heel
could not go in the opener. He said he is hoping to practice this week and
play Sunday against the Browns. He adds an increasingly skilled pass
receiver, and one of Carson Palmer's safety valves, to the offense.
- WR Chad Johnson is developing an entertaining personal rivalry with
Browns cornerback Leigh Bodden, by far the best defensive back on the
- DE Justin Smith is getting national attention for his three-sack
performance Sunday at Kansas City. A free agent after the season, Smith
could earn himself quite a paycheck if he can get to double-digit sacks for
the first time in his career.
- DT Sam Adams only had one tackle on the stat sheet, but he
accomplished his mission in his first game with the Bengals. He ate space in
the middle of the line, occupied two blockers on run plays, kept linebackers
relatively unblocked and helped open space for defensive ends. He appears to
be the key new piece to an improved defense.
- CB Tory James missed a tackle on the sideline on a screen pass to
Chiefs running back Larry Johnson. James has slowed since the middle of last
season, and whispers around the club are that coaches are grooming rookie
Johnathan Joseph to take over for James before the end of the season.
- RB Quincy Wilson did not see any action Sunday at Kansas City.
While Wilson improved on special teams, it's relatively clear he will be the
player to go when tailback Chris Perry comes off the PUP list.
- LB Ahmad Brooks, a rookie, though he did not play Sunday against the Chiefs, looks to be ahead of fellow rookie linebacker A.J. Nicholson, who was not active. The Bengals will have a tough call to make when Odell Thurman comes off his four-game suspension. The team already is keeping eight linebackers on the active roster.