Aside from "one and done" and "Oooooh! AJ Green!", what's the first thing most people think of when they think of the Cincinnati Bengals?
(Sorry, the "one and done" was a cheap shot. That'll be the last time that joke comes out today. Promise.)
Your average football fan would probably go with something like "Their defense is really talented, but man, are they stupid sometimes!" Your average salty fan (or AFC North fan) probably thinks they're dirty. Cheap-shot artists. Undisciplined, at best, and headhunters at worst.
And said salty fan would have a point, to an extent - just last season, the Bengals had a few defensive penalties that, aside from being complete bonehead plays, got Cincy in the headlines for all the wrong reasons and eventually bounced the team from the playoffs - continuing their winless streak in the postseason, of course.
In case you forgot, here's a few of the plays that ended in some well-earned flags against the Who Dey crew:
Pacman Jones ripping Amari Cooper's helmet off and headbutting him!
Vontaze Burfict's headshot to Antonio Brown in the playoffs last year that basically lost them the game!
(and was wicked dangerous, to boot)
And, what the heck, have a montage of dirty Vontaze Burfict plays, including his barf-inducing ankle-twisting:
All this is basically a long setup to make the point that, while they've had several high-profile episodes of lowbrow play, don't expect the Bengals to shoot themselves in the foot on the reg. Despite everything pointing to this team being a dirty, edge-of-the-rules defense, believe it or not, they've actually done a considerable overhaul of their defensive penalties - and steadily gotten whistled less and less every year for years now.
Swear to god, we're not making this up.
In 2013, the year Cincy ended Tom Brady's quest to break Drew Brees' record for games with a passing touchdown a mere 2 games before Brady past Breesus, the Bengals ranked 13th in the NFL in defensive penalties. Marvin Lewis's crew got whistled 45 times over the 16-game season for penalties on the defense, which is just about 3 times per game. To be fair, the Rams led the league in defensive penalties that year with a whopping 67, so, yeah, things could definitely be worse.
So what did the Bengals do? They cleaned up their act, sort of - and they've cut down on the defensive penalties every season since 2013.
The following year - the year New England was left for dead after getting barbecued by Kansas City, and proceeded to ask the Bengals "What did the five fingers say to the face? SLAP!" in the infamous "We're on to Cincinnati" game - Cincinnati had one more penalty (46) than 2013, so they basically held steady. That being said, they did move down one spot to 14th overall in defensive penalties. Small victories, guys, small victories.
2015 is when they really kicked Operation No Bonehead Penalties into gear. Despite those two, well, bonehead plays we watched a few minutes ago, the Bengals cut their penalties down to 40 in the regular season. That doesn't sound like a lot, but remember when we said a few minutes ago they were averaging almost 3 per game? 40 penalties in a 16-game season means they got it down to an average of 2.5.
And things are looking good this year, too. Cincy doesn't have a great record - they're sitting at 2-3 going into this weekend - but on the defensive penalty side, they've gotten better once again. The Bengals are all the way down to 27th in the NFL in defensive penalties this season, averaging a mere 2.2 per game. Sure, it's a small sample size, but after four seasons of steady improvement, it's looking an awful lot more like a trend than a freak streak of good luck.
More than likely, it's a team that realized they were literally costing themselves games, and in the case of last season, the Bengals did Pittsburgh a solid and showed themselves out of the playoffs even though Ben Roethlisberger could barely throw a frisbee. Two late-game penalties turned an impossible field goal for the Steelers into a game-winning chip-shot field goal. As the saying goes, of course, the first step to winning is to not beat yourself.
Watch your ankles on Sunday, though, Tom.