Back in September, the Cincinnati Bengals ranked 30th among NFL teams in total defense. But the unit has steadily improved under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who once held the same title with the Dallas Cowboys (2000-2006) during his 13 seasons on the Cowboys' staff.
Cincinnati (7-5) heads into Sunday's matchup against the Cowboys (6-6) with a defense that leads the NFL in sacks (39), ranks eighth among league teams in yards allowed (331.3 per game) and has not allowed a red-zone touchdown in its past three games.
The Bengals' defensive turnaround has been instrumental in the team's four-game winning streak, which has Cincinnati tied with Pittsburgh in the race for the AFC's final playoff berth. Among factors cited by coaches have been the September addition of safety Chris Crocker and the improved play of linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has dropped 20 pounds since being called out by coach Marvin Lewis in October.
Lewis, however, cited areas for improvement after holding San Diego to 297 yards and no offensive touchdowns in last week's 20-13 victory on the road.
"We have to be better in tackling on defense. We have to rush the quarterback better," Lewis said during a news conference in Cincinnati. "We were fortunate to keep them off the board, from a touchdown standpoint. As coaches, we're still not happy."
During the Bengals' four-game winning streak, the defense has allowed only 10 plays of 20 yards or more. In the team's first eight games, Cincinnati surrendered 38 plays of 20-plus yards. If the turnaround continues, Zimmer -- a Cowboys assistant coach from 1994-2006 -- could emerge as a hot candidate for a head coaching vacancy in the off-season.
Earlier this week, Zimmer told reporters in Cincinnati that he remains interested in taking over an NFL team but tries to block out such thoughts during the season because of past disappointments in landing a head coaching position.
Record rushing pace
Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis can tie a franchise record by posting his fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing game in Sunday's matchup against Dallas. The record was set by Paul Robinson in 1968, the Bengals' first season.
Green-Ellis has topped the 100-yard mark against Kansas City (101), Oakland (129) and San Diego (118) in the team's past three contests, boosting his season total to 885 yards.
By comparison, the Cowboys have rushed for 989 yards as a team, paced by DeMarco Murray (413). Dallas allowed 169 rushing yards to rookie Bryce Brown, Philadelphia's backup, during last week's 38-33 victory over the Eagles.
Cedric Peerman, the Bengals' second-leading rusher (244 yards, 7.9 per carry), is expected to miss Sunday's game because of a high ankle sprain suffered last week at San Diego. His absence opens the door to more touches for Brian Leonard (15 carries, 46 yards) in relief of starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
No glee club
Lewis said his primary focus in practice this week is to "break up the glee club" surrounding the team because of its four-game winning streak. Which means?
"Everybody is patting them on their backs about what they're doing. Well, we haven't done anything," Lewis said, noting that a playoff berth is far from assured. "These last four are what counts. We have to play better."
Bengals receiver Marvin Jones, a rookie from California, projects to make his second consecutive start in place of Mohamed Sanu, who had season-ending surgery this week for a foot injury.
Jones (five catches, 46 yards) had two receptions for 20 yards in last week's victory over San Diego but drew criticism from Lewis for allowing a ball to glance off his hands for an interception.
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick suffered a fourth-quarter concussion against San Diego, clouding his status for Sunday.
Bengals receiver Armon Binns (18 catches, 210 yards, one touchdown) has been inactive the past two games, as well as four of the past six.
The Bengals have had 13 players contribute to their NFL-high 39 sacks, led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins (9.5). But only Atkins, Michael Johnson (eight), Carlos Dunlap (four) and Wallace Gilberry (four) have more than three sacks this season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760