CINCINNATI (AP) — Since blowing a late lead to the Steelers during their first-round playoff loss in the 2015 season, the Bengals have been known for coming up short at the end of close games.
A young defense with a knack for turnovers is changing Cincinnati’s style.
Defensive linemen scored on an interception and a fumble return in the fourth quarter for a 27-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, leaving the Bengals (4-1) with their best start since 2015. Another strong finish showed this team is much different than the past few.
“Last year, we didn’t win all of these close games,” receiver A.J. Green said. “This team is different.”
The youngest team in coach Marvin Lewis’ 16 seasons has been at its best near the end of games. The Bengals missed out on the playoffs each of the past two seasons by going 5-10-1 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Their defense has rescued them three times already this season.
They lead the NFL with three returns for touchdowns — two on fumbles. The club record for touchdown returns in a season is seven in 2013, four of them off interceptions. They returned six turnovers for touchdowns in 1970 and 1976. By comparison, the Bengals had only two returns for touchdowns total from 2014-16.
Getting more turnovers was a point of emphasis under first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
“A lot of times the ball bouncing your way isn’t luck,” Austin said Monday. “It’s guys being in the right position so if the ball does bounce, you’re there to pick it up, you’re there to scoop it up. I think that’s really what it’s about.”
In the season opener, safety Clayton Fejedelem caused a fumble and returned it 83 yards for a touchdown in the closing seconds of a 34-23 win at Indianapolis . In the next game, safety Shawn Williams caused Joe Flacco to fumble with 2:52 left, allowing the Bengals to close out a 34-23 win over the division-rival Ravens.
The offense pulled one out in Atlanta a week ago, with Andy Dalton leading a 16-yard drive for the winning touchdown. His 13-yard pass to Green with 7 seconds left gave them a 37-36 victory.
On Sunday, end Michael Johnson — the oldest player on the defense — returned a deflected pass 22 yards for his first NFL touchdown that tied the game. Rookie end Sam Hubbard sealed it by returning Ryan Tannehill’s fumble 19 yards for his first touchdown.
The defense did most of the work as the Bengals piled up 24 points in the final quarter. Tannehill was 8 of 16 for 71 yards with two sacks, two interceptions and a fumble in the quarter.
“That’s just the way this league is,” receiver Alex Erickson said. “It comes down to so many final scores and one-possession games. These last couple weeks have been a testament to that, in the way we’ve been able to wear teams out and finish games.”
EASING BURFICT BACK: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned from his latest NFL suspension and got in for 34 of the 64 defensive plays, slightly more than the Bengals had expected. He finished with seven tackles, second on the team. Austin plans to use him more against Pittsburgh. “Each week, the biggest thing is trying to get him back into football shape,” Austin said.
ATTENDANCE DOWN: The Bengals drew 100,716 for their first two home games, their smallest opening crowds for the first two games of a season since 2011, when they were coming off a 4-12 finish.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL