CINCINNATI — For the first time in 28 years, the Cincinnati Bengals' defense is No. 1.
The Bengals are at the top of the league's rankings this week after giving up fewer yards than anyone else in the first four games. They moved up after shutting down Buffalo's high-powered offense in a 23-20 win on Sunday, one they considered the best measure yet of how good they can be.
"I think we showed we are a legit defense," middle linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "Now let's take it to a new level the rest of the way."
They haven't been this legit since they still had the core of a defense that helped them reach their first Super Bowl during the 1981 season. The defense finished ranked No. 1 in 1983, when the offense struggled and the Bengals went 7-9.
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That defense held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 11 games. This one ranks fifth in points allowed after giving up 74 against Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco and Buffalo.
That high ranking has a chance of staying. The Bengals (2-2) play their next three games against the three lowest-ranked offenses in the league — Jacksonville (No. 31), Indianapolis (No. 30) and Seattle (No. 32).
"That's our goal," defensive end Robert Geathers said. "It's no shock that we're in this position, but it's early in the season and we've got to keep working and not buy into all the hype."
The Bengals were counting on an improved defense to carry the offense in the first part of the season. Cincinnati is going through growing pains with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie receiver A.J. Green.
"It's been great," Dalton said. "Our defense has done a really good job. That's why we've been in games. In the fourth quarter, we've had a chance to win the game and they've made big plays."
The defense finished the 2009 season ranked No. 4 in the league, a big reason the Bengals won the AFC North and reached the playoffs for only the second time in the past 20 years. It was decimated by injuries last season — nine veterans hurt and the backfield virtually wiped out.
They've been mostly healthy so far, and a few offseason changes have worked well. Nate Clements was signed after cornerback Johnathan Joseph left as a free agent. Maualuga was moved from outside to middle linebacker, his more accustomed spot. Linebackers Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson signed as free agents.
Howard has given the defense more versatility with his ability to drop into pass coverage. During the win over Buffalo, he covered running back Fred Jackson.
The biggest improvement has been on the line, where the Bengals invested a lot of draft picks in recent years. Second-year end Carlos Dunlap and second-year tackle Geno Atkins have excelled in an eight-man rotation, a sign of the line's depth.
The Bengals have 10 sacks, tied for 12th in the league, but have gotten consistent pressure on quarterbacks.
"On defense, it all starts up front," Howard said. "They're the backbone of our defense. When they play like that, we're pretty good."