You’ve probably seen the picture of him sitting on the elevated grandstand wall in the north end of Paul Brown Stadium during the fourth quarter as jubilant fans in big winter coats, watch caps and mittens pounded him on the back and applauded his play.
The 6-foot-6, 280-pound defensive end had just tipped Baltimore quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s pass to himself, then zigzagged 14 yards through Ravens players – including a brush-aside of the diving Taylor as though he were a matador deflecting a charging bull – to rumble into the end zone for a touchdown, which he promptly celebrated by using a TV platform as a springboard to catapult himself into the crowd as teammates cheered from below.
“That was one of the greatest moments, one I’ll always remember,” Dunlap said Wednesday as he stood at his locker following practice. “Me being up there with the fans who have supported us – to share that play, that moment, with (them) – that’s what we play for.
“And that picture will get framed and I’ll have it in my living room.”
Yet, if the third-year pro wants a true visual representation of his career, that picture should be part of a two-photo set.
The other one – which should be framed and placed right next to it – would show defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and him as a rookie, nose to nose, both with gritted teeth in yet another head-butting confrontation.
Zimmer has done a masterful job molding the defense – a group highlighted by several young stars in the making and supplemented by a few even-keel veterans – into one of the best units in the NFL.
The defense is the signature of this team and the reason the Bengals, making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 30 years, will meet Houston in the AFC Wild Card game Saturday at Reliant Stadium.
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The Bengals rank third in the NFL with 51 sacks – 40 by Dunlap and his defensive linemates, especially tackle Geno Atkins – and are sixth in net yards allowed with 319.7 per game. In each of the past three games, all victories, the defense has scored a touchdown.
As for Atkins, a guy who says little off the field but makes statement after statement during games, his 12.5 sacks lead NFL interior linemen (Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh is a distant second with 8.0), and that got him his second-straight Pro Bowl invite. And starting right end Michal Johnson is close behind him with 11.5 sacks.
Although he missed the first two games this season with injuries, Dunlap has six sacks, four forced fumbles, three recoveries and that acrobatic interception return. He’s the guy up front who likely has the most athletic talent and certainly the most flair.
The latter, at times, can be a curse as much as a blessing.
As Zimmer explained Wednesday: “I’m demanding. I want to make sure that if they want to get lazy, I’m not going to let them. I want to make sure they’re doing it right every single time, every play.”
And that was Dunlap’s problem. When he first became a pro, he’d have two good plays, then one where he free-lanced and ended up in the wrong place or simply sloughed off and didn’t finish.
Zimmer called him immature and for Dunlap, who had come out of Florida with a national championship and two seasons of All-SEC honors, that didn’t always set well.
At the start of his rookie season, he and Zimmer were at odds “every day,” the coach said.
“I figured one of us was going to lose the fight and it wasn’t going to be me,” Zimmer said. “They’re much easier to mold the way you want them molded when they’re young rookies. Carlos was a guy that had to be pushed, confronted, threatened at times, not let play at times.
“Either they figure it out or they don’t figure it out, one way or the other.”
To a lesser extent, Zimmer said he also had to make Johnson one of his projects:
“Michael was not as bad as Carlos. … But both those two guys are smart guys. I think they understand that you’re trying to help them as opposed to trying to ridicule them or something like that.”
Dunlap understands that now: “(Zimmer) was very passionate about it and he didn’t hold any of that back and I didn’t either. I play with a lot of passion. When you’re both like that sometimes you can bump heads, but it’s all for the best. He just wanted the best for me as well as the team. He saw the potential we had as a unit.”
Dunlap said the defensive front is made up of guys from different areas – “Mike’s from Selma, Ala., I’m from Charleston, S.C., Geno’s from Fort Lauderdale” – with different personalities that have been molded into one cohesive unit.
“As Domata (Samoa-born defensive tackle Domata Peko) would say, its like the Uso Brotherhood,” Dunlap said. “We’re playing for one another. There is no one guy who you could say is the face of the Bengals defense. We’ve got a lot of guys in sync with each other.”
For him, that took some effective nudging from Zimmer. And after playing little at the start of his first NFL season, Dunlap finished the year with a team-high and Bengal rookie record 9.5 sacks.
“When you’re both so passionate about something you love, of course you’re gonna bump,” Dunlap said. “There was no love loss – it wasn’t a bad thing. You need that type of stuff. Me and my dad, we used to bump heads all the time, too. I mean, you need that.
“There can’t be sunny days all the time. After the rain is the rainbow – that’s what my mom would tell you. After the rain is the rainbow and right now we’re on the better side of the rain.
“And we want to keep that going and try to find that gold at the end of the rainbow.”
As he quietly thought about that for a few seconds, the big man couldn’t help but start to beam.
And right there – that made for the perfect face of the Bengals defense this season.