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Game day can find defensive tackle Domata Peko leading by example.
This is where Domata Peko lives.
He has a trustee presence in the locker room and he’s an exhaustive family man and he shows up at more community events than the mayor. He calls everyone “Oos,” short for the Samoan word for brother or buddy. “Uso.”
But when the NFL season opens in Baltimore Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12), that is where Peko lives.
“It all begins with stopping the run,” Peko says. “That’s why I play this game. I take a lot of pride in what I do and my defense and getting the run defense better and improving every year.”
If the punishing, important Bengals-Ravens series defines how head coach Marvin Lewis changed the culture so long ago and how new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther plans to make a defensive team his own after receiving the torch from Mike Zimmer, then Peko embodies the selfless style that has marked his team’s rise to the top of the league.
Just like the Patriots, Packers, Broncos, 49ers, and yes, even the Ravens, defensive linemen like Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata get more public play than Peko. But the Bengals and Peko are always there at the end. Top ten defense three straight years, when they are one of only five teams to make the playoffs each season.
But you would never know it if you venture very long into the national punditry. A preseason No. 3 ranking in the AFC North in Sports Illustrated? And you would never know it, but only two interior linemen have more tackles than Ngata in the NFL during the last three seasons. San Francisco’s Justin Smith with 173, Peko with 171, and Ngata and Minnesota’s Linval Joseph with 167.
“I don’t know why he doesn’t get more recognition,” Guenther says. “He means so much to our defense. He’s the glue, the pillar that keeps everybody together. He’s a damn good player. No question. Bar none. We think he’s the best pure 4-3 nose tackle in the league. Point blank. Period. Look at how his teammates feel about him. They’ve voted him captain again.”
Peko and left tackle Andrew Whitworth have been the de facto defensive and offensive captain, respectively since, effectively, the AFC North run of 2009. Both arrived in the 2006 draft and both play in the trenches with such a top-shelf consistency in a division known for trenches that it translates seamlessly to the foxhole of the locker room.
Earlier this week in a vote for this year’s captains, their teammates made it official again, along with adding third-year WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict with Peko on defense and fourth-year quarterback Andy Dalton on offense. Linebacker Vincent Rey and running back Cedric Peerman again represent special teams.
“To have guys look at you like that and believe in you as a leader, I just want to continue to lead by example,” Peko says. “It’s an honor and such a blessing.”
Peko is a fan of Ngata’s, too. They both came out of the 2006 draft and both have island ancestry. Peko is Samoan and Ngata is Tongan. When they talk, it is after games.
“He seems like a nice guy,” Peko says. “Great player. You’ve got to remember that he came out in the first round and was big at Oregon.”
The Ravens traded up to get Ngata in that first round. The Bengals took Peko in the fourth round out of Michigan State. But he’s every bit as important to the Bengals as Ngata is to a Ravens defense that has finished in the NFL’s top five against the run six times in his eight seasons. Peko hasn’t missed a game since he sat out December of ’09 with a knee injury and his current streak of 67 straight starts leads the club. His brute strength and endless motor is a big feature of a Bengals run defense that has a No. 5 finish of its own last year.
“Domata leads the charge,” Guenther says. “He does whatever we ask him to do. Whenever I install anything or change anything, how it impacts the line is my first thought. They make what we do go.”
Stopping the run is the cardinal rule, the one fundamental that must be executed to let loose the Bengals vaunted pass rushers.
“Nose tackle in this defense is a selfless job,” Peko says. “If my job is to take on the double teams and let our linebackers run free, then that’s my job. I’m just going to keep grinding and do my part. I’ve been playing at a high level for a long time… (but) this defense isn’t about one player. It’s about a brotherhood striving for a goal.
“As long as the people within these four walls respect what I’m doing, that’s all that matters.”
There have been dents in the pride against the run. In the 2012 season finale the Ravens rolled up more than 200 yards rushing. In the two Wild Card losses to Houston at the end of ’11 sand ‘12, the Texans averaged about 165 yards on the ground. Last year the Chargers rolled up nearly 200 yards rushing in that Wild Card loss.
The Ravens may not have running back Ray Rice Sunday, but guess who is the Ravens new offensive coordinator?
Gary Kubiak, the former Texans head coach, is the author of the stretch zone that gave the Bengals fits. The Bengals allowed a brutal Baltimore running game barely three yards per last year in the two games, but Guenther knows they will be better running the ball even without Rice.
“We’ve gone back and watched the Houston tape,” Peko says. “I think this game comes down to stopping the run. We know what it means. We know how important it is. We can’t let them run the ball.”
The panacea to stop the stretch play before running back Bernard Pierce make his one cut is as simple as Peko’s outlook up front. The Bengals have to knock the Ravens offensive line back and set the edges.
Right where Peko lives.
“We know we have to start fast Sunday. We have to bring our lunch pails and hard hats and play hard all day,” Peko says. “I love it.”