Defense chases paper

Posted Jul 29, 2012

Michael Johnson

Ask a new guy from the NFC like two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Terence Newman and he'll tell you just how much talent is dripping from this defense.

Ask a guy like left tackle Andrew Whitworth that goes against them every day and he'll tell you just how underrated this defense is even though it's been the centerpiece of two playoff runs in the past three seasons.

Ask the people that put this team together and they tell you the thing that jumped out at them during May and June in the camps is how big and fast the Bengals are on the defensive of side of the ball. Linemen like 6-6 Carlos Dunlap who returned kickoffs in high school and safeties like 230-pound Taylor Mays who runs like a cornerback have now been here for at least a season. There are 15 first- and second-round draft picks and, at least in shorts and helmets, it's been all-star game over there every day.

The anchor of it all, tackle Domata Peko, can see all of that. The guy that plays next to him, Geno Atkins, can bench press for one shot close to 600 pounds and the guy behind him, middle  linebacker Rey Maualuga, was the national defensive player of the year in his last year at USC. And before injuries consumed them last year, the Bengals were a No. 1 defense that gave nothing on the ground.

"I've got a good feeling about this year," Peko said after Saturday's practice.

But maybe Peko didn't realize how good this defense could be until he heard coordinator Mike Zimmer's first speech to them when they gathered Thursday. He sounded, Peko thought, a little bit different than his previous four seasons. Zim, they'll tell you, would rather throw them brimstone than bouquets.

"He told us we were a good defense last year, but this year he said we have a chance to be great," Peko said. "I never heard him say that. He was smiling, shaking hands, welcoming us back. He was happy. Yeah. Maybe he thinks we're pretty good."

Zimmer may think he's got something special, but he's got them spitting back the company line.

"Yeah. We're good on paper. We've got to do it on the field," said right end Michael Johnson.

Newman, who broke into the NFL under Zimmer in Dallas in 2003 and played for him for four years, knows the drill.

"Talent doesn't win games," Newman said. "Smart players using their talent is what wins games. We had talented defenses in Dallas and didn't always win games. They had a talented team here and went to the playoffs."

But Newman, who has been starting in place of Nate Clements while he heals a muscle pull, likes the paper.

"Talk about how big and fast they are, but they're also strong," Newman said. "This is one of the strongest teams I've seen. I've been lifting with Geno in the offseason and I couldn't believe how strong he was. Rey the same thing. These guys are animals and they play with the same passion they have in the weight room on the field."

Whitworth has been watching it evolve. During his first season here in 2006 when the Bengals needed one win to make the playoffs, the defense finished 30th, the offense finished eighth, and they lost three games by a total of four points. In 2009 the Bengals won the AFC North scoring just 19 points per game and last year got in the playoffs with just 21.5.

"You don't hear much about them for as good as they play," Whitworth said. "They have a lot of team speed and have a lot of guys that play extremely hard. They're fast. But they play with effort. They're tight. They're a close group. Give me 11 guys that play hard on defense any day and that's the name of the game. They fly around, but they play with sheer effort. There's nobody undersized over there. Geno is, I guess, but he's so strong and explosive ... I think (the intensity) is what makes them special."

Peko knows how much injuries changed the defense's makeup in the last six games in which the Bengals allowed an average of 140 rushing yards per game. And that was after leading the NFL for a chunk of October allowing 3.3 yards per carry. When tackle Pat Sims went down, the ends had to play more inside and got worn down while Maualuga and strong safety Chris Crocker limped toward postseason surgeries.

"We've got a good group; we're fast and disciplined," Maualuga said on Saturday, happy and healthy. "We're on the same page. This is probably the fastest and more physical group I've been around. You can be the strongest, but you have to know how to play football. The big thing for us is staying on the same page."

Newman sees Zimmer on top of his game.

"What I like is the coaching staff coaches in a way that they want you to be smart," he said. "Everybody is held accountable. There are no media darlings. There are no favorites. They're going to coach you the same way. It's equal opportunity for everybody."

If there is a face of this defense, it just may be the quiet, unassuming Michael Johnson. When Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis saw his 6-7, 265-pound athleticism still on the draft board at the top of the third round in 2009, they were looking for a corkscrew.

Like this defense, Johnson has shown flashes. Just like this defense, he had a great start last year, but then nicks and nacks to the body wore him down. And just like this defense, he went into the offseason resolved to get the bad taste out of the mouth. He built himself up with what looks to be an extra 10 pounds with an extremely aggressive regimen. He's still not saying what he weighs, but the best guess is the high 270s.

"The big thing is keeping the weight on," Johnson said. "And to just keep getting better and better. I don't pay too much attention to anything else. I'm just trying to get better each play."

He certainly sounds like a Zim guy. Johnson doesn't want to hear about that No. 7 ranking in NFL defense last year.

"What's a ranking mean?" he asked. "You can't eat off last week's meal."

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