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Dig deep and Zimmer still at heart of Bengals defense

Posted Dec 15, 2017

George Iloka broke in under Mike Zimmer.

This how Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer changed the Bengals’ culture on defense:

Carlos Dunlap won’t pick up the phone to call Zimmer. But he’ll still sing his praises.

“Not a very friendly guy,” Dunlap recalled this week. “I feel like he helped me as a young player. Very blunt. He told me what I needed to work on. There was no gray area. Very adamant. You won’t play until you fix it. There’s your motivation.”

Zimmer’s motivation Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) against his old team is even starker than that. A win means his second NFC Central title in three years. Sure, great to see everybody, but …

“I had a great six years with everybody there,” Zimmer said this week to the Cincinnati scribes. “Marvin was always great to me and my family, and the Browns, and the players. There are still a lot of players there that were there when I was there. It’ll be a nice thing, but we have to go out and play football, and play the right way this week.”

When Marvin Lewis arrived as head coach in 2003, he transformed everything but the defense. While the offense and special teams flourished, the defense finished 28-29-28-30-27 in the five seasons before Zimmer arrived. With Zimmer and Paul Guenther at the helm during the next decade, they’ve finished below No. 12 just three times.

This is how Zimmer changed the culture:

“Tough love,” said safety George Iloka. “The way my daddy was. I don’t need all that mushy stuff.”

It was Iloka that Zimmer grabbed out of a DBs meeting in during training camp and told him to get his butt upstairs into his office. He wanted to talk. Iloka was already in the dog house after breaking his hand swinging on a helmet in training camp. He wasn’t playing, but the thinking was he was still going to be the starter once the real games started.

But Zimmer asked him, ‘Why aren’t you playing?” and when Iloka showed him the cast Zimmer said, “What does that mean? Tape up that thing and let’s go. If you think you’re starting because of a couple of good practices in minicamp and OTAs and training camp, you’re mistaken.  You better get out there.”

“That’s the PG-13 version,” said Iloka with a nod to Zimmer’s creative vocabulary. “I think it was the last pre-season game and I taped it up, took some pain pills, and it worked out … I appreciate him having me go out there. You’ve got to. One thing I learned about playing in this league, you have to play hurt … I expect myself and everybody else to play hurt. There’s only so many guys on the team. There’s only 46 on game day. They’re going to need you.”

Even though the Bengals may have up to seven defensive starters out against the seventh best offense in the league, that’s why Zimmer thinks it’s going to be a tough game. He still considers Dunlap, Iloka, right end Michael Johnson, tackle Geno Atkins, and safety Shawn Williams as “my guys,” and to him that means they’ll play hard. One of the week’s themes is how Zimmer instills almost a blind loyalty into his players and this is why:

Johnson, an Alabama native and a Texas resident who once played in Tampa Bay, found himself visiting the Vikes on a free-agent tour that led back to Cincinnati. Johnson knew there were only two reasons he would ever go to the NFL's Ice Station Zebra.

Michael Johnson once visited Mike Zimmer's Ice Station Zebra.

“An away game and Mike Zimmer,” Johnson said.  “One, he’s a good coach. He coaches every position,” Johnson said. “And he coaches everybody the same.”

These guys playing Sunday don’t know anything but a Zimmer-Guenther crafted defense. The kids who are playing learned it from Guenther, Zimmer’s chief lieutenant.  The old-timers like Dunlap and Atkins (2010), Johnson (2009) and nose tackle Pat Sims (2008) have never been ranked lower than 22 while being in the top 11 five times.


This how Zimmer changed the culture and this is why he thinks it’s going to be a tough game. Maybe out of a sense of loyalty:

“He told me the things he expected out of me the same way he talked to the older guys and the Pro Bowlers,” Iloka said. “He’s consistent. He won’t settle for anything less than your best. You have to give him your best.

“A lot of my game is from the things he taught me,” he said. “As a player you gravitate to any person or coach who is able to bring the best out of you. That’s just human beings in general. You fall in love with a person who brings the best out of you, you better gravitate toward them.”

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