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'We sucked it up'

Posted Sep 23, 2013

Marvin Lewis celebrated his birthday Monday replaying a game where the candles could have been blown out 55 times. It was his kind of game.

Even Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa whispered in each other's ear during their epic heavyweight bout and so it was during Sunday's first half of Cincinnati's 34-30 split decision of 30-0 and then 20-0 over the Packers that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers saluted Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

It was during a timeout in the first half as Zimmer scanned his call sheet on the sidelines.

"He looked over. I didn’t know he knew who I was," Zimmer recalled Monday. "So I kind of just nodded at him. He still kept looking, so then I gave him a thumbs up, kind of like ‘hey, I respect you’ and he gave me a salute. That was kind of funny.”

But what transpired was far from hilarious as Zimmer's defense put together its most exhausting and effective effort in his six seasons and 86 games as the Bengals chief defender.

Asked if he'd been able to predict what would happen if on Saturday night if he was told his team would play 81 snaps against the no-huddle octane of Rodgers and start four drives inside its own 40, Zimmer shrugged.

"It could have been 70 points," he said.

Short at cornerback, linebacker and end, 10 were on the field for at least 84 percent of the 81 snaps. Five were on the field for 80 snaps and four of them played every one: safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and 35-year-old cornerback Terence Newman with his second-half interception and winning 58-yard fumble return with 3:47 left.

"We sucked it up. We sucked it up a lot. I was proud of that. We sucked it up," Zimmer said. "There was a time in the ballgame where we could have folded and we didn’t do that. So I was proud of that. It’s a challenge for them. I know we ended up giving up 400 yards, which is way too many, but we accepted the challenge and we competed like crazy. If you do that and you play smart …"

Zimmer said during the week he wasn't going to go in scared against Green Bay's NFL-leading offense with Rodgers filling it up for 380 yards per game and as Nelson asked Monday, "Did you see the playcalling or what?" as Zimmer blitzed more than he has all season in countering those superb four-man pressures with backer and safety shots as each defense traded blows along the ropes.

"That says a lot that he trusts us to execute it; I think we responded well," said Nelson, who was on the field with his unit for 24 straight snaps, from 10:49 left in the game until right end Michael Johnson tipped Rodgers's fourth-and-five pass. "When you realize the game is all dependent on you, you just have to step up and get that next step and energy inside you to keep going and I think that's what the defense did."

Head coach Marvin Lewis celebrated his birthday Monday replaying a game where the candles could have been blown out 55 times. It was his kind of game. A grind-it-win-it-by-attrition game that could have been straight out of the AFC North if it weren't for all the points.

"We’re tough. We’ve just got to be smart. I don’t doubt our toughness. I want us to continue to be a smarter football team.” Lewis said.

Lewis is known for working his players hard and he always fights the warning about overdoing it and the realities of a gut-buster like Sunday. But he likes the fact when players come here from other teams many openly talk about how much harder life is as a Bengal.

"You can’t stay if you don’t work,” Lewis said. "They’re going to get an IV. Our guys are used to working. They know they have to work. That’s what the week is about; put in your work so that Sunday’s different. Sunday you know  ‘I’ve got this. I’ve been through this. I know how this is going to feel and how it’s going to work.’

"If you stand around and point and practice all week, when Sunday comes it’s happening too fast. We had a trying schedule. Now we get a chance to have more of a normal week. But I emphasized to our guys they have to come home and they have to get their rest and they’ve got to come in here ready to go on Wednesday because we’ve got to get to work.”

The Bengals came off a short week, so they rung up two victories in five-and-a-half days. But defenders like left end Carlos Dunlap, who played his most snaps ever with 71, played almost two games last Sunday as the Bengals prep for a normal week and this Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Cleveland.

"It's a good thing," Dunlap said of the workload. "Because it can obviously roll over into the game in key situations, critical situations and it pays off like it did Sunday."

Dunlap had enough legs for a pass rush that in the last drive he batted down two passes. Only he said it wasn't legs.

"No legs. No legs. That was all heart," Dunlap said. "That was tough. I didn't feel like I was in condition on that last drive."

Special teams coach Darrin Simmons gave Nelson a break. After Newman's touchdown ended a drive that lasted nearly seven minutes, he didn't have him cover the kickoff like he had been doing.

"We played a lot of snaps. That's what Marvin gets us in shape for in practice. That's how we practice," Nelson said.

"Tough love is always good. You can't be too soft on players. Everybody is grown around here and you've got to respond well. It's in a good way. I respond well to tough love sometimes. ... He shows us tough love and he's going to pick some hard-nosed tough players."

Nelson didn't have it as bad as Newman since Newman played all 11 snaps before the fumble, took part in the 58-yard dash with the ball, and then went back to play 13 more snaps. Somehow Newman passed the word to Zimmer after his return to play some Cover 2 (deep zone) for a couple of snaps while he got his breath back before the Bengals went back to the man-to-man defense they played most of the day.

Zimmer obliged and it wasn't the last time he listened to a player on that drive. After the Bengals took a timeout with 1:25 left to match Green Bay's timeout, Zimmer found himself listening to Burfict on fourth-and-five from the Packers 20.

"There was a timeout and we were talking about it I was talking to somebody and I said ‘I’m going to do this,’ and Vontaze was standing there and he said ‘No, coach. Run this.' I said ‘All right. You’ve got it,' " Zimmer said.   

The players had his back. From big to small. Michael Johnson, who always plays 85 percent of the snaps, logged 70 plays despite fighting a cold the last two weeks.

“(Dunlap) was good at the end of the game; so was Michael. I think we caught our second wind," Zimmer said. "We were gassed for a while but when the game is on the line our guys know it is going to be throws. It is going to be fun for them because they aren’t playing the run all day.”

Adam Jones, the third corner who was limited Thursday and Friday with an abdomen issue, played 80 even against the Packers three-receiver sets.

"He practiced Friday I think he made it through most all of it," said Zimmer, who indicated Jones told him he could go if he could run. "So I think he felt OK about it."

Zimmer then watched Jones turn around what had been an unmitigated disaster in the first half Monday night to 80-snap gold Sunday.

"He played better technically yesterday. There were a couple of times he relaxed in the ballgame, but for the most part he played good all day," Zimmer said. "That might be his best game he’s played since he’s been here. There was one time he was a little soft on the tackle on their sideline, but for the most part I thought he competed well and did a good job with all the pressures."

Zimmer even predicted good things for players that didn't play much. SAM backer James Harrison went from playing 40 snaps in the opener to 14 against the spread Steelers and then just five Sunday against the no-huddle Packers. At the moment, Harrison isn't in the nickel packages, but Zimmer says he'll have his day.

"We planned on giving him lot of reps in the game. I was calling so many blitzes and he was going to be in a different spot, so it was going to be a little unnerving for him because he had a short time to learn all of them," Zimmer said. "But I'm impressed with James and his attitude and the way he handles things. He's good. He'll be an impact. He'll be an impact.

"He was in there some in the ballgame and he did some good things."

The Bengals didn't do some good things against the run, giving up their first 100-yard rusher in 11 regular-season games and third over the last two seasons when rookie running back Jonathan Franklin parlayed a 51-yard run into a 103-yard day. Zimmer took some of the blame, giving up something against the run to counter Rodgers's laser passing.

"We were focusing on rushing the quarterback quite a bit," Zimmer said. "I told one of the coaches, I’m not playing this game scared. We’re going to go in and pressure them and we had a good idea what their pass protection was going to be and how we could get some pressure on them and if they hit a couple runs, they hit a couple runs. But we were going to try to mix things up on them."

But 81 snaps is 81 snaps. Zimmer was looking for a second wind. Leave it to the old man who no doubt had Rodgers saying in his best, fierce Seinfeld, "Newman!"

"Probably when Terence made the first interception," Zimmer said of Newman's pick midway through the third quarter. "That was a big momentum change for us.

“We hit a little lull right after the first half. It was the first time we’ve come out after halftime and gone back on the field, I think even in preseason. We had a drive before halftime then halftime and then we came back on the field to start the second half for the first time. It was a long drive and we were gassed at the end. I’ve never seen us that gassed before. We kind of caught our second wind after the offense scored that touchdown."

Big bouts can keep defensive coordinators up nights. Zimmer couldn't get to sleep Sunday night and was up at 3 a.m. looking at the Browns.

The last time a team gave up 30 straight points and still won was in the 1999 opener, when Dallas beat Washington in overtime, 41-35. Zimmer was the Cowboys secondary coach. Norv Turner was the Redskins head coach. The Bengals are now trying to regroup to play Sunday in Cleveland, where Turner is the new Browns offensive coordinator.

"You don't have much time to enjoy it," Zimmer said. "You just have to keep fighting."

Even after 81 snaps.

 

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