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Z-fense rides stability

Posted Dec 30, 2013

Mike Zimmer talked about stability and how it has helped shape one of the NFL's most formidable defenses.

On a day the NFL canned five head coaches that served a shorter stint than Mike Zimmer's tenure with the Bengals, the best defensive coordinator in the history of the team talked about stability Monday and how it has helped shape one of the NFL's most formidable defenses.

"I think so. I think having the players and they hear the same message from the first day I’ve walked in here until last week, I’m preaching the same message all of the time," Zimmer said. "Whether it’s this technique or that technique or making sure everyone is accountable and on the same page, I think that’s important to have guys that understand these things. Communication is a big part of football and the way I say things they’ve heard it now for a few years."

A few years? Try six. With a nod to Hank Bullough and Charles Richard LeBeau, the Bengals Super Bowl defensive coordinators, Zimmer's six years are hard to beat.

After punishing their fourth Super Bowl winning quarterback this season at Paul Brown Stadium last Sunday to help cap an unbeaten home schedule by holding foes to 17 points and 1.1 touchdowns per game, the Bengals finished third in the NFL defensive rankings. That ties for the second-highest ranking in club history on defense and gives a Zimmer unit four of Cincinnati's nine highest-ranked defenses.

The 2013 defense is followed by 2009 (4), 2012 (6) and 2011 (7). His two AFC North champions are in the top five for allowing the fewest points in a 16-game season. The '09 champs (291) had the second fewest to LeBeau's '89 team (285) and the '13 edition has the fifth fewest with 305, one more than Bullough's 1981 AFC champs.

It is what the front office banked on this offseason when it re-signed all six starters or regulars that had reached free agency.

Stability.

"It’s like with the Michael Johnsons and the free agents, the (Rey) Maualugas. We can communicate on the sideline," Zimmer said. "We can communicate in the room. They know how I am. I know what guys I can get on a little harder and what guys I shouldn’t get on a little bit harder."

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, the man who brought Zimmer here in 2008 with the help of the enthusiastic recommendation of Hue Jackson, now the Bengals running backs coach, shook his head Monday as he pondered the list of firings.

Among them was his good friend in Detroit, Jim Schwartz.

“It’s a difficult day. I think it’s a hard day. It always is. There’s only 32 of these and now we’re going to be on over 130 changes since Jan. (14), 2003. That’s hard,” said Lewis, alluding to his introduction as Bengals head coach in a Mobile, Ala., resort.

But Lewis agrees that the stability that Bengals president Mike Brown craves has been a big factor in making the playoffs in three straight seasons and four out of the last five. When he signed his most recent extension last year Lewis admitted Brown had more patience than him.

“I think we’ve had the opportunity to grow and mature our players. I think when you have the chance to do that, you reap the benefit of it," Lewis said. "The guys, they know what to expect. They develop. When you have a guy who goes down and the next guy has to go in, he’s been part of the program, part of the system, he plugs into place a little easier. That’s part of it.”

The only defenders inactive or active who have been here longer than Zimmer are defensive linemen Domata Peko and Robert Geathers and cornerback Leon Hall. And Hall was in only his second season when Zimmer arrived. He's a Zim guy, for sure.

"(Safety) Reggie Nelson being here for a while and didn’t leave in free agency. (Cornerback) Terence Newman stayed. All those things help because I know what Terence does well," Zimmer said. "I know how to coach Reggie. Those things are all important. And then they also know when I’m in a bad mood or I’m in a good mood. I think that helps, too."

What is putting Zimmer in a good mood these days is his depth. He'll remind that the defense has not only lost two Pro Bowl-caliber players in Hall and tackle Geno Atkins to injury, but also Geathers, supremely valuable for his versatility and leadership, as well as the top two nickel linebackers, Emmanuel Lamur and Taylor Mays.

"I hear well, this team has defensive linemen they didn’t have in training camp. Heck, everybody has that. We have the same thing," Zimmer said. "We have guys that come in and play that weren’t in training camp. Guys that come in off the street or whatever. It’s not a perfect world. We just try to get them to play the best they can. You probably haven’t seen it, but we’re doing things a little bit differently now because of whoever is playing. I’m going to put guys in the right position, if I can, to win."

What stands out about Zimmer is his ability to get high-paid and proud pros to play together. Gunning for sacks and interceptions ruins the very concept of team defense, but the players have bought in. While Zimmer is extremely proud of WILL backer Vontaze Burfict's Pro Bowl berth, he carefully frames it.

"He's tough, he's smart, he plays real hard. Honestly, he does a lot of great things. He's in a perfect position where he plays," Zimmer said of Burfict. "The defensive line does a great job keeping him off blockers. He gets off blocks and makes tackles, too, but it's all part of what we do. Guys help each other out. Guys become better players. Safeties help the corners, defensive ends help the linebackers, so on and so forth. It's great for him and where he came fom it's unbelievable. To me, it's more of a team thing. We've got a lot of guys that help each other out."

How the Bengals have filled the loss of Atkins is quintessential Zimmer. He didn't tear up the scheme. He plugged and replaced with different kinds of players that can do different things. Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap, both ends, are taking snaps inside at tackle at times in Atkins's spot in the pass rush. So is SAM backer James Harrison, who didn't play nickel until Atkins got hurt and is reprising his role in Pittsburgh as a rusher at times. But he and rookie end Margus Hunt are mainly getting their shots on the edge.

"When we had Geno, we knew we had some favorable matchups in situations. Now we know that matchup is gone," Zimmer said. "So we’re trying to figure out ways to get other guys isolated. I don’t think we’ve blitzed any more. Our sack numbers are probably down from that point because we had a little lull there for a while and we didn’t rush the passer as well. We’re just trying to be more creative I guess in doing some of those things."

And, as so often happens, the extra snaps have benefited someone. This time it looks to be Hunt, who got half of his first NFL sack when he worked a nice stunt with Gilberry last Sunday.

"This is probably the best game he’s played. He did a nice job in the game with some of the pass-rush stuff. We might have to get him in there a little bit more," Zimmer said. "His biggest thing was finishing. Now he’s starting to finish a little bit more. I think he understands that once he gets to the blocker and gets to a certain point, now it’s time to get off and go to the quarterback or the runner. That’s taken him a little while. We’ve been working with him a lot on that. I think he’s doing better there."

Now the big question, as it is every year with Zimmer, is he going to be around to develop young guys like Hunt, tackle Brandon Thompson and Dre Kirkpatrick? He's always on someone's head coaching list.

Last year Zimmer interviewed for the Cleveland job, among others. The year before that it was Tampa Bay, among others. Both are open again. But he's saying there is no room for distraction on the threshold of a postseason run.

Since he looked at Chargers tape all day, Zimmer says the only way he knew who got fired is when someone would come into his office and let him know.

"I’m pretty focused on everything we do. Obviously you get calls from people, I got texts and somebody sees you on the street and they’ll say something," Zimmer said. "But like I’ve said before, I would feel awful for these guys in the locker room here if I was concentrating on getting a job or concentrating on doing an interview. My job is to do the very best that I can for these players in here because they’ve busted their rear ends for me. As long as they bust their butts for me and I bust my butt for them, then we’re good. And then whatever happens after that happens. "

What has happened so far is stability. Six seasons, Only six head coaches have been in place longer than Zimmer at the helm of the Bengals defense.

"It’s dog years sometimes," he said with a weary smile.

But it has been a dog that has hunted.

 

 

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