Posted: 4:45 p.m.
Mike Zimmer heads into his second mandatory minicamp as the Bengals defensive coordinator this weekend with a decided spring in his step.
Compared to a year ago at this time, Zimmer sees better communication, a deeper roster, and a bigger third-down package that reflects the addition of more pass-rush weapons.
"I think so. It looks like it," said Zimmer when asked if he has more rushers at his disposal. "(Last year) we blitzed, but we were vanilla. Now if we can take it to the next step ... maybe we show this blitz and then blitz out of something else. That's kind of the next step in the progression."
That doesn't mean, of course, he's going soft on his players. The Zimudgeon warned Tuesday that the five workouts (two Thursday, two Friday, one Saturday) are going to be focused on fundamentals because "we've gotten kind of sloppy in our technique," but the reason points to where Zimmer has this unit headed.
"We've put so much in that we've gotten away from the fundamentals a little bit," he said. "Now we're going to go back and review it and make sure we're using the right technique."
While the pundits should be asking why they never put Zimmer on their short lists of head coaching candidates (productive units, a Bill Parcells pedigree, a tough, demanding bedside manner), the Bengals are trying to get on the short list of defensive rankings. As in the top 10 after jumping from 27 to 12 last year.
"Our depth is a lot better than it was; a lot of the guys getting to play last year have helped," Zimmer said. "The biggest thing you notice is we don't have a whole bunch of glaring weaknesses. Linebackers, ends, safeties are probably our three deepest positions. I don't know if anything has surprised me (in the last month), but I know we're playing better in the red zone and we have better communication."
Rookie defensive end Michael Johnson is a reason the third-down packages are so bulky and interesting. The 6-7, 266-pound Johnson has taken everyone with his athleticism, meaning he can provide a bit of a 3-4 look as a sometimes SAM linebacker that can both blitz and drop into pass coverage.
Along with better pass rushers and refined pass-rush technique, Zimmer is trying to confuse quarterbacks enough so that they are forced to bring the ball down from a throwing motion at least a couple of times a game.
"You can do a lot of things with a guy like him," Zimmer said of Johnson. "You can line him up as a tackle, but he can cover a back out of the backfield and you can blitz somebody and play man-to-man with other guys. There are just so many things you can use with a guy like him. He's shown he can he can do those things."
Zimmer knows Johnson is going to have to prove that "he can do those things" in pads, and that's why right now Zimmer can't make any judgments on the pass rush off of what his players and are doing in practices where they can only wear helmets for protection.
"I really don't know about the pass rush until we can hit the quarterback. Now if they beat someone, they have to stop," Zimmer said. "When we get the pads on, we have to find linebackers that can beat backs. We'll get on that early in camp. And we haven't been able to play bump-and-run because of the rules, so I feel like we're behind there."
There is always something to worry Zimmer. Yes, he's delighted with the additions of former Cowboys Tank Johnson and Roy Williams, and they may both end up starting. But he knows he has emphasized the pass rush a year after going hog wild on stopping the run.
"I am a little bit nervous because we've been talking about pressure and all that. Last year the emphasis was on the run and we did well," he said. "If we finish in the top 10 in running defense, I think we'll be able to hit the quarterback a few times.
"I see some things on tape that drive me crazy, (such as) guys not playing in (their) run fits. We've got to get back to making sure we're physical and attacking. Yeah, it's hard to do now, but at least we know if a guy is fitting the gaps right and playing the blocking scheme correctly."
Zimmer likes how second-rounder Rey Maualuga is adjusting from college middle linebacker to pro SAM backer, though he admits it's not for long. But in this defense, SAM is a good spot for Maualuga to learn because it's seen as the one backer spot where a mauler is needed while Dhani Jones' seasoning makes him perfect for the middle.
"Eventually (Maualuga) is going to be the Mike linebacker," Zimmer said."But I think right now (SAM) is a good place for him. We're just looking at it to see if we can get him on the field. That's why we've got him at Mike in some nickel packages (and in goal line) and SAM in the base. At least he's getting some exposure. Dhani runs the show really well out there."
More Zimmer worries: The nickel cornerback.
He has yet to see anyone emerge from the trio of David Jones, Geoff Pope and Simeon Castille. Also in the mix will be Michigan rookie Morgan Trent, a sixth-rounder sidelined all spring by a stress fracture in his foot who is expected to be ready when training camp opens.
One of the guys that Zimmer has been impressed with the past month, safety Chris Crocker, could end up being that nickel corner if the status quo stays status quo.
"We've got to find somebody there," Zimmer said. "It could be our downfall on third down and substitution stuff if we don't get the right guys in there. Crocker could do it."
But after a month on the field, Zimmer generally likes what he's got.
"We've got good guys," he said. "If you tell them to jump, they ask 'How high?' "
He would like the rookies, particularly Maualuga and Johnson, to start jumping higher.
"I think all of them have been here long enough that they can start being more assertive," he said. "I know they're still confused on a lot of things, but they can be more, 'Hey, I'm right. Let's go.' They can be more free flowing. Right now, they're playing robotically."