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All eyes on Zimmer encore

Mike Zimmer

INDIANAPOLIS — Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer sits down for an interview in a hidden corner of the Westin Hotel during a break here in the NFL Scouting Combine and still the people find him to stop and say hello.

At least Zimmer knows these people. Agent Joby Branion. Former Lions head coach Steve Mariucci. Former coaching colleague Andy Sugarman.

"But some people come up to me and I have no idea who they are," Zimmer admits. "I'm more recognizable than I have been."

There are reasons. Two appearances on the NFL Films classic Hard Knocks. A dozen years with America's Team. A flurry of interviews for head coaching jobs.

But even bigger reasons are the last four seasons he's been the coordinator in Cincinnati, when he's delivered four top 15 performances for a defense that in the previous 18 seasons had two.

"How many people in Cincinnati can say that?" Zimmer asked with a smile. "I've been here four years and been to two playoffs. Fifty percent."

Zimmer's bid to better last year's No. 7 ranking isn't without its challenges. He has two new secondary coaches and one is an offensive guru. His one cornerback who has more than two seasons in the system is recovering from an Achilles tear. The pundits are saying the Bengals are looking at cornerback with one of their two first-round picks.

And Zimmer admits he's not sure what the defense is going to look like with third-down players such as linemen Frostee Rucker and Jon Fanene (a combined 10 sacks) and cornerbacks Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings scheduled to be free agents.

But then, the Bengals finished fourth in sacks per pass and Zimmer made his name with the Cowboys as a secondary coach.

"I hope I'm not pigeonholed like that," Zimmer said. "I know DBs pretty well technique-wise. I don't know if they can play. They're hard to judge. It's like every other position. Typically the smarter guy plays the best."

But one thing Zimmer does know for sure is this isn't the defense he took to No. 4 built around the man-to-man first-round cornerback skills of a young Leon Hall and the departed Johnathan Joseph in 2009.

"If we don't have two corners that can cover we're not going to do that; that's coaching," Zimmer said. "You don't try to be 'I'm a system guy and I'm going to do this.' Well, if you don't have the guys for your system you suck and end up getting fired. Someone has to change at some point in time. You either get the guys who fit your system or you change it."

With former Jets defensive line coach Mark Carrier and former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson moving into the secondary to coach, Zimmer envisions reverting to the approach he took when he arrived.

"I'm going to spend time teaching how I want it done," Zimmer said. "Mark Carrier doesn't know anything about how we do it, say it or coach it. I don't know when we start game-planning what his opinions are. Paul (new linebackers coach Guenther) has listened to me for four years now but I'm going to be spending a lot more time coaching the coaches."

The one thing this defense can do that that Hall-Joseph defense of 2009 didn't do is rush the passer. Never before have the Bengals had 15 players with at least half a sack. And that was the one weakness everyone said the Bengals had coming into the season. So maybe, he hinted, the cornerback play comes on like that.

"For the last five days I watched our pass cutups with no blitzes and we rushed the passer well with a four-man rush; much better than we did a year ago," Zimmer said. "When it was time to throw the ball we could rush, which is different than anything I've had in quite a while. I don't know if we rush as good as the Giants but we can rush if things continue the right way.

"We're not like Indianapolis. They're rushing the passer on first down, second down third down and fourth. First and 10. Second and one. They're rushing the passer. Philadelphia. They're rushing the passer all the time. We play the run, then we rush the passer. That's why I'm saying for us to have that many sacks (45), I think it's good."

For a few precious weeks last season back in October, the Bengals were No. 1 in allowing yards per rush. Then it all blew up in December, culminating in the last two games in which the Bengals gave up nearly 400 yards rushing. Zimmer said he'll emphasize the run and red-zone play once spring ball begins.

And he's wondering if less is more.

"Truth be told, we've got enough really good things that we do that we can probably back off on some of the things that we don't do as well; that we don't practice as well," Zimmer said. "Even though it's a good idea and we think it can help us, but we may not be (good enough at it). We want to be good at something before we start (doing more). In some areas we probably do too much."

But the Bengals have done enough that other teams are looking at not only their players, but their coaches. Secondary coach Kevin Coyle has moved to the Dolphins as defensive coordinator a year after the Cardinals signed assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi as their secondary coach.

"I think guys are starting to want our players just like they're starting to want our coaches," Zimmer said. "It means we're doing something (well). I mean, a lot of these guys no one wanted before. Fanene didn't get any offers last year. I wouldn't say there were a lot of people that wanted (safety) Reggie Nelson. They did good things. They played well. So hopefully it will be better for them, too."

Ironically, it is Zimmer that didn't get the job he has coveted for the last several years, a shot as a head coach. At 55, Zimmer interviewed in Tampa Bay and Miami and came up empty as he did a few years ago when he had an interview in St. Louis.

Zimmer was described by one report out of Miami last month as being blunt, but when asked if he thinks the specs have changed in the more media-driven NFL of the last five years, he's not sure.

"There are only 32 jobs. There are a lot of really good coaches and you don't know what teams are really looking for," he said. "I really don't know. It's hard to figure out. I don't know what is the answer.

"I think every time you do something you learn and hopefully do it better. The first (interview) I ever did I probably wasn't very good. The last few I've done I think have been pretty good, but I didn't get the job so maybe it's not that much about the interview, but I don't know."

Like his head coach, Zimmer is heading into the last year of that three-year deal that made him the first Bengals $1 million per year assistant coach.

Asked if he'd want to return if there wasn't a head job available, Zimmer said yes.

"I can't predict the future," Zimmer said. "Maybe they won't want me here next year. So many different things can happen."

But that's not one of them.

Everybody knows his name.

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