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Bengals go in-depth


Vincent Rey

While the Bengals coaches were downstairs last week drawing up the game plan against the Vikings that would end up giving them the AFC North title, the personnel department met upstairs in day-long discussions covering each senior prospect heading into the upcoming college all-star games in preparation for the 2014 draft.

They are distinct yet related scenes. The Bengals pitched one of the most memorable defensive efforts in recent memory Sunday by not allowing the Vikes to convert any of their nine third-down conversions without two of Cincinnati's starting cornerbacks, its best inside pass rusher, its starting SAM linebacker and its top two pass-coverage linebackers.

So the Bengals ended up getting a big game from an undrafted rookie linebacker in Vincent Rey (a pick-six and sack), and solid efforts from a second-chance veteran they plucked off the street in cornerback Adam Jones (two big tackles on Adrian Peterson in space and two passes defensed), the first pick in the 2012 draft, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (rebounding from getting fried on a double move early), and a recycled defensive lineman high on their free-agent board early last season in Wallace Gilberry (69 percent of the snaps protecting the run and adding a tipped pass along the line).

Take a look at the crew that held Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to one out of 12 on third downs at Paul Brown Stadium back on Oct. 6 in what may turn out to be the biggest victory of the year if the Bills have anything to say about it.

Two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins played 90 percent of the snaps, cornerback Terence Newman nearly all of them, and nickel backer Taylor Mays 51 percent. None of them played Sunday.

Against New England, Rey played two goal-line snaps, Kirkpatrick three plays, and 2012 third-rounder Brandon Thompson seven plays while newly-signed linebacker Michael Boley worked only on special teams.

On Sunday, Boley played 47 percent of the snaps in place of injured SAM backer James Harrison, Kirkpatrick played 98 percent, and Thompson played twice as many snaps as he did against New England. Gilberry, who has become the Bengals sack leader, actually played a little more against the Pats because right end Michael Johnson was injured.   

"Gilberry has done really well. He's done a very good job. He's a smart guy," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer reflected Monday. "He plays and practices real hard. Works with a lot of effort. Works on his technique. He was with the 3-4 in Kansas City. I don't know what happened in Tampa Bay. I'm glad we've got him. Ever since we've got him here he's been a very positive influence on the defensive line and on our entire defense, too."

Gilberry is another example of how the Bengals have crafted one of the deepest rosters in the league with exhaustive personnel work that complements what the coaches do. Since Zimmer is in his sixth season in Cincinnati, everyone has an idea what kind of player he seeks and while Gilberry is a little undersized at 275 pounds, he's versatile, experienced and a good pro.

Take Rey, a solid player at under-the-radar Duke. The Bengals scouts saw his impressive campus workout, thought he had played out of position at middle backer and thought he'd be a fit where he could put his speed to use. Head coach Marvin Lewis also had a contact at Duke and the research was done.

Then when Rey got here, Zimmer worked him into the scout team in his second season after half a rookie year on the practice squad, and he kept getting better. On Sunday, Rey played six snaps in nickel and shared a sack-and-strip to go with his pick-six.

"He's conscientious, knows what the calls are and Vinny has been here for a while and has had a chance to learn," Zimmer said. "Hopefully guys like (Jayson) DiManche, (Shawn) Williams, (J.K.) Schaffer. They're all learning as they're going and will continue to go on. Vinny makes his hay on special teams and continues to do it. I can remember two years ago when we started playing him on the scout team and he was the nickel back. He started to learn coverages, plus he's a smart guy."

It also shows of having the consistency of a scheme as Zimmer heads into his sixth season in Cincinnati. Not only has it been the same, it's been good.

If the Bengals end the season where they are now, fifth in NFL defense, it makes the third straight season in the top seven and the highest since a No. 4 ranking in 2009. That puts the defense in the top seven in four of Zimmer's seasons here and it's no coincidence the Bengals went to the postseason all four of those years even though the offense was ranked 24th, 20th and 22nd in three of those seasons.  The offense's current No. 10 ranking is the highest since it finished 10th in 2007.

But it seems like a top-ranked offense and a low-ranked defense gets nothing, while a top-ranked defense and a low-ranked offense can get a team to the postseason.

In ' 07, the Bengals finished 27th in defense, the team went 7-9, and Zimmer was brought on board. In '06, the offense finished eighth and the defense 30th and the Bengals went 8-8.

"I think we do a good job of teaching what we expect. Our system is pretty much what it is. It's not like we change things every single week," Zimmer said. "We change pressures and coverages and things like that, but it's all within what we do. I don't think guys get confused what their responsibility is."

While their first-round cornerback Xavier Rhodes was sidelined Sunday, the Vikings had to start a 2012 Bengals fifth-rounder in Shaun Prater while the Bengals were able to start first-rounders Kirkpatrick and Jones. In Boley the Bengals have a Super Bowl starter from two years ago for the Giants.

"I think we always want to try to use the strengths of our players and by the same token worry about the weaknesses of the other team," Zimmer said. "Take away their best things, but use our guys to the best (ability) that they can, too. Sometimes when you call a game you're doing it to help your guys or get a rusher in a certain spot or things like that. We're trying to attack their weaknesses and accentuate our strengths."

In Zimmer's world, fundamentals and the scheme rule. Along with having the talent, it's a major reason the Bengals have been able to survive the key losses and still hang in the top five.

"If you don't have a solid base in fundamentals of what you are doing, you become a hodge-podge of everything and you're good at nothing," Zimmer said. "We teach fundamentals and continue to harp on them. We still try to use our strengths and attack them in different ways. I think everyone understands what we want them to do on every play. How to play this block, guys count on one another to line up."

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