Bittersweet lab


Domata Peko

Posted: 9:30 p.m.

This is the kind of confidence the players have in Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who is now overseeing the 14th-ranked unit in the NFL that is ranked No. 2 against the rush.

Tackle Domata Peko spoke Monday about executing the game plan as the key to his unit's success and he smiled and looked at the ceiling. One floor up from the Paul Brown Stadium locker room are the coaches offices.

"Zim's up there right now in his laboratory getting it done," Peko said. "He's still doing his thing."

Quarterback Carson Palmer approached Zimmer on Saturday, just 24 hours before his guys poured his third-down concoction down the throat of the Ravens No. 10 offense that paralyzed Baltimore on one of 10 on conversions, and asked him if he would play well.

Zimmer said he'd be surprised if his guys wouldn't because they had such a good week, but he cautioned Palmer that the Ravens were averaging 28 points per game. Knowing that seven of Baltimore's 14 points last month came on an interception he threw, Palmer told Zimmer, "Not against you. I gave them some." 

But don't get Zimmer wrong.

An NFL lifer, Zimmer is thrilled the Bengals are 6-2 and proud his retreads have allowed just six touchdowns in the crucible of four AFC North games to fuel a 4-0 division start. And when was the last time the Bengals were seventh in the NFL in yards per rush?

But the wins simply don't feel the same. Not since Zimmer's wife of 27 years died suddenly at home a month ago. Could a month of Sundays ever be so bittersweet with his team on top of the division and Vikki not here to share it?

"The wins are not nearly as good now," Zimmer said Monday in his lab, the game plan for Pittsburgh next Sunday percolating around him. "We beat Chicago and played pretty good on defense. Go home and it was actually a hard day. Because I was there. Yesterday we beat Baltimore and everybody's excited and I'm excited. But it's not the same excitement. I'm more concerned about how Adam is doing. How the girls are doing. I'm happy that we won, but…"

Adam, his 25-year-old son, is winning, too. He's the assistant linebackers coach for the 8-0 Saints. But when Mike visited him two weeks ago in New Orleans during the Bengals bye week, his father realized how much he was hurting. Mike realized a lot of things during the bye week when he visited his kids, Adam and his daughters who live in Dallas, 22-year-old Marki and 19-year-old Corri.

His son called his mother every night as he drove home from work. Recently Zimmer called one of his daughters and when he asked why she was upset and crying, the answer was heartbreakingly simple.

"I'm sad."

"I realized I need to help them more than I did," Zimmer said. "Those things kind of helped me realize I need to do better with them."

"It's tough on (Adam)," he said. "Maybe more so than I would have anticipated it would. Maybe because he's a boy."

The Post-it notes are all over his desk because he says he's now doing both "mom and dad things." He has vowed to drive more carefully and quit chewing tobacco after the season because "I don't want to leave these kids." If one of them calls or texts, Zimmer clicks off the video and takes 10 minutes to respond instead of waiting until after work.

"Football has always been big to me; maybe too big," Zimmer said. "But I realized I had to change my priorities just a little bit. ... Some of those things are more into focus than what they were before."

Zimmer admits the week of the funeral was hard. "I wasn't myself," he said. But the next week, as the Bengals prepared for the Bears, he said "I've got my bite back," and told his players to expect it. And two weeks later during the bye week he went around the room to each defensive player and told him what he needed to work on with characteristic bluntness.

In the last two games against those two signature smashmouth teams, the Bengals have allowed less than 500 yards, less than 100 rushing yards, and just 17 points while coming up with five interceptions.

Bittersweet.

Peko? One of the captains? The guy Zimmer calls the best nose tackle he's ever coached? He sat way in the back in that bye week meeting trying to hide, like a lot of other guys. Zimmer had to get to him last, reading from his notes, glasses perched on his nose, telling Peko he wanted to push the pocket, collapse it, and get to the passer.

"That's the type of coach I like; he'll tell you straight up," Peko said. "He doesn't care who you are. The oldest player. The youngest.

"It was real cool. He says, "The reason I'm so hard on you during the week is so on Sunday you don't have to think about it. Just play.' You don't have to worry about getting yelled at. All the yelling is out of the way during the week. ... That win against Chicago, we killed them pretty much, and it was good to say, 'Hey guys, you haven't arrived yet.' It was really good to hear that from him."

But Zimmer said he didn't mean the bye session to be a rip job.

"I wanted each guy to know what they have to do for all of us to get better," Zimmer said, "and I also wanted everyone in the room to know that I want this guy working on this and I want you to know it. I wasn't trying to call anybody out. I was just emphasizing they have to get better at two or three things and I want the other guys to know those two or three things so everybody is (equal)."

What doesn't make sense are the numbers. Last year the Bengals finished 12th and he didn't think they were that good. They went into the Baltimore game 21st and he thought they were better than that. Now they're 14th and while he says they're not where he thought they'd be stats-wise, they are playing-wise.

He bristles at the No. 25 ranking against the pass the day after the longest pass allowed to a Ravens wide receiver was 15 yards.

"But I can promise you," he said, "most people that go against us in the league think these guys are pretty damn good."

On Sunday, Zimmer said they played third down with a variety of looks. Zone. Man. Pressure. But the key was how well they disguised it before falling into something else.

And he got big games up front from ends like Jon Fanene and rookie Michael Johnson. The duo combined for the last sack of the game and Zimmer says it was Johnson's best week of rushes in awhile and that Fanene has practiced well all year and has therefore played well all year. But he also said two of those last three sacks were coverage sacks from a secondary he says is raising its level.

The working number is about 20 percent of the snaps were blitzes. There may have been slightly more in the original plan. But with a 17-0 lead, Zimmer wasn't going to give the Ravens an easy score off a big play.

Safety Chinedum Ndukwe calls Zimmer's style "tough love." Maybe because he says that with Ndukwe, "You need to stay on his butt to be disciplined." But in the next breath he also says Ndukwe played his best game of the year Sunday.

Don't let Ndukwe or Fanene know it, but Zimmer does speak well of his guys. Right after he praised Fanene's play, Fanene walked into Zimmer's office clearly to say hello and see how he was doing.

Twinkle firmly in eye, Zimmer said in delight, "You know why he's in here? Do you want to know why he's in here? He wants to see if he's in trouble."

(No doubt Fanene is since he celebrated that last sack by taking his helmet off on the field, a 15-yard penalty, before firing it to the sidelines with joy.)

"See? I know you like a book," Zimmer said, and with Fanene making the wise decision to back out of the office by saying "I'll see you Wednesday," Zimmer finished him off with, "Tell your wife, 'Hi.' I like her a lot more than you."

Fanene laughed as he went downstairs to get in a lift and Zimmer enjoyed the exchange, too, because he likes Fanene. He seems to like all his guys.

"They're good kids. They play hard. They do what you ask them to do," Zimmer said. "The coaches do a good job. I can't ask for more from the players. I told them Saturday night I love how they work, how they compete, how they respond to challenges."

The NFL world is upside down, isn't it? The Bengals can only score and never stop anyone but they're fifth in scoring defense. The Bengals have no personnel department and can't find players, the cliché goes, but they've taken Chris Crocker, Roy Williams and Tank Johnson off the scrap heap, and plucked nickel back Morgan Trent in the sixth round, not to mention Rey Maualuga in the second.

Zimmer has played into it, reminding them no one wanted them, even putting himself in that category since the Rams and Chargers passed on him as a head coach when he interviewed there.

"It's brought up every now and then," Zimmer said. "They realize they're one play away from being out on the street again. ... A lot of these guys that come from other places say, 'I don't know why (I got cut), but I'm glad I'm here. It's a better fit for me.' I think they feel comfortable about what they're being told by the coaches and I think they feel comfortable how Marvin (Lewis) handles it."

But at 6-2, don't those chips on the shoulder become soft?

"No, because I think they can smell it," Zimmer said. "We've only got eight games left. I think they kind of smell it now. It's whatever they want. It's within our grasp. So I don't think it will be hard at all."

And with that, Zimmer's bittersweet lab of Post-it notes and pressure packages went back to work.

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