Blitzinnati


Antwan Odom

Posted: 11:45 p.m.

While the Packers prep their shiny new 3-4 defense that they stole right out of the '90s from the Steelers, the Bengals are quietly fine-tuning their pass-rush package with some of those same concepts that have tortured them down through the years in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England and wherever else the 3-4 has blitzed their heart out.

Don't look now, but now look where the Bengals defensive line lined up on third down against the Broncos. Sometimes Robert Geathers was standing up as a linebacker or had his hand on the ground as an end. End Antwan Odom always moved to tackle while rookie end Michael Johnson looked for a place on the edge to dig his fingers into the turf.

Don't look now, but the Bengals defense that had just 17 sacks last season had three on Sunday. And Odom, who had just three in '08, muscled his way inside to two and gave the Bengals one last chance when the second sack knocked Denver out of field-goal range.

Even a couple of times, as if the Bengals' Mike Zimmer had channeled old Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, there were all four linemen in a two-point stance and not giving a clue if they were rushing or dropping.

"That wasn't real good; we didn't get a good rush out of it," said Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator, after Wednesday's practice. "We'll probably try it again at some point."

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won't be surprised if it is this Sunday at Lambeau Field after watching tape of the Bengals stopping Denver on nine of 12 third-down tries last Sunday.

"They gave them some great looks. It was kind of hard to figure out who was coming from where," Rodgers said Wednesday in a conference call with the Cincinnati media. "They gave them some confusion as did Chicago with us. In the protection scheme it is going to make some guys coming free and the quarterback has to make some quick decisions or he's going to stand in there and take a hit. It's going to be important for us to put ourselves in more favorable situations and manageable situations so they (can't) run these extensive packages."

We're not talking about the '08 Steelers or even Zimmer's '01 Cowboys. Or the Blitzburg Steelers of the '90s coordinated by Dom Capers, the man that waits in Green Bay this Sunday. But, finally, offenses aren't quite so sure where the Bengals are lining up and while the Bengals are still very much a 4-3 base defense, on third down they are morphing more and more into some of the 3-4 shenanigans the Bengals have always fought on the other side.

Or will they?

"We'll see," said Zimmer, who spent the offseason picking the brains of the men he respects in the NFL and college about the best way to rush the passer. "Nowadays third downs you try to create, give them some different things. Make them think a little bit."

OK, call it Blitzinnati.

Where exactly did he get a four-man line in a two-point stance?

"We stole it from somebody," Zimmer said.

The Bengals have always had some of these 3-4 concepts lying around on third down under head coach Marvin Lewis' first two defensive coordinators. After all, Lewis is an old Steelers assistant himself, and as far back as '05 Geathers would sometimes be the nose tackle flanked by ends Justin Smith and David Pollack.

"And Zim was trying some of this stuff last year," said former defensive tackle John Thornton. "On third down they're not a true two-gap 3-4 defense. But they've got versatile guys like Robert, Antwan and Michael Johnson that can drop or rush."

It is the addition of Johnson in the third round of the April draft that opened up a lot of these vistas. Like they did with Geathers before him, the Bengals have talked about using Johnson as a linebacker, as well as putting him inside in addition to his natural position of end.

But it is Odom who has reaped the most immediate benefits. Told he seems like a different player, Geathers laughed.

"He looks like a different player," he said. "Look at him. He's bigger, stronger. He's got different focus. To be the biggest free-agent signing (in Bengals history), he's got a lot on his shoulders. He was hurt last year and it was a disappointment for him. We can all tell he has a little chip on his shoulder."

Well, the chip is about 25 pounds heavier than it was last year. Odom is up to 280 pounds and he says he feels so much better than last year, when he was plagued by a broken foot and a separated shoulder all the while struggling to cope with sleep apnea.

His body is healed, he's sleeping through the night now that the problem is being treated, and he's big enough to do some damage inside.

"It was exciting to see a couple of defensive linemen get some sacks," said defensive tackle Domata Peko after swingman Jon Fanene got Sunday's other one. "(Odom) is a whole different player. I remember at the bench test last year at 225 (pounds), he was struggling. He had a hell of an offseason and he came in benching as much as freaking D-tackles. He's at 280 solid and he's still got his quickness, but he's got a lot more meat and a lot more muscle on him. I told him, 'You keep this stuff up and you're going to have a helluva a year.' "

Odom has played tackle before on passing downs, but this is the steadiest diet in his six NFL seasons. Thornton played for the same line coach Odom played for at Tennessee in Titans line coach Jim Washburn, and he can sense a revival even though he has high regard for Washburn.

"When you get away from Wash, it's like getting out of jail," Thornton said. "He's real stressful to play for. People call him the best defensive coach in the league period, and some guys leave Tennessee and do well and some don't.

"I think Antwan fits this style better now. In Tennessee it's all about speed and being on the edge. There's a different philosophy here. Here he had to play more technique and last year he was in front of a tight end a lot. I think the added weight has helped him."

Odom likes playing inside in the three technique because he feels it's a nice changeup and he can still get up the field. During the offseason Zimmer and defensive line coach Jay Hayes came up with drills to emphasize the pass rush and he listened.

"It was hand and feet and pad level and mesh it into one," Odom said.

There was also Sunday's rotation. Fanene gave Geathers a blow at base left end in the early parts of a series and at the other end Odom would get a rest at times, too. But when third down came, Geathers and Odom, and Johnson were out there. Geathers believes the rotation's impact of seven linemen is going to be seen later in the season. Geathers' career high of 10.5 sacks in '06 and Odom's career high of eight in '07 is more than the Bengals total in '08.

"You get a blow and you get fresh in the fourth quarter and you're still able to rush," said Odom, whose big sack came as the clock ticked under seven minutes.

He knows that, in a way, the meter is always running on a guy signed to a $6 million per year contract.

"I feel better this year. When we win at least 11 games I'll feel better and I think we've got a chance," Odom said. "When you get paid like that, you want to give them their money's worth. That's what everybody's goal should be."

Geathers likes the goal of confusion. He thinks it makes the defense better if the offense has to look for No. 91.

"A couple of different looks," Geathers said. "It's pretty fun to move around a little bit. It's just trying to confuse the offense. That's all it is. Nothing major."

Rodgers isn't too sure about that.

"You've got to give credit to Coach Zimmer and what they're trying to do on defense," he said. "I think they blitzed eight of the 12 third downs and really gave Denver some issues and problems. Got around the quarterback and disrupted the timing."

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