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Change of scenery

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hands out praise as if it's gruel for Oliver Twist's bowl.

But on Friday he cheered up a bit when he heard that his best player from the last half of the season had signed back on for four more years for $10 million with $3.5 million guaranteed.

One of the biggest reasons Zimmer is looking forward to starting Chris Crocker for a full season is what the Bengals did on third down with him. In the first eight games of the season without him, opposing offenses converted third downs 50.4 percent of the time. In the last eight games it was 34.8 and in the last six games, which he started at both safety spots, it was 38.4. And in the last two games when Crocker was paired with Chinedum Ndukwe, it was 32 percent.

All of this after Crocker was on the street following his devastating and surprising cut from the Dolphins Oct. 21 that he said Friday he still can't believe.

"I'm sure a change of scenery helped," he said.

So did knowing Zimmer from playing in Atlanta in 2007. It's why Zimmer recommended Crocker to be signed Oct. 30 with safeties dropping like the market.

"He had a good understanding of the opponent's tendencies. He studied it and when Ndukwe came in they were interchangeable blitzing and staying back," Zimmer said. "The offense had to figure out who was coming week to week. He's a good kid who knows what we want. I just hope we can keep him playing the way he was playing."

And he was playing as well as any safety has in the Marvin Lewis era. In fact, Lewis said in Friday's news release, Crocker's game against Washington "was as good a game by a safety as I can remember since I've been here and for the whole second half of the season, he was a leader in the locker room as well as on the field. He was able to get up to speed with us very quickly, and he's still a relatively young player with a lot of good football left in him. Obviously, we're highly pleased to bring him back."

In the 20-13 win over Washington on Dec. 14, Crocker had 14 tackles that included a bone-jarring forced fumble on the first series that set the tone. That came a few weeks after his first Bengals start in Pittsburgh yielded a big hit on wide receiver Santonio Holmes. But Crocker, who turns 29 in 10 days, didn't want to get into what his presence means physically in a locker room where coaches have seen him step into being a leader.

"I don't want to step on the toes of my teammates," Crocker said. "They embraced me. I was the outsider, not them, and I think there's a good relationship on the defense. But, yes, I do consider myself a physical player."

He also considers himself versatile and the Bengals used him all over in the base and nickel alignments at safety and also he also played some cornerback on passing downs.

"I came into the league as a corner; I don't think people remember that," said the 5-11, 200-pound Crocker, the Browns third-round pick out of Marshall in 2003. "It helps because if our nickel back goes down, I can fill in. That's the one thing that Zim has allowed me to do. Do it all and I think, yes, my versatility is what I do best."

The effort to mix in with his teammates, his experience (he arrived with 52 NFL starts), and his production (48 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception and that forced fumble against the Redskins, as well as six passes defensed) made Crocker a natural leader when veteran safety Dexter Jackson went on injured reserve when Crocker arrived.

(Now it's unclear if Jackson will be back in a starting secondary of Crocker and Ndukwe and backups that include Corey Lynch, Marvin White, Kyries Hebert and Mike Doss.)

Late last season, secondary coach Kevin Coyle raved about how good Crocker is with young players and leading by example.

"He's been around in different systems and he can look at film and decipher what teams are trying to do and he processes the information quickly and transfers it to his on-field play," Coyle said. "A lot of times guys can study it, try to learn it, but putting it into practical use, he can do that. That's what he can show these guys. Hey, know your stuff. Then you can apply it."

Crocker calls Zimmer "a mastermind."

"Zim is the mastermind when it comes to my game," Crocker said. "He really knows how to use me well. Good players are everywhere. You just have to know how to maximize their abilities and Zim has done that with me."

Crocker likes the vibes he feels on a defense that finished 12th in the NFL, the highest in eight seasons for the Bengals. But he has an idea how it can get higher.

"The guys really embraced their roles, whether they were starters or backups," he said. "It's just a compliment to Zim to get into the top 15 because we had so many injuries and so many young players," Crocker said. "To gel they have to stay embracing their roles, like special teams. The good teams have a bunch of guys like that and you don't even know their names. I'm assuming we're going to have pretty much the same team and that's going to give us an opportunity. First and foremost, we have to stay healthy."

Asked Friday if he's surprised at how he went from the street to $3.5 million guaranteed, Crocker said, "I'm still shocked Miami cut me (on Oct. 21)."

"How many teams have I been on?" Crocker wondered. "Three? Four? I'm trying to use all my experiences and the places I've been to shape what I'm trying to do. Last year was definitely exciting."

The working number is four. Cleveland from 2003-2005. Atlanta 2006-2007. Miami 2008. Bengals 2008-.

"It's good to be back," he said. "I guess I never left."

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