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Culture shock

Mike Zimmer

Posted: 6:25 a.m.

For four years Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had an office next to his boss in Dallas, Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells, so when he came to Cincinnati last year he brought out a lot of that aggressiveness and bright, cold-eyed practicality with him.

Never was it more evident than in Sunday's seven-point effort that scuttled the feared Ravens offense that came in averaging 31 points per game and had put up 34 points on the Bengals the last time they met. Technique. Disruption. In-your-face intensity and down-to-the-toes discipline. Zimmer's fingerprints in heisting the first-place Bengals defense a newfound identity were all over this one.

The Bengals are 4-1 because of their defense and the cruelest irony is that Zimmer, in the midst of the greatest of personal tragedies with the sudden death of his wife, has emerged as one of the NFL's early hot coordinators on a short list of head coaching candidates. At least he's on ESPN's list of as of Monday night.

They say adversity brings out the best in people. At the very least, adversity is showing everybody else how Zimmer has changed this defense with strength and his bare-knuckled attitude since he arrived before the 2008 season.

In every game this season the Bengals have blanked the other team's leading receiver, or held him to one catch, or held him to just 27 yards. On Sunday, Derrick Mason, a long-time Bengals slayer for Tennessee and Baltimore, caught only frustration.

"Zimmer is always saying don't let their best player beat you. If you start from there, you're going to be in good shape," cornerback Leon Hall said Monday. "What he does a great job of is trying to mix it up for the receiver; to give the receiver and the quarterback a lot of different looks, keeping them on their heels."

The one Parcellian Principle, Taking Away The Playmaker, leads to the Parcellian Theory. Make Them Do What They Don't Want To Do, which can be seen weekly in Foxborough under another Parcells disciple that gave rise to the Belichickian School.

So with the nation watching Sunday, Zimmer, who has changed the culture of the Bengals' notoriously passive posture on defense with an attacking swagger, blitzed less than he ever has this year (maybe ever) and put faith in his four-man front to push the pocket into Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Knowing Baltimore would max protect on passing downs and send out no more than three receivers, Zimmer flooded the zones to guard Baltimore with seven players and forced the long-ball Flacco to check down.

"With just four guys we did a good job getting in Flacco's face and putting pressure on him," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "It's really big to rush the quarterback with four dudes. When you get them to do what they don't want to do, it kind of gets easier. That's what our focus was: To stop the run and force him to make throws he doesn't want to. He doesn't want to throw checkdowns."

Sunday's game plan also showed another Zimmer trait: A hands-on, painstaking approach to teaching technique in all levels of the defense.

After his team finished next to last in the league in sacks per pass, Zimmer didn't point the finger at drafts, or personnel, or an offense that didn't have Carson Palmer. Zimmer blamed himself for emphasizing the run too much and embarked on an offseason tour of college and NFL coaches to pick their brains on pass-rush technique and pressure concepts.

Then he and defensive line coach Jay Hayes spent the spring working with the linemen on their hands and leverage. The Bengals are now 10th in sacks per pass and one of those lineman, right end Antwan Odom, is the NFL's co-sack leader with eight.

"I think what goes underrated for a guy who is a coordinator is your ability to teach your guys the situation and make them understand the ins and outs of what you're doing," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "When guys understand that, and they understand the opponent, they play a lot better. You just played against a team yesterday (the Ravens) that knows how to do that, because it's been that way for a long time, and it takes steps to get through that process. And people think that's overrated. Unfortunately, people come to the NFL thinking that's overrated, but it's not. That's why Hall of Fame players are generally your smartest players. That's why they play so long and play so well. And Mike has instilled it in them. They've got some great leaders who have taken it and run with it, and it's a challenge each and every week, and I think that's how you get plays like that."

Like Peko, defensive lineman Jon Fanene also was enthused by Sunday's game plan that put the onus on the line.

"Finally they let us just rush. I think it's great because it shows teams that we don't have to rely on the fire zones all the time," Fanene said. "We can rush guys. We can let them go. Zimmer believes in us. Look what we did to one of the NFL's best offenses."

Fanene said the Ravens slid the line to Odom and left the tackles like himself, as well as left end Robert Geathers, one-on-one quite a bit. Although Geathers got credit for the sack, they teamed for the line's only sack Sunday (middle linebacker Dhani Jones got the other), but they were around Flacco much of the day.

"I don't care who gets the sack. I don't care about the stats or the sack. The most important thing is to get the pressure," Fanene said. "It works hand in hand. The coverage was great Sunday and gave us a little extra time."

In the back end, Hall and fellow cornerback Johnathan Joseph continue to emerge as a top NFL tandem and are going to begin to get some Pro Bowl votes. Joseph has huge interceptions in the last three games that have ended up in either end zone and Hall simply doesn't get beat deep while providing hellacious run support.

Ever since Zimmer arrived Hall has talked about how Zimmer's aggressive play in the secondary has matched his style. Count that as another element Zimmer picked up from Parcells. In practice or in games, the DBs are supposed to contest everything. Soft coverage gets Zimmer as mad as it does the talk-show callers.

"That's what he's always telling us: Disrupt," Hall said. "Never give the offense anything. Make them earn it. But I think what he's really good at is during the game is showing them something different. Mixing it up on the receivers. And the amazing thing is he does it week after week."

The amazing thing is he is still grinding. Even in the midst of suddenly losing his wife of 27 years. On Monday, in the backwash of all the emotion of Thursday and Sunday, you can bet he was looking at tape again, if ever so briefly.

The Texans have one of those big receivers the Bengals have shut down this season. A guy named Andre Johnson, fifth in the league in receiving yards with a 15.6 average. Put him on the Mason list of Bengals killers with  11 catches for 143 yards against them last year when, like the Ravens, they put a big number on them.


If anything, the Bengals know they will be prepared even in the toughest of weeks.

"It shows," Peko said, "how much of a coach he is. How much of a person and a leader."

Which is exactly how this defense is leading a division with Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

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