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Defense kicks into gear for Cowboys

Leon Hall

Bengals cornerback Terence Newman, left for dead in the town square by the Cowboys after last season, finds himself having a solid year in the middle of a playoff run that conjures up memories of his two Pro Bowl appearances.

One reason and one reason only, he'll tell you. Mike Zimmer, his old boss in Dallas and the hard-bitten Bengals defensive coordinator that has put the bite into this team since his 2008 arrival. Zimmer, Newman will tell you, is exactly what he needed at age 34 to revive his game.

Leon Hall can relate. Hall, who along with Newman and another former Cowboy, Adam Jones, have played some of the best corner in the NFL the past month in shutting down everyone's top receivers for a defense bidding to be ranked in the top 10 for the third time in Zimmer's five seasons, says Zimmer has had just as big of an effect on him.

"Dramatically, quite honestly," Hall said Monday, talking about Zimmer's impact when he arrived after Hall's rookie year. "In college we had a lot of technique and it was kind of comforting for him to come in here and be real big on technique. And the way he coaches it - it's hard to do but he coaches it really well. We get a lot of work at it. And really the way he coaches it: not everybody can explain stuff simple enough for everybody to understand it. I mean, he can do that with anything. He can coach technique with the DBs just as well as he can coach it with the defensive ends."

Zimmer, Newman and Jones have a date Sunday with their old team when the 6-6 Cowboys amble into sold-out Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) for a High Noon encounter with the 7-5 Bengals that leaves the loser virtually out of the playoffs.

The Bengals have a shot, in large part, because of what the defense has done in the four-game winning streak. It has allowed just eight red-zone trips and only one touchdown. In a run that has included prolific quarterbacks Eli Manning, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers, the Bengals have held them to a passer rating of 65.2. They've blanked Dwayne Bowe and Darrius Heyward-Bey on a combined six targets, held Victor Cruz to three catches for 26 yards, and allowed the vertical Chargers passing game to just 5.8 yards per pass.

And no passing touchdowns.

Now here comes Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and The Star that Zimmer coached under his first 13 seasons in the NFL. Not to mention Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner that has high regard for Zimmer. Whenever he holds a job search for a head coach, Zimmer's name always seems to surface on the public short list.

"No different than San Diego, Philadelphia, the Giants or anyone else," Zimmer said Monday when asked about his second game as a Bengal against the Cowboys. "I'm not playing Jerry; I'm playing those guys over there. I don't know a lot of them anymore. We've played them one other time when I was here."

That was in Dallas in 2008, so far away that Jerry World had yet to be built, Adam Jones was still a Cowboy, and Dallas won with the help of a Terrell Owens slant-and-go for a touchdown.

Zimmer smiled when asked if he'd ever thought he'd be the Cowboys head coach while he was still there.

"Some other people did," Zimmer said. "I thought I'd be a head coach somewhere."

He's 56 and after losing out in two more head coaching derbies this past offseason in Miami and Tampa Bay, he's not so sure.

"Honestly, I don't listen to that stuff anymore. Honest to God's truth," said Zimmer, whose bluntness is praised by his players but not, apparently, by owners. "I've had for so many years have people say, 'This is your year.' Then at the end of the year for about three days I'm totally depressed because I see this guy get a job, that guy get a job, that guy get a job. So it's in my best interest not to think about it, talk about it and just try to do the best job I can because I'm like (everybody else), I get disappointed too."

Another smile when asked if that has given him the chip on his shoulder, just below the head of the deer in his office he hunted a few years ago.

"I always have a chip on my shoulder," he said. "When don't I?"

So in his 19th season of coaching in the NFL, Zimmer has relied on what has made him one of the more respected coaches in the game.

"I always thought people wanted coaches that can coach and I think I can coach," Zimmer said. "Obviously, there's probably some more that goes into it, but when you say what do you want in a coach? Somebody to get these guys to do what they're supposed to do when they're supposed to do it. Play real hard, don't make mistakes."

And his name is no doubt going to surface again because that's exactly what he's got going. The defensive line is considered one of the NFL's best; the Bengals came into Sunday's game allowing just five plus-20-yard runs and didn't give up one longer than six yards to a running back in San Diego, and are one of the few teams that hasn't allowed a 40-plus-yard run.

The players have matched Zimmer's vision:

"Play real hard, don't make mistakes, attack the quarterback, play tight in coverage."

But look for a long practice week at PBS because Zimmer is not happy about what transpired Sunday in San Diego even though it was the second time in three games the Bengals didn't allow a touchdown.

"This week it was the furthest that we've been in my opinion; on everything," Zimmer said.

Hall knows what that means. Zimmer told the defense a month ago he was going to revert to what he was when he arrived four years ago.

"Demanding," Zimmer said with another smile.

Translation: He changed the defensive culture with a high standard, low language, and startling, league-high results. Told Monday that Zimmer once called him the most competitive player he's had, Hall looked shocked.

"You must have caught him in a good mood; it means a lot," said Hall, who admitted that Zimmer told him that when he gave him the yellow jersey, Zimmer's daily ritual to recognize players in training camp.

"He usually gives out a little 20-second speech about the person he gives it to, kind of fighting himself to say anything. But he has one time. But I mean it means a lot, just for him to even say that because of the amount of respect I have for him as a coach, especially with the stuff he's done here, with the stuff he's done before he got here."

Hall had to laugh when asked, if that's the nicest thing Zimmer ever said to him, what's the worst?

"Leave to your imagination. You can only imagine, after bad practices or some bad games or even some bad plays. I've heard quite a bit since I've been here," Hall said of some of the unbelievable words. "I think he's used them all. And he combines them in a way that you almost have to stop; you're like, 'What? I don't know if that makes sense.''

But the bottom line is the players swear by Zimmer. Just ask Newman and Jones. The minute the Cowboys cut Newman loose, Zimmer wanted him and the Bengals eventually signed him to a one-year deal. Combined with the one year they gave Adam Jones, they have been Cincinnati's best bargains in years.

"It wasn't so much what I saw on tape, it was what I know about him," Zimmer said. "I know he's a tough kid, good competitor, doesn't miss reps. Actually, he's a lot smarter now than when I had him. He's a lot smarter now than when I first had him when he was young. He sees things so much better. He was always talented. He challenges receivers well."

But Zimmer isn't satisfied and that's what Newman loves.

"He got beat on a couple balls last week because he went back in that old mode of what he was doing before," Zimmer said. "He was a little nicked up before the game. He's a tough kid and will never tell me that he can't play. I have to get him back on track but it shouldn't be hard."

But maybe Zimmer's best coaching job has been with Adam Jones. Zimmer is the reason Jones got a chance in Cincinnati back in 2010 because of Deion Sanders's recommendation. Zimmer and Sanders have been close since Zimmer coached him in Dallas, but the relationship between Jones and Zimmer became bumpy last season as Jones had a tough time dealing with Zimmer's criticism. There was an unhappy scene on the sideline during the playoff loss in Houston and no one thought Jones would be back.

But Jones has taken advantage of that one-year deal. Finally healthy, he has worked and scratched his way out of a special-teamer's role to play terrific as the third corner. When Jones first signed, Zimmer challenged him to reign in his ample athleticism and play within a scheme and he has done that.

"He kind of had to prove that he wanted to fit in a little bit to me," Zimmer said. "Honestly he's been good. I haven't had one issue. He cares about playing good and trying to be a better teammate. He cares about winning and I think he cares about what I think.

"This is probably the best year he's had since he's been here. He's tackling well, disciplined in the things he needs to. He can still jump off the reservation sometimes but for the most part he's been good. He was bad on one route the other day, actually the one where he knocked the guy out of bounds but he's pressing a lot better than he used to."

Zimmer has been pleased with the corners' play all year. That's why the early-season struggles on defense mystified him.

"That's the thing that has been most surprising to me," Zimmer said. "Every year I have been a coordinator if we play good at corner then we have a good defense. We were playing good at the beginning of the year and I wasn't as good as I expected us to be. That was the surprising part to me but I knew if we could fix some of those other issues we could be OK."

With the Cowboys coming in, so far everything looks OK.

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