It took 10-time Chiefs Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez to toast Mike Zimmer and Marvin Lewis for how a Bengals defense went from red-headed stepchild to the head of a franchise trying to read the future.
After Sunday's 16-6 win over the Chiefs in which the Bengals tied a club record with nine straight quarters without allowing a touchdown, Gonzalez made sure he spoke to safety Chris Crocker after he caught the lone touchdown but only five balls for 53 yards.
"He told me, 'You guys really play hard,' '' Crocker said. " 'Even though you guys had guys hurt, you played very respectable defense down the stretch.' It's the utmost respect when guys on other teams praise us for our effort and how physical we are."
The credit goes to Lewis, the head coach, for hiring Zimmer to run his beleaguered defense 11 months ago, and for keeping this tattered roster from imploding a la the Lions, Browns, and even the Young and the Pointless Cowboys.
Suddenly, the defense isn't one of the top five question marks heading into a Bengals offseason. The questions are all about an offense that could score only more than two touchdowns in a game once. A franchise quarterback with a rehabbing elbow. Unhappy receivers eulogizing the death of the long ball. An injured, thin offensive line in transition. No fullback. It goes on and on, but the defense not only has a semblance of stability, but something even more important.
"Since I've been here," said Crocker, who arrived off the street Oct. 30, "guys just focus on being physical and having an identity."
Even though the unit had one Opening Day starter at the same spot on the defensive line and the secondary, and was without its first-round pick, WILL linebacker Keith Rivers, for more than half the season.
And yet Zimmer found a way to limit foes to 3.9 yards per rush, the lowest figure in Lewis's six seasons. The Bengals defense didn't generate many turnovers (24) or sacks (17), but it kept this team in most games late even though its offense was ranked dead last most of the year.
The Bengals won their last three games with first-half MVP T.J. Houshmandzadeh not making a catch in two of them.
Which makes one wonder if the team MVP is Crocker, off the street to secondary leader. Or cornerback Leon Hall, since he always covered the top receiver for a defense that finished second in the NFL in allowing the second-fewest 20-yard passes. Or defensive tackle Domata Peko with more than a relentless 100 tackles. Or middle linebacker Dhani Jones, the brains of the outfit who led the team in tackles from Day One.
But a lot of those guys pointed to Zimmer, the 15-year crusty NFL veteran who put enough salt in this defense that it is contending for its highest ranking in the Lewis era (above the 19th of 2004) after coming in 21st and then holding the Chiefs to 220 yards. Plus they came within 2:20 of the club's first back-to-back shutouts in Bengals history.
Like on Sunday, when Jones forced and recovered the only mistake of the game off his blitz that came between Kansas City quarterback Tyler Thigpen and rookie running back Jamaal Charles at the Kansas City 34 with 8:13 left.
With Zimmer wanting to get a bigger body in the game to negate the Chiefs running game on first and second down and yet knowing they're a throwing team, he moved Crocker to nickel corner and brought freshly signed safety Mike Doss off the bench. Voila. Crocker had two tackles for a loss and Doss had a big third-down pass breakup early on Kansas City's best wide receiver, Dwayne Bowe.
"The big thing is that guys are really prepared," Crocker said. "It's just studying and knowing a lot of the tendencies teams are going to do. Today, we knew what they were going to do. We knew where (Thigpen) was going to go and where he was going to go with it."
They knew on third down that Thigpen radars on Gonzalez and the Bengals held him without a catch in the first half in holding Kansas City to 0-for-5 on third down.
"We made sure we doubled him most of the time with a linebacker and safety,' said safety Chinedum Ndukwe. "Our defense has been strong all year. "We had a couple of mishaps here and there, but I think those days are done. (Zimmer) is probably the main reason. A lot of the guys responded to what he's been teaching and you can tell the difference. We're out there flying around and having fun and making plays."
Hall has often spoke this season how Zimmer's aggressive approach has helped him improve his game in a solid second year.
Even a veteran like defensive tackle John Thornton felt useful. Zimmer and his coaches listened to Thornton when the Bengals were 0-8 and he counseled to play rookie Pat Sims more at his own tackle spot and use him more at end. Thornton had two sacks last week and though he didn't start this week, he was part of a package that held the NFL's top rushing quarterback to four yards on two carries.
"It's crazy," Thornton said. "(Thigpen) ran all around Miami last week. We did some things at the line to keep him in the pocket. It took away from our pass rush, but we wanted him throwing out of a well and it worked.
"I don't know what to make of it. I'm not sure to make too much of it. Look where the season is and the teams we were playing. But this is a team that plays well (on offense) and they put up about 500 yards on a Dolphins team that's going to the playoffs. A big thing was the offense keeping the ball (for a season-high 37:39). That's big. When they do that, it makes us play harder."
Others have noticed what has been going on for a long time on that side of the ball. Carson Palmer saw how much Zimmer meant during the spring.
"It couldn't be more than this with all the injuries - guys going down, starters going down, guys filling in," Palmer said. "We almost had two shutouts in back-to-back games. That's tough to do. In this league, that's extremely difficult to do. It's exciting. Leon Hall is as good a cornerback as there is in this league. Robert Geathers has been banged up for a long time, but Darryl Blackstock and others ... just so many guys made plays and filled in roles. It gives us a good feeling going into this offseason, and it gives us excitement going into next year."
And there was Lewis keeping it together. It was Lewis who noticed right away who batted down Thigpen's pass on the two-point try with 2:20 left. One of the many that have paraded through here with a club-record 23 players on injured reserve.
Defensive end Chris Harrington, picked up from the Arizona practice squad Dec. 10 when Eric Henderson went on IR and playing in just his third game.
"Many players were forced to play under fire, and they rose to the occasion. Chris Harrington made a big play today, and he just joined us a few weeks ago," Lewis said. "He is the third guy on the depth chart in that position. He was replacing Rashad Jeanty, who replaces Darryl Blackstock. Little things like that prove to be big. Many guys have accepted roles and understand them."