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Defenses take spotlight

Mike Zimmer

Posted: 7:45 p.m.

Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer began the week rallying his guys by telling them that the team that plays the best defense is going to win Sunday's AFC North showdown in Baltimore.

Now as the week ends and the game looms Zimmer's guys are rallying to him after his wife of 27 years died suddenly Thursday. Zimmer decided to go ahead and call the game, but he took his father, son and daughter with him on the team charter.

Before the awful of events of Thursday made everything else seem so small, the Bengals and Zimmer talked openly of the huge obstacles they face Sunday from a diverse, dangerous offense chaired by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Zimmer likes Flacco's size and his arm but really likes his poise and observed early in the week that Flacco plays much older than a second-year quarterback.

The Bengals will have to be just as savvy and they've got two guys who have to make some kind of difference. NFL sack leader Antwan Odom likely draws Ravens rookie Michael Oher in Oher's first-ever start at NFL left tackle and cornerback Johnathan Joseph is looking to contain Flacco's long balls after two weeks he has responded getting beat deep with two huge interceptions.

Odom, the right end, expects Oher to get help with running backs and tight ends "chipping" him on the pass rush.

"It's been happening ever since the Green Bay game," Odom said of the extra attention after his five sacks. "But it's definitely a positive for the defense. It could open up the other side for Robert (Geathers) or somebody else. My thing is I just can't frustrated and keep playing my game."

It really is a small world.

Flacco is coached by Hue Jackson, the former Bengals receivers coach who was the offensive coordinator in Atlanta in 2007 when Zimmer was the Falcons defensive coordinator. Jackson had known Zimmer before, but he became a huge believer in him and close friend during that season and endorsed him heavily when Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis went looking for a defensive boss before the 2008 season.

Like everyone else who knew her and her husband, Jackson was devastated with the news of Vikki's death and he's not surprised that Mike will be on the sidelines Sunday.

"He's one of the toughest men I know. It's why I recommended him to Marvin," Jackson said. "I think it would be hard for anyone to deal with that, but if it is anybody that can compartmentalize, it's Zim. And he's got his family with him and it's obviously important to them. His son is a coach, his dad was a coach, and Vikki was around it and energetic and supportive of Mike. She knew what the families of coaches go through, and not many people understand all that goes into it. She did.

"I have no idea what he's going through, but he's my friend first. I would think this is a natural thing for him to do. It's what he does best, he's one of the best in the business and that's what he wants to be and I know he's probably thinking he doesn't want to let down the organization or Marvin."

Jackson has a unique place in this game. He recruited and coached Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer at USC and has been Flacco's only pro position coach.

"When you get to this level, I think most of your top quarterbacks are good guys that you can talk to and guys that just want to better," Jackson said. "Joe is a real competitive guy. And, yeah, he's got the big arm. Hey, he's a first-round pick, the 18th pick in the draft; you know he's got the arm."

Hard to believe, but it's as if Flacco comes into this one as the top quarterback on the marquee and Palmer, a No. 1 pick overall, is getting second billing and sneaking into M&T Bank Stadium even though he's been the MVP of a Pro Bowl. That was three years ago, but Jackson remembers.

"Carson Palmer never sneaks in anywhere, I don't care what the situation is," Jackson said. "Trust me. You don't accomplish what he's accomplished in seven years and are overlooked. He's taken a team to the playoffs, he's been to Pro Bowls. He's won a lot of games in this league. I certainly know what he can do. I've seen it."

Jackson saw Palmer do it at The Bank in Baltimore five years ago when Palmer threw for 200 yards in the fourth quarter alone. Even though the Bengals aren't taking as many shots downfield, Jackson knows the bomb is ticking because he says wide receiver Chad Ochocinco looks to be back to form.

"It sounds like he's talking a lot of trash this week," Jackon said with a laugh. "I don't know if I like him tweeting our guys like that."

Palmer is no laughing matter.

"Carson is the kind of guy that can make every throw, so he's always dangerous," Jackson said. "He's tough and he's shown with him they're never out of a game."

Jackson's project is now Flacco and he says his biggest improvement to now off his rookie year is understanding the game. The reason offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is opening up the playbook?

He can.

"(Flacco) has a better understanding of what defensive coordinators are doing," Jackson said. "Those guys are trying to beat you and this year he has a better idea of what they're trying to do to take things away from him."

Joseph has also hit the books. His teammates chalked up his goal-line interception on the Browns' first drive of the second half last week to film study when he stepped in front of tight end Steve Heiden on third down and took at least three big points off the board in a game that went into overtime.

"We saw it on film and they ran it a few times in the game with the tight end down low," Joseph said. "I just happened to come off my guy and make a play on the ball. It was a big tendency for them last week."

That came after Joseph gave up a 29-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Mohamad Massaquoi near the end of the half that led to Cleveland's first touchdown. Against Pittsburgh two weeks ago, after giving up a 51-yard pass to rookie Mike Wallace, Joseph came back on the first series of the second half and parlayed a miscommunication between Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes on a blitz read into a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown.

"I don't feel any pressure; that's my job no matter what happens," said Joseph of responding after getting beat. "I don't think about (getting beat). It happens, but you've got to make the next play. You just try to keep their top playmakers down and don't let the other guys beat you."

That's what the Bengals have done this season. The Broncos' Brandon Marshall had fewer than 30 yards, the Packers' Greg Jennings and the Browns' Braylon Edwards were shut out, and Holmes had just one catch. Wallace and Massaquoi (148 yards on eight catches) hurt them but didn't beat them.

But they do have to stop the long ball. Flacco excels throwing it and the Bengals are giving up a league-leading 17 passes of at least 20 yards. And there are the trick plays. Last year the Ravens scored on two runs off long reverses and got a long touchdown pass from one wide receiver to another.

"They've got a lot of gidgets and gadgets," Joseph said of the Ravens vault of reverses and throwback passes. "The big thing is to keep your eyes on the right places and don't try to look at something else."

A good way to stop the funny stuff is some penetration from the line. This is where Odom hopes to come in.

"Last week the running back ran out and I changed my pass rush," said Odom of a few snaps. "Do I chip him before he chips me, or is he getting out late for a pass, whatever. It's a mind game."

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