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Duffner, Lazor meet again

Back in the day, Bengals defensive coordinator Mark Duffner and head coach Dick LeBeau flank president Mike Brown.
Back in the day, Bengals defensive coordinator Mark Duffner and head coach Dick LeBeau flank president Mike Brown.

Not only do you have the two college roommates head coaching against each other in Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19, click for tickets), but you've also The Recruit vs. The Recruiter pitting Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor against new Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mark Duffner.

"You know Duff's enthusiasm," Lazor said this week as he mused about his visit to Worcester, Mass., and Duffner's head coach office at Holy Cross. "If he offered me a spot to walk on, I would have grabbed it right then and there."

But Duffner didn't and Lazor took his quarterback talents to Cornell. Now about 30 years later they'll be trading NFL Xs and Os. They worked together a few years ago in Miami when Duffner was the Dolphins linebackers coach and Lazor their OC and they would kid each other about it.

"Billy came to Holy Cross for a visit and that was probably my miss," Duffner said from Tampa. "I've followed his coaching career. What a break to be with Coach (Joe) Gibbs (in Washington) and he's a smart guy. Great coach and a great person. I'm very impressed with his family."

That's Duff. Family is huge for him and that's what he considers the Bengals. It's quite fitting that his first road assignment as the Bucs' interim coordinator comes in Cincinnati, where he began his 22-year NFL coaching career mentoring the Bengals linebackers coach before Dick LeBeau made him his DC in 2000. There are those at PBS that would have loved it if Marvin Lewis kept Duffner in some capacity when he arrived in 2003, but the re-building project was just too massive.

In Bengaldom's defensive desert between 1990 and 2008, Duffner's '01 unit was the only one to reach the top ten while he embraced the extensive role Bengals assistant coaches played in the draft. With the rise of director of player personnel Duke Tobin, the coaches don't have as much influence or responsibility as they did then, but Duffner feels his six-year Bengals' stint prepared him well for his career in the league.

"It was a great opportunity to learn how to coach in the NFL and how to evaluate and rank players in the process," Duffner said. "I love how they did things there. It's a true football organization where football is the only business for the Brown family and they want to be the best at it. I've admired how Coach Lewis and the Browns have run it and I still feel fortunate it I broke into the NFL there."

Duffner took over when Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter fired Mike Smith and it's no surprise that the players have rallied around him. Players have always loved him. He calls them on birthdays or just to talk. He's got a nickname for everybody. Offense or defense. (Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is "Chairman of the Board.") It's always about more than football. When Bucs linebacker Riley Bullough told this week why he decided to sign with Tampa after the draft, we've heard it before.

"I hadn't met Coach Duffner yet so it was mainly just to start a relationship," Bullough said. "I was telling him all about my training. He was kind of telling me about the guys that they had here and just telling me that he wanted me to become a Buccaneer, whether that was being a draft pick or undrafted. I think honestly that was a big part of me choosing to come here as an undrafted free agent."

About the time Duffner got the job a couple of weeks ago he exchanged texts with former Bengals linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons, guys he stalked 20 years ago in the first round of the draft. And that wasn't just out of the blue. He never lost touch.

"Of course," Duffner said. "They're my guys."

The ironies abound. Bullough is the grandson of Hank Bullough, the first Bengals Super Bowl defensive coordinator. Last year Lazor was elevated to offensive coordinator early in the season while still coaching the QBs and had to install an exercise bike in his office because he had to work while working out. Duffner also got a battlefield promotion and is coaching the Bucs linebackers staked out on the sidelines. Both have been drilled with injuries, cleaning out Lazor's tight ends and Duffner's linebackers. Last week the Bucs lost middle linebacker Kwon Alexander (otherwise known as their heart and soul) to an ACL tear and signed Kevin Minter, unsigned by the Bengals after he played here last season. His best tackle, Gerald McCoy, and veterajn sacker Vinny Currry, won't play.

"It's a collaborative effort," Duffner said. "It's not just game-planning, but it's practice planning and meetings and putting it all together. You just grind through and get it done."

The Bucs were ripped in that first month, but Duffner got them back on their feet in his debut last week by playing a little more Cover Two and not allowing the big play. They stopped the run, got better on third down and racked up five sacks while holding the Browns to 305 yards in basically five quarters during a 26-23 OT victory.

"Andy Dalton and A.J. Green," Duffner said. "They've got excellent players on offense."

No matter what happens Sunday, there's no doubt in Bengaldom. The opposing defense is going to be prepared and an old friend won't be giving them anything easy.