Guenther looking for a big finish

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Geno Atkins, circa 2012-13, boosts the defense.

Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is an avid horse player and doesn't mind relating some of the stories to his group to drive home some points.

There was the tape he showed them of some poor horse jumping over the shadow of the spire on the race track.

"The point is,' Guenther says, "forget the distractions. Keep running."

And for instance, he just returned from Saratoga Springs this past weekend and placed on his office wall the iconic picture of Secretariat hitting the Belmont finish while jockey Ron Turcotte  snuck a peak back at his 31-length victory.

"That's what we're looking to do,' Guenther said during Tuesday's training camp media luncheon. "Win the Triple Crown against all comers. Last year California Chrome lost and his owner complained about other horses sitting out races. This was against all comers."

The Bengals defense is getting all comers again. New Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave waits in Oakland for the opener and then Philip Rivers brings the Chargers into Paul Brown Stadium, where he sprung a playoff upset two years ago. Then they get a Super Bowl MVP on the road in Joe Flacco and come home to face the Chiefs' prolific tandem of head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith before welcoming "The Beast," himself when running back Marshawn Lynch lugs Seattle to PBS.

And that's just the first five games.

"My thing, I was in this position last year," Guenther said. "We lost in the first round of the playoffs. I'm not satisfied with that. I stood in front of you guys last year and said it wasn't good enough. How we played against San Diego wasn't good enough and how we played against Indianapolis wasn't good enough. So I have to find a way to get us over the hump and become a Super Bowl team."

In his second season as DC, they may have found a way after re-signing right end Michael Johnson and reviving three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins.  Before Johnson left for Tampa in 2014 and Atkins struggled coming off his torn ACL, they combined for 31.5 sacks in their last 25 games together in 2012 and 2013 and Guenther is delighted both are back.

The tandem allows Guenther to try and accentuate one of his strengths. He's got an ability to find weaknesses in pass protection and with these two back playing at a high level, Guenther can play some more higher-powered chess than he was last year, when he had to burn out one of his best pass rushers, right end Wallace Gilberry, with 840 snaps in Johnson's absence.

"Michael is one of our main pillars. He's an every down defensive end. He's not only great on the field, he's great off the field with the players in the meeting room," Guenther said. "He'll add to our pass rush obviously. He's familiar with what we do. It's another guy you have where maybe it may free up Wallace to go inside and have the matchup that we want. We didn't necessarily have that a year ago."

Back in June, Guenther raved how Atkins was better than ever. On Tuesday, he was still raving.

"It's a major difference. He's one of the best three techniques in the league when he's right. When he came back in the spring he looked as good as he's had," Guenther said. "When you have to double team the guy inside, it takes the pressure off maybe the ends on the outside or you get him matched up on a guy that's not so good on the run, you're going to win those battles…He came back in unbelievable shape. Strong as can be. As soon as he stepped on the field the first day in the spring I was, 'Whoa,' I was blown away. It's been great to have him back rolling."

Guenther got a lot of ink for calling out Atkins after the season, saying they needed him to play better than the 20th three technique in the league. Guenther isn't happy with himself for talking about it publicly, but he feels like he has to set the bar high.

"That's between me and him. I challenge guys each and every day in our meeting room. That one happened to get out in public. It's probably my fault I said that,' he said. "He's a major part of what we do. Everybody is accountable in our room. Typically it happens in the meeting room if guys aren't playing at a high level I'll call them out on it. It's all part of being accountable within the group."

It was a tough first year as a coordinator for Guenther. With predecessor Mike Zimmer's lengthy shadow from 2013 looming with a No. 3 NFL ranking, the Bengals finished No. 22, their lowest defensive finish in seven years. But Guenther persevered and helped them get to the playoffs despite losing his best player, Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict for most of the year, as well as all of his linebackers at one point. Plus, he had to deal with the absence of the 2013 Johnson-Atkins duo.

But Guenther is a quick learner.

"It's like anything else. Your first time skiing. Or your first time on a bike. Whatever it is. You fall down once or twice," Guenther said. "You learn. I've said this in the past. One of the things I learned is I have to get some of the backup players ready to go during training camp. The first three games of the year we were pretty healthy. Then we started losing guys in bunches and guys were playing real football for the first time. I've got to get those guys ready to play and actually put them on the field against first team players in the preseason and see how they react."

So you'll see plenty of backups this preseason and you'll see the kid cornerbacks, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard. You'll also see plenty of linebackers in case Burfict isn't back for the opener. As free agency broke last March, Guenther didn't rest until former Packer A.J. Hawk was in stripes. Hawk's play this spring justified his pursuit.

(Not to mention Hawk's recent tackle of a fan at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in  Lake Tahoe, a reunion of last year's hit at the same fan's request.)

"A.J. has been a great fit. He's a consummate pro," Guenther said. "He understands our defense. I see where he's practicing his tackling over in Tahoe.  I'm glad he's still working on his form tackling. He's a veteran guy. He's played a lot of football. He's played in championship football, played in Super Bowls. He's a smart guy. He's a good guy for our younger players to talk to just about being a pro."

 But while the personnel is a bit different, Guenther isn't so sure if you'll see that different of a play caller.

"I'm always concerned about what I am showing players during the week. Am I showing them this play enough, that play enough, these formations, those situations? That's what keeps me here late at night," Guenther said. "But when I walk out of the tunnel on Sunday I feel good about what I've shown them. I always tell the players go play fast. If there is any issue we will get it worked through and just go follow the plan." 

And he may also rustle up the story of Mine That Bird, the 50-1 longshot winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. When he was the linebackers coach in 2013, Guenther pulled out the call of that Derby.

"He led for about the last five seconds of the race. All of a sudden he came out of nowhere. You can hear the announcer shuffling his papers, trying to find the name," Guenther said. "That was at a point in the season when we were in the middle of the pack and no one was talking about us. All of a sudden, here we go."

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