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High expectations

Mike Zimmer

Posted: 5:55 p.m.

Mike Zimmer won't kid you. He never does. When he looked up late in the first half of the 23-20 victory over the Steelers last Sunday and saw Pittsburgh was nearing 260 yards, he muttered, "Whoa, we can't even slow down these guys."

And there were a few other times the Bengals defensive coordinator wondered, "Maybe we're not ready for this big-time deal yet."

But after the Bengals ended up holding the Steelers to 373 yards and got a defensive touchdown, he felt better. Don't be mistaken. In Zimmer's world that just means he's not miserable. He still felt badly enough to come to work at 4 a.m. Monday, but also better enough that he believes his guys are still on the right track.

"I think we're pretty good, but I've got high standards," Zimmer said. "They settled down. They did better. I think each week when the games come down to the end like they have for three weeks, I think those experiences will make us better. We're a pretty tough team right now. Nothing really shakes us. They smacked us early, but we came back."

But his guys are going to get an earful from him Wednesday. All of them. Zimmer appreciates the kind words of quarterback Carson Palmer ("The defense has played great for three weeks"), but amended Palmer with "We've played well two out of three weeks."

"There was no one you could say 'Hey, this guy played great,' '' Zimmer said. "We had some guys play well, some guys played well in spots. But as a group we can play a lot better and that was the disappointing thing. We've come far enough here defensively that I expect us to be better than that. I've got high expectations."

Even though the Bengals held the Steelers to 3.6 yards on the ground for their 28 rushes, Zimmer wasn't pleased with the misalignments. Even though the Bengals held Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to one catch for 18 yards, Zimmer was upset with the soft coverage that allowed the Steelers two passes of plus 40 yards and 50 percent success on third down. Even though the Bengals held the Steelers to field goals on third downs from the 1 and 6, well, you get the idea.

"The effort was there. We hit. Maybe we almost tried to do too much," Zimmer said. "I don't know if it was because they knew it was a big game, but there were some uncharacteristic things that we did. There was more confusion for some reason. We didn't play well in the back end."

The most glaring uncharacteristic trait was how open the Steelers receivers were. Zimmer knows there could have been a 61-yard touchdown pass and a 34-yard touchdown pass if the Steelers caught the ball, and his DBs will hear plenty about letting the receivers get off the line so easily and giving cushions.

Zimmer didn't let himself off the hook, either. He thought he was a bit too conservative in the first half.

"I cut it loose a little bit more in the second half and we changed a few things," he said. "But you don't want to have to blitz every time."

But he knew one thing as a 10-year NFL defensive coordinator. He sensed the Bengals were scoring on the last drive. Zimmer and Palmer have a mutual admiration society going.

"He's really good," Zimmer said. "The fourth-and-10 was a little scary, but our guys were on the sideline preparing to go out there with a little time left and win it."

REV RETURNS: The Reverend, Reggie Kelly, has surfaced this week as he continues to rehab the ruptured Achilles tendon that ended his season the first week of training camp. He's 32 ("a young 32," he says) and he turns 33 in February. But even though it is always termed a career-threatening injury no matter the age, Kelly wants to keep playing.

"It can be a career-ending injury," he said. "Especially back in the day when they didn't have the technology to get guys back. They've been great with my rehab. I'm ahead of schedule. I'm back walking around and hopefully next month I'll start jogging."

"No question about that," said Kelly of his desire to return. "I still feel it in my bones. I've got an itch that needs to be scratched."

Kelly remains the club's spiritual leader and serves as a listening post for the young tight ends and a source of encouragement. "I'm not going to tear them down," he said after what had to be a bittersweet Sunday.

"I felt it in the offseason training. That's why I was so excited about the upcoming year," said Kelly of the change he has sensed in the locker room. "There was a certain electricity in the air even going through the offseason training. ... That's one of the reasons I was a little sad when I went down because I knew I would not be a part of this great year. As you can see it has turned out to be such."

Kelly, who never beat the Steelers at home, spent the first half on the sidelines and came into the locker room in the second half to ice and rehab his Achilles, all the while never taking his eyes off the TV.

"That was tremendous. I'm definitely thrilled for my teammates," Kelly said. "I'm also happy for the fans. They've endured a lot. They've endured a lot of trash talk. I'm happy to see the fans get some gratitude out of this situation that we finally beat them at home.

"It was great to see the guys. The guys were excited. I know it will add some confidence to the team ... it's weird. You wish you were a part of it. There's nothing like actually being out there with the guys. It's different when you're somewhat on the outside looking in just helping the guys win ... I know I can still contribute. I'm not going to back away. I'm not going to go into a shell. I want to make sure my presence is felt."

He never had to worry about that.

"It's just great to see him," Palmer said. "He's always so calm. He means so much."

Kelly is a free agent this offseason, but he makes no bones about that either. He has yet to talk to the team, but he said, "I want to come back. I want to retire as a Bengal. Everyone here has treated me great."

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