The Bengals defense has four games left in what has literally been a long season for them and they are still vowing to get back to the glory days of last season's No. 4 ranking. They are No. 20 and with the Steelers staring at them at Heinz Field in Sunday's 1 p.m. game, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer allowed Monday, "I'd rather not think about eventually right now. I'm trying to fix the present."
A trio of young pass rushers has made the present a little more bearable the past two weeks in what looks to be a changing of the guard up front when it comes to guarding the quarterback. But Zimmer and his guys want to change the score, not just the guard.
"It's a big game," said defensive tackle Domata Peko as he talked about the effort he's still seeing from his mates. "Fools are flying to the ball, fools are playing with injuries, we're still trying to get better … it's been a tough year, but we're still going to try and be the best defense we can be in the last four games."
It was a long film session for Zimmer, Peko, and the rest of the defense on Monday. After the players watched tape of Sunday's Saints game with their position coaches, Zimmer took the defense through each of the long plays they have allowed in the last four games, as well as all of their first- and second-down snaps in that stretch. It's one in the same. Of the 18 plays of at least 20 yards since the Nov. 14 game in Indianapolis, 16 have been on first and second down. All six long plays Sunday were and only one, a 21-yard run, came on a passing down when running back Chris Ivory broke the second play of the second half on second-and-14.
"It's disheartening," Zimmer said of the defense's work against the run. "Just undisciplined. They're not missing tackles. That's the bad thing. I can't say, 'hey, we're just missing tackles.' We had very few missed tackles in (Sunday's) game."
If the Bengals give up a 20-yard run Sunday, they will become the first team in NFL history to open the season by giving up a 20-yard run or more in their first 13 games. They are currently tied with the 1958 49ers, a club that played only 12 games.
"He's basically saying its all little techniques and we're not doing that," Peko said. "We just haven't been making the plays we were making last year. People are fighting their tails off, but it just seems like it's the little things."
Zimmer disputes the idea that this is the same defense that went into the last game of last season allowing just three runs of 20 yards.
"It's not the same guys. I counted before the Jets game 10 out of the top 22 players going into training camp are not playing," Zimmer said. "Six starters. And that doesn't include the third team and fourth team guys. We're not the same team. Ten of the top 22 defensive players aren't even playing. Starters, backups, the whole bit.
"We can make an excuse about it or get it fixed."
Four defensive linemen who started at one time or another - Antwan Odom, Tank Johnson, Jon Fanene, Frostee Rucker – are on injured reserve. Four defensive backs are on IR, including starting safety Chris Crocker as well as third corners Alex Erickson and Morgan Trent and backup safety Gibril Wilson.
But, like Zimmer is telling his guys, he didn't become a bad coach in the last nine games and they didn't become bad players.
"I think it's hard to play when you don't have a lot of your players. The frustrating thing to me is the guys who are in aren't playing better than they did a year ago," Zimmer said. "Maybe I'm not coaching as well as I did a year ago. You hope you get improvement and we haven't gotten it. That's the frustrating part. It's a combination of things. We've played the last two years up to my expectation level and this year we haven't. Some of it I expect guys to play better and guys to be playing so that's a combination of the two."
But, like Peko says, Zimmer hasn't changed, the scheme hasn't changed, and most of the players are the same. On Sunday the Bengals started a secondary that has three players with more than 30 starts with the club and a former Pro Bowl safety in Roy Williams, their Opening Day starter the past two seasons. Peko said that Zimmer hasn't changed the scheme or given them too much to do or to think about. The solution, he says, can be only technique and playing smarter.
"Mental lapses," Peko said. "Simple stuff. Other teams seem to capitalize on the little mistakes. There's been a lot of it off play-action (bootlegs). It's all over."
Peko pointed to Sunday's fourth-and-two in which defensive tackle Pat Sims admits he suffered a mental lapse in getting drawn into the neutral zone. There was also the 55-yard touchdown run by Ivory in which he slithered out of a simple play up the middle and got past an all-out blitz with everyone within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The line didn't hold its ground, the linebackers got blocked, and there were no safety nets.
"There was a misfit (inside) and one of the guys in the back end took a bad angle and we ended up having a big play on that," Peko said.
With most of the big plays coming against the base defense and the pass defense coming off such an impressive outing in allowing the NFL's top third-down offense to one first down on eight third-down snaps, could the Bengals make some moves earlier in the series? Zimmer never picks out players, so he was hesitant to say if he would use some of his third-down group on first and second down.
It is already happening some because of the need to roll linemen through. Zimmer praised the work of the kids, second-year right end Michael Johnson, rookie left end Carlos Dunlap, and rookie tackle Geno Atkins in their ability to get pressure the past few games on passing downs. Usually, Dunlap plays only a handful of snaps in the base as the coaches get him used to playing the run.
Johnson has been playing base (first and second down) at right end for much of the season, and in the last four games Dunlap has 4.5 sacks on pass-rush downs at left end. And he got half a sack working inside at tackle.
Head coach Marvin Lewis has noticed the three.
"It's been one of the positives to come out of this, those guys and their development. They're building some confidence that they can put pressure on the quarterback, and they are," Lewis said Monday. "They made (Saints quarterback Drew Brees) throw the ball out of time a bunch. He's usually able to check it down to the guy standing in the flat, but we were tackling the catch and getting off the field, and that's what you have to do. Those guys have done a good job. I think it has built confidence that they keep getting better and better. Some of the things they're doing are better and more efficient, and then just their individual rush (has gotten better)."
Dunlap missed a couple of weeks in the preseason with a concussion and couldn't get on the field in September and October because the coaches didn't like his practice habits. He impressed them last month when he missed the entire week of practice before the game against the Colts with an illness but still managed to be active and claim his first NFL sack.
"He's a big man with long arms who can run, and he's smart; he makes very few assignment and game plan errors," Lewis said. "He understands his job inside and out. Even the week he was sick and missed practice, he sat in the meetings and came back and he was 100 percent right doing things on Saturday when we put him out there for the workout. I told (defensive line coach Jay Hayes) to give him all the snaps just so I knew whether we could dress him or not, and he did a good job.
"He's still catching up. You wish this was the way it had been in August. You wish he would have seen the impact he could've had. Nobody's going to give it to you. You have to prove it and show it play after play. I think his practice habits have improved and he's been rewarded with playing more, and that's what we told him from the start. It's no different from the progression that Andre (Smith) went through. You've got to show it here in practice, and then you'll get an opportunity in the game, and he's making good on it in passing situations and in base downs."
Veterans or kids, Peko gets the sense his guys keep the effort going.
"We're fired up for (Pittsburgh). We've been through this nine-week stretch losing. There's nothing to do but to try and win," Peko said. "What can you do but just get better, and with the guys in our locker room, I think we can."