BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS. VIKINGS HEAD COACH MIKE ZIMMER
Burrow has been decompressing between practices this summer with a chessboard at his locker and that's been good practice for Sunday's (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) opening move of the season against the Vikings at Paul Brown Stadium.
Burrow begins his second season as one of the hot young things of the Zooming '20s with more input in the game plan and freedom at the line of scrimmage than his rookie year. Zimmer, the crusty old school head coach in his eighth season in Minnesota, returns to the building for the first time in a regular season game where he built the Bengals a string of playoff defenses during the previous decade.
After Zimmer's third-ranked defense helped boost the Bengals to the 2013 AFC North title, he took the job in Minnesota and bequeathed his scheme to top aide Paul Guenther, architect of a defense that set the Bengals scoring record on a run to the 2015 division title. Guenther also returns Sunday as Zimmer's senior defensive assistant.
The one thing that stands out about how Zimmer and Guenther ran that scheme is how they shut down opposing quarterbacks in PBS. In Zimmer's last dozen regular-season home games as the Bengals DC (when Guenther was in charge of third down) and Guenther's first 16, they racked up an opposing passer rating of 68.8 while quarterbacks completed just 59 percent of their passes and converted just 35 percent of their third downs.
Years ago, of course and all the names have changed. But the scheme and style really hasn't. They like to make it ugly for the passer.
"I'm sure they've changed quite a bit. But just like any good system, they've got core beliefs and core fundamental things that they do," said Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan before Wednesday's practice. "From the time Coach Zimmer was here to the time he's been in Minnesota. There's things they believe in and they're very good at. They're fundamentally very sound, they're extremely well-coached. It's a disciplined defense and you add good players on top of that scheme, you've got something that's pretty difficult to get ready for."
Which is pretty much how they racked up those numbers back in the day against everyone from Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers to Austin Davis and Brian Hoyer.
Zimmer didn't overhaul his defense during the offseason as much as the Bengals revamped what they had. But after he talked so openly about how down he was about a defense that allowed the sixth most yards in the league last year, lately he's been upbeat about free-agent additions at defensive tackle (Dalvin Tomlinson) and at cornerback (Patrick Peterson) as well as guys that missed last season at edge rusher (Danielle Hunter) and defensive tackle (Michael Pierce), along at linebacker, where Anthony Barr missed all but two games.
"(Zimmer is) really the founder of the Double-A blitz package that's kind of ran throughout the league and they're still really good at it and they make it really challenging to pick it up," Callahan said. "They come in big spots and they've got great players doing it. All that tied together makes for some long nights here (in game preparation)."
Like the Bengals, he's got two brand new veteran cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland and an elite free safety in Harrison Smith. So while there's no tape on them together, Callahan and head coach Zac Taylor know what to expect from a Zimmer secondary because they've played him and Guenther enough when the scheme was here with them both and against Zimmer in Minnesota and Guenther's Raiders.
Taylor has got a snapshot X and Os mind, so he can easily click back to a 2012 PBS game with his Dolphins against Zimmer's Bengals. It wasn't pretty. Zimmer makes sure of that. Taylor guided Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a 17-13 win (Taylor even remembered the score) despite Miami generating just 279 yards.
Tannehill didn't throw a TD, but he didn't throw an interception, either.
"We fumbled on the goal line. They hit us with the WILL free safety on a screen that we almost got the third-and-14. We didn't quite get it," Taylor said. "They hit us with a Double A nickel pressure that we prepared for all week and they executed better than we did on a late third-and-seven. Killed us.
"There's a lot of things that come back from 2012, is a hard fight 17-13. So, we didn't score many points. It's a hard-nosed defense. They're going to be smart. They're going to be well coached. They're going to do their research on us."
Bengals fans can't be surprised the Vikings picked up a former Pro Bowl cornerback drafted in the top five in Peterson. Zimmer did that with Terence Newman in Cincinnati, where he also had successful reclamation projects in the secondary such as cornerback Adam Jones and free safety Reggie Nelson
With the addition of free agent strong safety Xavier Woods, that gives the Vikings a total of 419 NFL starts in the secondary to go with the combined eight Pro Bowls of Peterson and Smith. It's a brew of experience and smarts in the back end the Bengals recognize.
Certainly Burrow does.
"We haven't seen those guys all play together as a unit, but you've seen them in years past and they're obviously still playing for a reason," Burrow said before Wednesday's practice. "So they're really smart football players. They've seen a lot of concepts, played a lot of football. You're not going to fool them. You're just going to have to go out and execute your base plays and try to win the game."
And according to Burrow, he's had more to say about what has gone into this one than those last year.
"I'm voicing my opinion more probably, yeah. I would say that's fair to say," Burrow said. "Just seeing more football, understand what we want against certain looks. Understand what I would like against certain looks and understanding our guys."
Burrow says he's got "an expanded playbook," at the line of scrimmage with another year in the system and Taylor says that's a natural progression.
"That's not all that different from last year. Joe right away kind of earned that right," Taylor said. "We're not always trying to get to the best play possible, that's tough to do on a 40-second play clock and to do that every play, but if your quarterback is confident in something, get to it. And make sure all 11 guys are on the same page and it's going to work out more times than not.
"And it's not necessarily always what the coaches are confident in because we might see something on tape, we think it's great, somebody else ran it, we feel like it's going to be good, but the quarterback is the one that's really bring it to life in a lot of ways. He's earned the respect of this coaching staff and this team to have full control at the line of scrimmage and get to what he needs to get to."
He'll have plenty on his plate Sunday. Zimmer has never been a big blitzer (about 25 percent the last two seasons), but there are games being played up front in that A gap.
"They best thing they do it they make it look all the same. They present threats on both edges," Callahan said. "They read the turn of your center so if you don't have a real concrete plan for it, you can get yourself into some unblocked players and then they've got all the looks off of it. Everything starts out looking the same and then they drop into coverage. They bring one side, they bring the other side, they play zone, they play man, they play everything. And it all kind of comes from one core formation, and they've got a bunch of variants off of it that are pretty difficult so it's a good system."
The way Callahan sees it, Burrow is going to have to be very good just before and after the snap because of how well Harrison Smith disguises what is actually going on out there. (Think old Bengals safety Chris Crocker.)
It sounds like Burrow maybe saw the Tannehill game.
"Just taking what the defense gives me. Not forcing throws, trying to make big plays," Burrow says of what he's putting a premium on Sunday. "The big plays will come within the offense. Just take what the defense gives me and make the plays when they're there to be made. Don't make unnecessary turnovers, protect the ball, be a game manager. Then push the ball down the field when it's needed."
Zimmer won't make it pretty. But a win in the opener would be so beautiful after they took away Burrow's last-seconds comeback in the last opener.
"I'm sure that'll be a fun mental game to watch as the game unfolds," Callahan said.
The board is open.