Middle men

Posted: 11:05 p.m.

Marvin Lewis likes to call middle linebacker Dhani Jones the extension of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer on the field, which a little like saying Karl Rove is Barack Obama's eyes and ears.

"I'm not Zimmer," said Jones between Friday's minicamp practices. "Zimmer is Zimmer."

Zimmer is the hard-boiled-NFL-lifer-no-holds-barred-language-in-your-face defensive coordinator that has the once maligned and tentative Bengals defense running around this weekend with the confidence of a top 10 unit.

Jones is the erudite Renaissance Man who chooses his words carefully while leaping to national prominence this offseason as a legit TV star in the Travel Channel series "Dhani Tackles The Globe."

Jones has plans if he becomes "the first black James Bond." Zimmer's goal as a renowned hunter is to bag the turkey with the biggest gobble and the buck with the biggest antlers.

These guys are a Neil Simon play stuck in a Steve Sabol NFL Films project.

"They've got the same very hard-headed personalities," Lewis said after Friday's second practice. "That's why when they disagree, it's hilarious. It's a matter of how long does it take for Dhani to back down and Zimmer to pull rank."

But this is why Zimmer and Jones have a working relationship good enough and solid enough to fuel this revival that took the unit from 27th to 12th in the league last year during their first season together:

"(Jones) is a football player and he wants to know and he wants to be right and he takes great pride in being exact," Lewis said. "He wants everything out here to be exact. He reminds me every day. If the ball's not set quick enough or if he doesn't know which the direction the offense is working. He wants to be exact. He wants to be efficient."

Zimmer's similar attention to detail (technique, hands, hips, etc.) caught the attention of his players immediately and after a poor season rushing the passer he spent this offseason waking early at the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine to pick the brains of assorted defensive gurus such as mentor Bill Parcells.

Jones also went out of his way this offseason to help his defense in his own way. He's already started shooting a second season of the series and this time he brought the Bengals back a prospect from the western African nation of Senegal.

Jones met the man known as "Bombardier" while playing the sport of "Lutte avec Frappe," a combination of wrestling and boxing. Jones brought back the 320-pound Bombardier for a workout last week. Even though Bombardier doesn't know a word of English or the difference between a football and a soccer ball, he showed enough athleticism that the Bengals thought he might have had a chance to be a guard if they had enough time to develop him. But at age 27, Bombardier was deemed too old.

"He gave me a chance to experience his world and I gave him a glimpse of mine," Jones said. "It didn't work out so he was able to stay, but now he can go back to Senegal and teach other people and that may mean something in the future."

Right now the future is Zimmer and Jones melding an intriguing defense amped by the addition of versatile rookies Rey Maualuga and Michael Johnson, a five-time Pro Bowler in safety Roy Williams, and a proven interior pass rusher in tackle Tank Johnson.

Maualuga is understudying Jones as the middle linebacker of the future, but is battling incumbent Rashad Jeanty to start next to him at SAM backer. Johnson is a 6-7, 266-pound defensive end who is also getting looks as a pass-rushing tackle and, most promising, as a WILL linebacker that can both blitz and drop into coverage. During Thursday afternoon's workout, he dropped and gouged a pass out of the air with a last-instant leap like some sort of bird of prey.

Jones points to linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald's ability to train his players in all three spots.

"You have to have guys that play both middle and outside backers," he said, "and Coach FitzGerald makes sure that if something happens, the next guy can go in there and play as well as the other guy."

But the versatility also allows Zimmer to open up his third-down packages. And with a braniac like Jones on the field and Zimmer talking to him into the helmet phone, it allows him to do even more.

"Who is ever in the middle linebacker spot, those are things that are necessary for communication. They're necessary for everyone else to be on the same page because there's only one headset. There has to be a point of origin," Jones said. "The Mike linebacker has to be able to communicate that effectively on the field."

It is a position that has been fraught with instability ever since Lewis arrived. Jones becomes the first middle linebacker to make back-to-back Opening Day starts for him. In '06, Jeanty lined up next to Brian Simmons in the opener. As he adjusted to a 16-inch rod in his leg that was inserted in the '07 preseason, Jeanty watched Ahmad Brooks open the season in the middle. Then he, Jones and WILL Keith Rivers, the current threesome, started last year in Baltimore.

"It's definitely a benefit," Jeanty said. "(Zimmer) gets the defense all in sync from my perspective. Definitely he's a guy you depend on to get guys lined and make adjustments. He's a guy you look to for leadership. He talks a little too much, but he's cool."

Zimmer doesn't mind it because Jones "asks good questions, logical questions."

"And you can tell him to shut the bleep up and it doesn't bother him," Zimmer said. One time he and Zimmer were having a disagreement and Jones concluded, "Well, I can't do that," and Zimmer fired back that he'd have to find another linebacker.

"He coaches us well," Jones said. "The thing he said when he came in, he said something like, 'You may hate me and you may not remember me (in a good way), but you'll remember me as a good coach who coached the bleep out of me.'"

"Don't say bleep," Jones said.

Zimmer said that Jones and his middle linebacker in Dallas, Dat Nguyen, are the two smartest backers he's ever had during 16 NFL seasons. Nguyen is in his second season as a Cowboys assistant coach. That may just be too conventional for Jones.

"After I take a two-year hiatus and travel the world by myself with a backpack and a tent," Jones said of possibly coaching. "Only if I come back. I may end up on a mountain not wanting to come home. If I'm the first black James Bond, I'm definitely not coming back."

Jones, who has done everything from dragon boat racing to martial arts used by the Russian army, says Zimmer is a versatile athlete himself. True, he kept catching for Illinois State after a neck injury prevented him from playing football.

"I'm sure he can karate chop someone if he wanted to," Jones said. "Karate chop me if I mess up."

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