Updated: 3:20 p.m.
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hasn't decided yet if he's going to show more 3-4 looks out of his base 4-3 this year than in his two previous seasons in Cincinnati. He's not showing his cards. Just to keep foes guessing, he has simplified the scheme and given more players more roles just in case the Bengals do use more 3-4.
He's shown a lot of 3-4 this spring, in large part because the offense has asked to see more of it with the impending games against the Patriots and Dolphins, as well as the 3-4 AFC North standbys of the Steelers, Ravens and Browns.
The successful experiment of moving right end Michael Johnson to SAM linebacker is Exhibit A of the varied options at Zimmer's fingertips. Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom are also rush ends that can stand up and having three of those guys are rarities in a 4-3 defense.
Zimmer also says he's got a 3-4 nose tackle in Domata Peko, a guy he says "can play for any team in this league."
But it is Johnson's conversion in his second NFL season that had Zimmer raving after Wednesday morning's third practice of mandatory minicamp.
"I really, really like him just as a football player. He's improved tremendously. He's doing some terrific things. I'm expecting him to have a dang good year," Zimmer said.
After working Johnson with the linebackers all spring, Zimmer calls Johnson's pass coverage "excellent," and doesn't stop at playing him at SAM on first down or rush end on third down. He believes Johnson could play end on first down as well as play the other two backer spots.
That allows the Bengals to disrupt pass protections by alignment.
"It puts five linemen on the field and the offense has to decide if they're going to block him with a back or a tackle," Zimmer said. "That's five-on-five. And that opens it up for people beyond that."
Zimmer said the Bengals tried to use their 3-4 hybrid more last year, "but we made it too complicated with different calls. ... We've simplified it a little bit. Some of the coverages that we're playing fit exactly to it. Now it's just basically the alignment of how we do it."
"The big thing in the 3-4 is the technique of the down guys and the two (inside) linebackers," Zimmer said. "That's where you have to make hay in the 3-4. The key are those five inside guys."
With Rey Maualuga and Rashad Jeanty still sidelined by their leg injuries from late last season, Johnson has moved pretty seamlessly into the role of No. 1 SAM linebacker.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
»Zimmer also praised backup defensive backs Adam Jones and Chinedum Ndukwe. He said he got all over Jones three times on one play Tuesday and he responded well. Ndukwe, heading into his fourth season, has responded to Zimmer's efforts to play with more attention to coaching detail.
With the return to health of starters Roy Williams and Chris Crocker, plus the addition of free agent Gibril Wilson and the improvement of Chinedum Ndukwe, Zimmer says the Bengals are better at safety than they were a year ago. Their fourth safety from last year, Illinois State free-agent rookie Tom Nelson, still hasn't been able to get on the field this spring with a rehabbing knee.
Zimmer has always been pretty tough on Ndukwe even though he started 12 games last year in place of Williams and finished third in tackles. But on Wednesday, Zimmer offered, "He's playing better. He's paying attention. He's trying to do what we want him to do. He's playing with better technique, he's playing with better discipline."
Ndukwe says he's always considered himself a coachable player, but he also said it has taken him time to adjust to Zimmer's scheme and techniques.
"One of the biggest things they told me I wasn't really doing was just listening to detail," Ndukwe said. "I'm just trying to be as coachable as possible. ... I've always been a coachable player, but he wants things done a certain way. It's just hard trying to break old habits. I'm trying to do the best I can to make their decision come fall as tough as possible when they put safeties on the field."
The knock on Jones besides his off-field problems has been his inability to harness his ample abilities in a scheme. But Zimmer says, "He's been really coachable," and he still sees Jones sitting in the front row during meetings. He says the chances of Jones being the third corner are good, but he wouldn't say who is the leading candidate heading into training camp because it's too early and there are too many guys on the roster (89) to make any kind of call.
"He's doing what we ask him to do 90 percent of the time and when he skips back to his old ways we correct him and he says, 'I've got it, Coach.' He's been fine," Zimmer said. "He's trying to do things exactly how I ask him to do it ... I'm happy we've got him so far."
Williams didn't work Wednesday morning because of a pulled groin that Zimmer says isn't serious.
»Kickers Mike Nugent and Dave Rayner went at it toe-to-toe again Wednesday morning after they were a perfect 8-for-8 Tuesday afternoon kicking field goals. They were perfect again, but this time Rayner hit the long one, a 50-yarder, as well a 34, 38 and 46. After hitting a 46 Tuesday, Nugent hit another one from there, as well field goals from 30, 34 and 42.
»Rookie long snapper Mike Windt, a free agent from the University of Cincinnati, snapped all eight Wednesday after watching veteran Clark Harris do it Tuesday. His former college teammate, punter Kevin Huber, saved him on one low snap. Since Windt couldn't participate in the voluntary camps until last week because of NCAA and NFL rules, he worked a couple of times a week off site with Huber waiting for his shot.
"I know why," Windt said of the low snap. "After practice we must have snapped about 300 balls, so I was able to correct it."
»Wide receier Antonio Bryant rested his knee in the morning practice but he was back on the field for the afternoon session.