No. 1 at the quarter pole

Robert Geathers

Over here is left end Robert Geathers talking about how nice it is to be on a defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL after eight seasons, three coordinators, and a ranking as low as 30.

Over there is free agent Thomas Howard, after his fourth game as a Bengal and 80th in the NFL, talking about how blessed he is to be around these players and coaches.

Over here is Rey Maualuga, off his best game at middle linebacker in his third season, talking about how this defense is so close that the teammates hang at each other's homes and are like family.

But they are all mouthing the line pushed by the man that has devised the first Bengals defense ranked No. 1 since the 1983 unit finished there at the end of the season. It's too early, they say. Coordinator Mike Zimmer won't talk about the ranking. In fact, he won't he discuss how good this defense is until Thanksgiving. Now, he says, is too early. You don't know.

In fact, when he convened his defensive meeting Monday less than 24 hours after the Bengals had stifled Buffalo's top scoring offense on just one touchdown, Zimmer laid out a couple of mousetraps complete with cheese. He wouldn't talk about that either, but Geathers knows exactly what it means.

"Don't believe the hype," he said. "Keep our head down and see where we're ranked at the end of the season."

Or, as Maualuga said, "Don't bite on the cheese. Don't feed off what everyone is talking about."

In fact, Zimmer doesn't even look at total yards allowed, which is how the Bengals are at No. 1 with 275.5 yards allowed per game.

"We look at weird stats. First down defense, yards per play overall," Zimmer said. "Obviously playing good in the red zone, third downs. It's nice to get three and outs but if it's four (downs) it's OK to me. We had two series (last Sunday) where we had three and outs where they were backed up and had to punt from own goal line. Those are things we look at more than total stats. Keeping them backed up and punt out of their own end zone."

So Zimmer is pushing for room for improvement. The Bengals are tied for 16th on first-down snaps and 19th in red zone efficiency. But they are also third in holding teams on third down and No. 1 in yards per rush.

Numbers don't lie. You're talking about a starting 11 that has no player drafted by the Bengals or others lower than the fourth round. But there's not only talent, there is Zimmer's tenacious, blue-collar mindset.

"We're not good enough just to show up on Sunday," Geathers said, the fourth-round pick from 2004 who is the dean of this defense with 106 games at the tender age of 28.

"Everybody has to get to the ball," he said. "We have to be high energy, high effort, that's the way we're built. ... There's been some pretty good talent on this defense (down through the years), but I think this is the best playing as a unit. Being there for each other and being accountable for our jobs."

Geathers may be the defense's grand old man, but he is also the face of what Zimmer has sold them and what his players have bought. He is smart, athletic, versatile and understands his role.

In the opener against Cleveland, when Geathers hurt his shoulder, he played 38 snaps as the Browns tried to smash it with running back Peyton Hillis. When he returned this past Sunday against the Bills spread offense after missing two games, Geathers played 18 snaps with pass rushers Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson getting the bulk of them.

But with running back Maurice Jones-Drew looming in Jacksonville this week, look for Geathers to have a busy day against the run, but he'll also move inside at times to take on the pass rush.

"The coaches are doing a great job playing the right guys at the right time," Geathers said. "It's going to change according to what offenses are doing. I have a role. We all have a role."

Howard's role on Sunday was primarily to track dangerous Bills running back Fred Jackson in pass coverage and the man averaging 130 yards per game from scrimmage (third best in the NFL), was held to 98 and caught only 32 yards on five catches.

Head coach Marvin Lewis calls Howard as athletic of a linebacker as he's coached and says his upside is huge even in his sixth season. It's another lesson in NFLdom.

It's all about who's coaching and how. After four solid seasons in Oakland, Howard was put on the shelf last season after he missed five games because by the time he came back the Raiders were in the process of running through the AFC West and they relegated him to special teams so they wouldn't mess with their momentum on defense.

"But it's not like I didn't have some good years out there," Howard said. "That's the first time I've been hurt since little league. It's an honor to be a piece of the puzzle here."

But the grind goes on. Zimmer is trying to figure out how to get more than the one interception the Bengals own. But he's not going to change up and play soft coverage in order to get them, either. They sacrifice some of those with the aggressive, in-your-face scheme. In his previous three seasons the Bengals have had a low of 12 and a high of 19 and he thinks the numbers are going to even out this season.

"I always have a theory that if we can't get to the receiver it doesn't matter if we get interceptions or not so the first thing we have to make sure we get them covered and we're starting to cover them pretty good," Zimmer said. "I think it will all end up the same. We're covering guys and the ball goes in some real hard places to get. We're not a soft zone team for the most part.

"Typically you'll get some tipped balls, overthrows but we're covering people. It's just the way the ball bounces. Reggie (Nelson) had one go through his hands. It'd be nice to get six interceptions but I wouldn't forego the six interceptions for not covering anyone. We're covering people right now. I think the rest of that will come. Marvin is talking to us about it a lot. I mean we could play softer and hope for overthrows but the rest of the game they're not very good."

For Zimmer, it's very early. But for Geathers, it's about time. Even though no one is dwelling on No. 1, it's still No. 1.

"How about that?" Geathers asked.

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