So much has been written about the problems and perils facing Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer's offense this spring, but after years of facing elite defenses in the AFC North Palmer finds himself working against one every day in practice.
"If after Week 16 we went against the No. 1 defense in the league during OTAs, all training camp, all season, I won't be surprised," Palmer said after Wednesday morning's practice. "They've got a chance to be. Why not? We don't look a mess out there, but they make it difficult for us. We have to work hard for every yard and first down we get. It's good for us. We play in a very tough defensive division."
The Bengals defense has gone from No. 27 to No. 4 in two seasons under coordinator Mike Zimmer and left end Robert Geathers, one of two players that has worked for all three of head coach Marvin Lewis' defensive coordinators, says they can go higher.
"That's our goal," Geathers said. "We're definitely making strides toward that. We've got more chemistry, more talent, more depth at more positions. We're more comfortable with one another. That's the big thing.
"We've never had this many guys we can move around. There's a lot of different looks. We're excited about it."
Zimmer has been able to put so much in because of the consistency in personnel and coaching of the past three years that he said after the morning practice Wednesday, "We've got too much in. We couldn't have done half of this stuff (two years ago)."
But it doesn't seem to be hurting things if you ask Palmer after he had a couple of frames from practice frozen in his mind. He dropped back, scanned the field and said to himself, "Man, that's perfect coverage."
"They didn't bite on the decoy of the route," Palmer said. "They stayed on the right leverage. They all stayed inside. There's always a team that screws it up at some point. All you need is one weak link, but when you have 11 guys working in unison, it's hard to find and rare to see. We've got some really athletic guys, but it's the whole defense. They didn't bite on outside action. They stayed inside their man with right leverage, right drops. And they moved with the same speed. They all moved at the right depth. You don't see that. That's special."
Zimmer has been emphasizing not so much sacks, but pressure. Disrupting the quarterback. Make him throw it quickly or where he doesn't want to throw it. Palmer has noticed.
"They can bring every pressure," he said. "Some teams can only bring weak pressure, or pressure from (the strong side), but they can bring it from anywhere with any of their personnel groups. They can bluff it and it's really hard to pick up. It's a tough thing to get a play off after a bluff. Most defenses let one (offensive) guy through or let one guy go and they don't do that and let you score an easy touchdown. They're all in the right place. It's having good players. It's also really good coaching."
Symbolic of this versatile, smart, tough defense besides Zimmer himself is the man moved from right end to try SAM linebacker this spring. Second-year man Michael Johnson, a 6-7, 265-pound physical wunderkind that has proven to Zimmer he can not only play SAM, but WILL and middle linebacker.
With his ability to line up with his hand on the ground at end and rush the passer, Johnson forms a dangerous trio with Geathers and Antwan Odom, two ends that can, at times, stand up at backer. With SAM backers Rey Maualuga and Rashad Jeanty still recovering from late-season broken legs, Johnson has received plenty of snaps with the first team.
"I knew he could play linebacker when I switched him there," said Lewis, who saw glimpses of it in practice last year. "He's the most talented guy I've had (make the switch)."
Johnson says the toughest thing about the move is knowing what the rest of the defense is doing while adjusting to the shifts and motions of the offense.
"On the line, they pretty much tell you what to do and you go," said Johnson, who quickly said the Bengals have smart linemen when Geathers gave him the evil eye with a laugh.
It is that chemistry he was talking about. Despite his injury, Jeanty has been coaching up Johnson. It was Jeanty who made the transition from end to backer coming out of Canada quicker than No. 1 pick David Pollack when he came out of Georgia. Throw in linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald's experience with the versatile Ravens backers and Johnson's immense physical and mental gifts are getting mentored to the hilt.
"To play linebacker, you've got to be smart, but you've got to be intense, too," Johnson said. "Fitz says everybody's got that dog in him. It's in there somewhere. It's a mentality that's learned. That's the kind of thing that's been passed on to me: 'We're here and we're not going to take any crap.' Our whole linebacking corps as players takes mentality. Coach Fitz is the type of guy that demands respect and everyone respects him. All he cares about is the product he puts on the field. Being one of his guys, that rubs off on you."
The Bengals seem to have that perfect brew of coaching, brains and athleticism on the back burner bubbling that only guys like Palmer can whiff. On and off the field. Asked about Johnson's sudden progress at a different position, middle linebacker Dhani Jones shrugged.
"Hey, he was Valedictorian of his high school class," Jones said. "That tells you something. You've got to be smart."