Mike Zimmer has succeeded turning over the Bengals defense in virtually every category but turning it over.
So as he heads into his third season as defensive coordinator, Zimmer is emphasizing picks, tips, strips, punches, scoops, and anything else that translates into turnovers. The defense is getting a steady diet of turnover drills to start each voluntary field workout, even "making sure the ball doesn't go out of bounds if you're trying to get a fumble," says WILL linebacker Keith Rivers.
Not only are there more drills geared for creating turnovers, but the players have also felt the urgency from the coaches in any group activity, whether it is 11-on-11, 9-on-7, or 7-on-7.
"If the ball is on the ground," says assistant linebackers coach Paul Guenther, "it doesn't matter how it got there. You pick it up and run the other way. If you intercept the ball, you go to the nearest sideline and pick up a block. In any team drill."
Not only are there more drills and more urgency, there is just flat out more talk about turnovers and how much they mean.
"It started right when we came in for OTAs; they put it right up on the screen," says cornerback Johnathan Joseph. "The difference between being 12-4 and how many games are won by seven points and three points. If you (score) off a turnover, your chances of winning the game go up by something like 85 percent. And they showed how the stats from last year fit into that."
In the three games the Bengals scored defensive touchdowns (Joseph against Pittsburgh, left end Robert Geathers in Cleveland, tackle Jonathan Fanene against Detroit), they were 3-0.
And the theme has reached the top 40 charts, thanks to one of secondary coach Kevin Coyle's teaching DVDs that is a hit parade of what-might-have-beens. Coyle has assembled nine plays from 2009 he has labeled, "Missed Opportunities To Make Big Plays."
Turnovers aren't exactly a foreign substance in the seven seasons of head coach Marvin Lewis. During that stretch the Bengals have generated 219 takeaways, third most in the NFL behind the Ravens (230) and Bears and Panthers (220). In the 44 games the Bengals have had a plus takeaway-giveaway ratio, they have won 37 of them. In the 42 games they've had a minus, they won just seven. Last year the NFL teams that were plus had a winning percentage of .782, making it .795 for the decade.
But truth is always stranger than fiction. Especially in the NFL.
Even though the Bengals are coming off a No. 4 overall defensive ranking that is their highest in 26 years, they generated the second fewest turnovers of the Lewis era with 25. While Zimmer has taken the Bengals from No. 27 to No. 12 to No. 4 in the rankings in two seasons, he has done it with 24 and 25 turnovers, respectively, the two lowest numbers in the last seven years.
Zimmer doesn't like the trend, hence the point of emphasis.
"Usually what you stress is what you get," Zimmer says.
The Bengals came up with just six fumbles and Coyle and Guenther have taken the lead from Zimmer in emphasizing getting on the ground.
"Keep the play going and keep running," Rivers says. "Maybe the ref makes a mistake."
Practice opens with drills where a defender tomahawks the ball from the quarterback on a sack and another man scoops it up. Another drill has one man in on a tackle holding up a ball carrier and the second guy in strips it. Or, if there is one guy making the play, he goes for the ball when he knows the tackle is secure. D-linemen catch balls while dropping in zone blitzes.
"Instead of giving it lip service, we're actually doing those drills every day," Guenther says, and tackle Domata Peko says it's a nice appetizer.
"When we start practice like that, it carries over into the team drills and you think about it more," Peko says. "We didn't have enough of them last year. There's only one ball and everyone wants it."
Lewis has always made sure his coaches stress getting the ball out and talking up turnovers, but stuff happens. Last year the defense began to take on injuries early when safety Roy Williams and top sacker Antwan Odom suffered season-ending injuries in October.
"We kind of talked about (turnovers), but we got away from it because we had so much going on," Joseph says. "Now we're back to emphasizing it a lot more and it puts you in a mindset."
As Coyle heads into his 10th season running the Bengals secondary, their 134 interceptions rank second only to Baltimore's 150 since 2003. But since the high water mark of 31 in 2005 (a smashing number that led the NFL by seven), the Bengals haven't had more than the 19 of last season even though no one doubts this defense is better than the one from the '05 AFC North champions.
"There's more talent; there's more depth," Coyle agrees. "But there are a lot of things that go into creating opportunities for turnovers."
When the Bengals logged three five-interception games in '05 (not to mention the only five-pick game of Brett Favre's career), the Bengals jumped out quickly to leads and allowed them, Coyle says, to gear coverages and pressure with the ease of knowing teams had to throw. They also had cornerbacks like Deltha O'Neal and Tory James that were known for their ball skills, as well as a sure-handed safety in Kevin Kaesviharn.
Plus, with the Bengals playing ball possession last year, their defense was on the field an average of 28:01. In '05, it was 29:09, so that defense had 16 more minutes to make a play.
With Joseph and Leon Hall one of the consensus top cover corner tandems in the NFL as they head into their fourth season together, Coyle sees the potential for similar numbers. Each had six interceptions last year, the first time in team history two corners had at least six in the same season. Plus, there are some seasoned safeties with skins on the wall. Williams leads all Bengals with 19 career picks. Newcomer Gibril Wilson brings 13. Chinedum Ndukwe has averaged one every five starts.
"We've got guys that can do that," Coyle says. "Johnathan's hands have really improved. He spends a lot of time working on them. Leon has good hands. Roy does a lot of nice things and one of them is his ability to catch. Chinedum has good hands. So does (Chris) Crocker. We get there. We get our hands on the ball. What we have to do is concentrate on finishing it off. Making the catch. Our guys have been doing a good job of getting into position and being there. Now we take the next step and finish."
That's where Coyle's close-call DVD comes in. He marks down missed opportunities for drops. Or for tipped balls falling harmlessly to the ground despite bodies swarming. Or for not getting ready fast enough. He puts eight misses from '08 with the nine from '09, and Bengals would have a one-pick lead over Baltimore since '03 and the most turnovers in the league since then.
And, how many more wins?
"Turnovers are huge," Joseph says. "If you don't score, you change field position and change the game."
He should know. Joesph came up with probably the biggest turnover of last season early in the second half of the 23-20 win over the Steelers in Week 3, a 30-yard touchdown off an interception that erased a horrific first half the Bengals trailed 13-3.
It wasn't luck. The Bengals showed blitz, so Joseph immediately jumped the hot route and when receiver Santonio Holmes went long instead of short, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger flipped it right at Joseph.
But maybe you make your own luck.
"You get them by anticipating, reacting to the ball and moving fast," says middle linebacker Dhani Jones of turnovers. "Keying the quarterback. Anticipating plays. And then luck. Drills help. If you can't anticipate, you won't be able to make plays. A lot of times people think turnovers just come to you. They do, but only if you're in the right spot. If you want to create them for yourself, you have to anticipate what is going to happen."
Coyle knows what is going to happen Thursday after watching Tuesday's practice tape.
"Yell at them about catching the ball," he says as the point of emphasis continues.
NFL TURNOVERS GENERATED SINCE 2003 (Division titles)
» Ravens 230 (2)
» Bears 220 (2)
» Panthers 220 (2)
» Bengals 219 (2)
» Patriots 211 (6)
» Colts 209 (6)
» Vikings 208 (2)
» Titans 203 (1)
» Buccaneers 202 (2)
» Cardinals 200 (2)