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Pulling rank

Mike Zimmer

The Bengals defense is hot pink these days. Unbeaten in this month of breast cancer awareness, they have scaled to No. 1 in the NFL rankings and sit at No. 2 in their bye week waiting to get their sixth first-round pick activated for next week's game in Seattle.

"How does it feel to be coaching the NFL's No. 1 defense?" a lady asked Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati's famously hard-bitten defensive coordinator, during Thursday night's Football 101 charity event for breast cancer awareness at Paul Brown Stadium.

With all the charm of a prince, Zimmer smiled warmly and broke up the class with, "Not my first time."

Indeed, eight years ago Zimmer roped in a nameless bunch of Cowboys in Dallas and steered them to a No. 1 ranking for a club that won 10 games. That's what is in play here with the Bengals 4-2 and the one recognizable name branded on this unit Zimmer's own.

"The ladies sitting in the back, did you always sit in the back in school?" Zimmer asked. "Do you have paper and pens? I don't let my players into my meetings without papers and pens."

"We're teachers," one of them said and now it was Zimmer's turn to break up laughing.

Zimmer and his staff are teaching their notebooks off this season with a core of players that were with them for that run to No. 4 in the rankings two years ago that have been upgraded since by the draft (linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins), free agency (cornerback Nate Clements and outside linebackers Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson), the trading block (safety Reggie Nelson) and the steady progression of Zimmer's playbook.

"Zimmer's Way. It should be called Zimmer's Way," said Howard a few weeks back when a nickname for the defense had been kicked about.

His own class that sits in the defensive meeting room rarely sees this Zimmer of 101 night very much, who teamed with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to come off like some kind of modern day Bob and Ray comedy gig. Video director Travis Brammer tagged them "The Odd Couple."

"How does it feel to coach with your son?" a lady asked the 55-year-old Zimmer of the 44-year-old Gruden.

"I didn't know I looked that old," Zimmer said.

"I didn't know I looked that ugly," Gruden said.

Cue the cymbals.

"He's a chameleon," assistant secondary coach Paul Guenther said of the Football 101 Zimmer.

Guenther should know as a guy that has done a number of different jobs for Zimmer during his four seasons as coordinator.

"Committed to fundamentals. Demanding. Likes to be on the cutting edge," Guenther said. "We don't look at a lot of other teams and try to copy them. We build on what we've done and what our guys can do. Where defenses get into trouble is when they do too much."

If Zimmer can switch out his personalities to suit his audience ("I never swear in front of women," he says), so can he get his defense to fit the situation because his scheme has a bit of chameleon in it, too. Sometimes a 4-3 on third down. Sometimes a 3-4. Sometimes an over front. Sometimes an under front. But mostly man, mostly seven in a tough box, but watch out for newfangled blitzes, like the ones he called and then faked to befuddle Colts quarterback Curtis Painter a few times last Sunday.

"We've got smart guys and that helps," Zimmer said earlier this week. "You don't have to remind them about different things. And that's important, too; to give them the same look and play something different."

Safety Chris Crocker, the defender that has known Zimmer the longest, got screamed at by him before he even met him. It was 2007 and Zimmer had just been named the defensive coordinator in Atlanta and the way Crocker remembers it he was working the phones, "Letting us know who the sheriff was in town."

"When it comes to Xs and Os and doing what he wants you to do in this defense, he's all business," Crocker said. "He's just a yeller. That will never change ... but you realize that he's just trying to be the best coach he can be and he's just trying to get you to be as good as you can be."

This isn't the easiest of months for Zimmer. Oct. 8, the day the Bengals left for Jacksonville, marked the second anniversary of the sudden death of his wife of 27 years, Vikki. Two days after her death he was on a plane to coach in Baltimore and here he was on a plane again.

"No. it hasn't changed me as a coach," he said and his clone son Adam, a defensive assistant with the Chiefs, says the only difference he sees is when his father gets around Adam's two sisters.

"I came up last week because we were on our bye so I went to a practice and the game," Adam Zimmer said. "The first thing I saw when we got on the field was him cussing a guy out. That made me feel a little better. I always tell him he's coaching his best when he's mean."

But as he showed at 101, Mike Zimmer can mix it up. He may have won over this group immediately after the preseason opener, a disturbing and bad outing in Detroit that had everybody looking at each other. But he didn't rip them during the film session. He told them they were going to be good and to hang with it.

"I'm honest. I not only told them but I told Mike (Brown) upstairs," Zimmer said. "I said 'I have no proof that we're going to be good but I think we're going to be good.' I can tell how guys are. We've been fairly healthy and that kind of stuff. There's some luck to it but I thought we would be solid fundamentally. I saw how we were doing things day by day."

Zimmer has two main strengths: he can exploit players' strengths and hide their weakness. And he can teach individual drills at all three levels of the defense.

Guenther has watched Zimmer show a lineman how to punch and in the next sentence tell a cornerback to get lower in his backpedal or a linebacker to read and step.

"It still gets back to the deal, I have to make the decision, on what can they do well, what do we need to do to win the game and kind of go from there," Zimmer said. "There's a lot of different ways to do it. Obviously Pittsburgh and Baltimore do it differently than we do. We do it differently than some other teams. It still comes down to what can Rey Maualuga do, what can Robert Geathers do? What can Manny Lawson do and that's kind of how we base what we do on. And, obviously the other team that we're playing. What do they do well and how can we take that away?"

Zimmer took Crocker off the street, left for dead by the Dolphins three years ago this week, and got him a four-year, $10 million deal by using his versatility and brains. Nelson may be headed to a new deal, too. A year after the Jaguars nearly cut Nelson before swinging a deal with the Bengals, Zimmer has put him close to the line of scrimmage more than he was in Jacksonville to take advantage of his athleticism and willingness to hit. Zimmer has simply played Howard, sentenced to special teams in Oakland last season after he got hurt, and being rewarded with a blue-chip cover guy that can play all three downs.

"I don't think we have a hard system. We do what we do, so it makes it a little bit easier for guys," Zimmer said as he talked about Nelson's transition. "They know if we call this, this is what I want you to do and how to do it and go do it. He would not be a good guy to give a lot of freedom to, maybe. Just because he might look at the wrong things. Thinks he sees something and doesn't. But he's done a nice job. He's done a good job in run support. He's done a good job in coverage for the most part. He hasn't made a lot of mental errors. He's been a good blitzer."

Zimmer's guys like him. He will shake his head on that. "I wonder why?" he'll ask. But he knows they know.

"They've bought in, but all four years they've bought in; that hasn't changed," Zimmer said as he thought back to his first group that went from No. 27 to 12 in the rankings. "We're certainly more talented than we were that first year. It's just kind of how it works out. One guy might not fit in some other system but he works out here. You get a guy and mold him to do what you want. The one thing they usually do is play hard, try to do it to the best of their ability the way you want it done.

"We're definitely not good enough to freelance and that's happened in a couple of occasions where it has cost us. It's a good learning lesson for us. In order for us to be real good we're going to have to stop having these lapses of a series here and there. I don't know where we are now but we were leading the league in three-and-outs and that's pretty darn good but there will be a couple series where they go down and score on us. We can't have those types of things. They are resilient. It doesn't seem to bother them if I yell on them or if someone catches a ball on them they don't seem to go into the tank."

Guenther has a pretty good idea why the defense has clicked so far, beyond staying healthy and buying in.

"In years past we had to be perfect with the blitzes and protections we were running to get a guy clean," Guenther said. "This year the defensive front is doing a great job of getting pressure with four guys and we don't have to all-out blitz. Our staff does a good job identifying how to block it and who to send."

Zimmer's real life coaching son has been getting ready for Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer this week. Do you think there have been some phone calls back and forth? These guys like to golf and hunt together, but they think spending a spring day in the offseason with each other watching tape is heaven.

"I love it," Adam Zimmer said. "I get a chance to learn from arguably the best defensive coordinator in the league. We don't really watch other teams. I mean, I think everybody in the league looks at the rankings the year before and tries to see what the top teams are doing and I think everyone probably watches Pittsburgh and Baltimore. But when we watch tape together it's usually of each other's teams."

Zimmer mused this week that he can tell people have been stealing from the Bengals and watching them, a sure sign of the rankings. Meanwhile, he planned to steal a day and at the break of Friday dawn go deer hunting even though it was going to be chilly and wet.

"You should have just gone to Zanesville and got one of the animals up there," Brammer told him, alluding to the exotic escape.

Zimmer laughed. It must be the bye week.

As he ended his first lecture with tips on how to recognize pass protections and the importance of the middle linebacker, he told his class, "When you go home tonight you can tell your husbands that Baltimore is a Mike protection team."

They could also tell them that Zimmer guy didn't yell at all and was very nice. But he's ready for some fire and brimstone next week after the Steelers went by the Bengals in the rankings.

"It wasn't good enough. It's not good enough if you want to be a top quality defensive team," he said, still chewing the fat of the win over the Jags two weeks ago. "Hell, Pittsburgh went in there and held them to 209 yards last week. That's all you have to tell them. If we don't give up that 74-yarder it probably would have been less than that."

Then he winked.

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