Forget the Bend-But-Don't Break Defense.
Try Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's Retool and Replace Defense. He put it on display last Sunday in Baltimore without three starters and he hopes it takes a bow this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium.
"That's one thing coach Zim is good at. He can definitely make you a superstar as you can see," lineman Wallace Gilberry said this week. "If you trust him with what the defense gives you and you run it to your ability you are going to make plays in it."
This is the consummate Z-Pack, curing the ills of injury by mixing and matching all NFL demographics featuring the Bengals' depth.
Last Sunday's call sheet ranged from a career journeyman working on his first long-term contract (Gilberry), to a second-year third-round tackle (Brandon Thompson) to a career special-teamer (middle linebacker Vinny Rey) to an emerging young Pro Bowler (sophomore WILL backer Vontaze Burfict) to two high-priced ends (Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap) to a Super Bowl hero from another era doing what he does best (SAM linebacker James Harrison).
When the dust cleared from the first game without two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, cornerback Leon Hall and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, the defense had gone on the road to hold the Super Bowl-champion Ravens to 189 yards for the fewest yards the Bengals have allowed in 63 games dating back three years and 50 weeks ago against the Browns during the 2009 AFC North sweep.
"Smart guys do smart things," Zimmer said. "They're all good athletes. We've been lucky. We've either molded them to fit what we do or their athletic ability allows them to fit."
This isn't the first time we've seen Retool and Replace. Before Rey emerged from three and a half seasons on special teams to become the first Bengal to have three sacks and an interception in the same game last week, there were linebackers Brandon Johnson and Thomas Howard before they moved on.
Johnson came from Arizona when the Cardinals let him go after three seasons and he became a key figure in the nickel package for the '09 North champs as their best cover backer. After that, Howard left the Raiders in free agency and became Cincinnati's best linebacker in the 2011 playoff run.
If Rey is the quintessential Retool and Replace linebacker, then Gilberry is that guy on the line. Passed over by the Chiefs despite four seasons in Kansas City and cut by Tampa Bay in training camp, the bright, versatile Gilberry rung up 6.5 sacks in 14 games moving between end and tackle, much like seventh-rounder Jonathan Fanene found 6.5 sacks in '09.
But Harrison? Talk about a luxury and being able to turn to a perennial Pro Bowler in Retool and Replace.
Harrison, the former Steelers superstar who defined NFL defense for much of his reign with a relentless take-no-prisoners pass rush off the edge as an outside backer in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense, quietly did the job in his new position of 4-3 SAM backer at age 35. He hardly rushed the passer in the base package, but the coaches were thrilled with the punch he gave them against the run and his occasional blitzes.
But with Cincinnati's best pass-rushing threat (Atkins) from the inside no longer available for the stretch run, the old pro surfaced in the nickel in Baltimore and played a high-percentage of passing downs for the first time as a Bengal. And not only from the edge, when Dunlap would should shift into tackle, but also inside at tackle himself, where Harrison kept his signature stand-up stance.
The 6-0, 275-pound Harrison informed Zimmer he could play tackle if needed.
"He doesn't care; he just likes to go," Zimmer said.
Here's a guy who arrived with 64 career sacks and the consensus is he didn't miss a beat Sunday when he moved up from playing SAM in the base.
"He knows what to do; I didn't have to coach him up," defensive line coach Jay Hayes said with a smile. "He's been awesome for this line. The guy's a football player. He doesn't have the skins on the wall without doing it out there."
Harrison didn't get a sack Sunday, but he had two pressures and a huge recovery in the fourth quarter on Dunlap's fourth forced fumble of the season, and he seemed to invigorate the kids.
"He's an athlete. He still has that behind him, that nobody drafted," Burfict said. "I think he still has that hunger in him and that's what makes him a great player now."
Dunlap: "You can see he's natural pass rusher and we look forward to see him building on that with Geno down."
Dunlap didn't go inside anymore than he usually does on Sunday. His two sacks and the forced fumble came at end, but when he and Johnson converged on quarterback Joe Flacco to force Rey's interception, Dunlap was coming from the inside.
"It's a compact area, but you still have to beat your man. I feel like I had some pretty good rushes from in there," Dunlap said. "With Geno out, there are no set positions. I like it. You can change up your rushes, you can rush against different guys, and give multiple looks and that confuses the offense."
The Bengals built their formidable line on a rotation, but with Atkins and end-tackle Robert Geathers out for the season, the rotation has been shaved. But there was a rotation of mixing it up inside on passing downs in Baltimore with Gilberry, Harrison and Dunlap. That meant Thompson and Domata Peko had to pretty much play the whole way in the base.
"The bottom line is the guys played more in base. If you played base, you played base. If you played nickel, you played nickel and worked in some because we just don't have the numbers we've had," Hayes said. "And some played both, like Michael and Carlos. The reps were such that we were OK. Guys weren't tired."
Everyone came out of it raving about Thompson's play with his seven tackles in a career-high 55 snaps. Zimmer said he was surprised at how much pass rush Thompson showed.
"There's no certain package or change the defense now that Geno is gone," Gilberry said. "Brandon Thompson is filling in doing a hell of a job. We have to keep being ourselves, keep doing what we are doing and making (fewer) mistakes, definitely myself included and just getting the job done."
Dunlap got a lift when he saw Thompson gobble double teams early.
"He had some big plays when he was getting double-teamed," Dunlap said. "He set the tempo and showed there was going to be no dropoff."
Burfict, of course, set his own tempo. The NFL's leading tackler refused to come off the field to get examined for a concussion in the fourth quarter until team doctor Marc Galloway and trainer Paul Sparling forced him off. And then they had to drag him off the sidelines into the locker room to make sure he was ready for overtime if he passed. He was and did.
"The game was on the line. Who wants to practice all week and when the game was on the line, you want to come out? Who does that?" Burfict asked. "It's my competitive nature; especially against a rival."
Zimmer is going to need all the demographics against the Browns. Asked about Harrison inside after all these years he warned, "That was the plan. This week we'll have a different plan."
Retool and Replace.