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Rush to rush

At the NFL scouting combine that ended Tuesday in Indianapolis, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer didn't only chart next season's potential defenders, but he also stopped anybody with a logo in a rush.

"I'm on a mission," said Zimmer, after ducking into a hotel lobby to get away from a blitzing Indy wind during the weekend.

"The coaches know it. The players will know it. To improve our pass rush. To get our guys rushing the passer better. I've already met with several people I consider good pass-rush guys."

NFL coaches. College coaches. Even players that have rushed the passer for him in the pros. "I talk to anybody I think can help me," he said. Zimmer had breakfast with old boss Bill Parcells last month at the Senior Bowl and while there were other grander issues to discuss, Zimmer no doubt picked the brain of the coach that revolutionized the pass rush in the '80s with the help of a rebel named Lawrence Taylor.

"Everything is supposed to be so secretive in the NFL," Zimmer said. "But if you pick up the phone and tell a guy, 'I don't want to know anything about your scheme, I just want to talk to you about getting to the passer, or bump-and-run,' people are great. For some reason, it's not done very much."

Here's another thing people don't do in the NFL:

Call themselves out.

Talk to Zimmer about the guys who are supposed to rush the passer—ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom with their combined 5.5 sacks and tackle Domata Peko with his half a sack—and Zimmer is adamant they can do it.

"But we've got to help these guys more," he said. "This isn't about me calling them out. This is about me calling us out. I'm calling me out. We've got to help them more. I'm not as efficient in this area as I am in other areas and I have to become more efficient in this area. This is my mission in the offseason: To visit with as many people as I can to help them become better players up front."

Zimmer can say such things because when he arrived last year as head coach Marvin Lewis' third coordinator in six seasons, he already had the resume of one of the league's most respected coaches.

He only amped it up when he led a decimated Bengals defense (only four starters started in their Opening Day spots during the season-ending three-game winning streak) to its highest ranking in seven years at No. 12.

It was the second highest in the past 20 seasons, and only Pittsburgh (3.9) and Philadelphia (4.1) allowed fewer yards on first down in 2008 than Cincinnati (4.6). The Bengals also reached the top 10 in yards per rush, a stat where they usually finished with a number to the power of 10.

Of course, a lot of guys would just shrug and excuse the lack of pass rush to a brutal offense that never had the lead and injuries to Odom. His three sacks were worth about $4 million each by looking at his '08 take.

But coaches coach and Zimmer is wondering if his crusade to stop the run showed up in the stats, where the Bengals finished next-to-last in sacks per pass.

He looks at a guy like SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty, a defensive end that had 13 sacks in his final two CFL seasons who has no sacks in three NFL seasons.

"He's had opportunities and he hasn't done that," Zimmer said. "He hasn't had his hand on the ground, but he's rushed a fair amount and he's been on some (running) backs. That's the thing I'm talking about. When we rush on this offensive tackle, how do we do this? How is he going to sit? What are his hands going to do? Don't just say, 'beat the back.' "

If Zimmer took anything from this season, it was one of the answers he got on a written homework assignment he gave the defense. Name the three things you think the defense does best and the three things it does worst.

When they regrouped the next day, one player that Zimmer won't name, answered, "Coach, you're always telling us to convert in pass rush. (From the run game) convert in pass rush. Teach us how."

"That hit home," Zimmer said. "The kid was right in that I'm not helping him enough. That's what started it."

A healthy Odom and a healthy Carson Palmer should also help get some pressure on the passer. Zimmer is encouraged by how much better his unit got on third down as the season progressed. He chalked up a lot of it to the versatile play of safety Chris Crocker.

"He was playing some nickel, some safety, then we had the ability to take (Chinedum) Ndukwe to play him as the free safety or the strong safety, the blitz guy or the non-blitz guy, so those two guys were kind of interchangeable and that gave offenses a problem on who to look at."

A better rush should also take care of a stat that bugs Zimmer: Foes completed 62.3 percent of their passes.

"Too high," he said. "We've got to get it under 60."

He still wants his guys to be more physical ("tougher up front"), but he likes the first-down stat and the work against the run.

Zimmer sees a guy like cornerback Johnathan Joseph that needs to play better in games but who also practice so well that it's clear he's got the talent. Zimmer sees a full season from WILL linebacker Keith Rivers.

"I was talking to a coach the other day and I was telling him I like the guys that I'm working with in Cincinnati," Zimmer said. "They're good guys. They try to do what you ask them to do and I don't know if it's buying in or what, but they're trying. They want to do well. That's really all you can ask. A littler better this, a little better that, it could be really good."

Then Zimmer ducked back into the wind looking for a little better and a logo.

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