INDIANAPOLIS - Don't ask Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer about this year's group of prospects gathered at the NFL scouting combine just yet, he asks. He won't lay eyes on them until Monday, when the defensive linemen and linebackers take to the Lucas Oil Stadium field and officially start the Bengals wondering if offense really is the way to go at No. 21 in the first round.
Zimmer may not know Jason Pierre-Paul (South Florida defensive end) from Peter, Paul and Mary, but he can tell the difference between a Super Bowl of Drew Brees and Peyton Manning and the one a few years ago between Brad Johnson and Rich Gannon.
"We've been good against the run; we don't want to lose that," Zimmer said Sunday morning after watching weigh-ins. "But we have to take a fine line with the trends in the league. I think (there is) going to be more throwing. I don't see that changing. We've got to be more effective in the passing game."
Zimmer knows no matter what the Bengals draft, the challenge is to keep this defense motivated after moving from No. 27 to No. 12 in the rankings in his first season in Cincinnati in 2008 and then going from No. 12 to No. 4 last year. Zimmer thinks his players will be even better in Year 3 of his scheme, but he has underlined affecting the passer and creating more turnovers as his two major projects of the offseason.
He also said he needs players like WILL linebacker Keith Rivers, left end Robert Geathers, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Chinedum Ndukwe to play better than they did last year.
"It's taking it to the next level," Zimmer said, "How do we become a dominant defensive team? We get turnovers and affect the quarterback."
Zimmer is talking about not just sacking the quarterback, but finding ways to hit him and make him move by giving him different looks and unleashing his linemen more. He knows the only time the Bengals got a sack in the last four games, they had to blitz.
"How to be a little more reckless up front," Zimmer said. "I'm pretty disciplined with the guys, making sure they're in the right place and all that. But (I'll look) at turning them loose on occasions and how to do it."
The Bengals created just 25 turnovers last season and a total of 18 teams had more. Zimmer points at himself.
"I probably didn't stress it enough," he said. "You start out stressing, but then you start talking about technique and being in the right place and you don't talk enough about hitting the ball out. I've got to do a better job. Turnovers come from a lot of different ways. Sometimes the guy comes back in and strips it. A lot of times it is the quarterback throwing into something he thought was something else, or making the quarterback think that he's throwing into something else. Sometimes it's just being more physical than the other people."
But Zimmer is expecting more from more than himself. He wants Rivers, the '08 No. 1 pick, to be more of a factor ("We have to help him," he says), as well as Geathers after a season he struggled with some knee problems. Plus, "We've got to get Johnathan Joseph to play coverage a little tighter than he does," Zimmer said, and he wants Ndukwe "to get more disciplined, listen more, try to do things our way a little more."
"Our linebackers don't have good concepts in the passing game," Zimmer said. "We have to do a better job. Especially now that everyone is throwing the ball."
Zimmer isn't altogether surprised that offenses went after his defense with screens and bootleg passes off play-action because he's got what he calls "a fast, flowing" group, particularly at linebacker, with a reputation for heavy blitzing that he thinks is overdone. But he is surprised foes didn't do any of it in the red zone and did it everywhere else.
Zimmer wasn't the only guy talking about how the passing game has taken over the league. It was a combine theme espoused by coaches, executives and broadcasters, usually in the context of safeties, a position that Zimmer says the Bengals could use in the draft:
"I don't think you can ever minimize having a great corner or a great safety," said Steelers personnel chief Kevin Colbert. "Fortunately we have a great safety in Troy Polamalu. The league has changed to more of a pass league but realistically, it's all going to start up front. If you have a great pass rush, you might be able to get by with a lesser defensive back."
After the Colts' Manning shredded his Jets in the AFC title game, head coach Rex Ryan got the question about drafting a cornerback.
"You know we did lead the league in pass defense," Ryan said. "We ran into Peyton Manning and he can make a lot of great defenses look average. And he did that day for sure. But if we are basing it on the one game, I don't know if that is the smartest thing that we can do. Now am I open to any possibilities that can make us a world champion, yeah, absolutely. Anything that can help us get better, for sure."
Mike Mayock of NFL Network said that teams have to be looking at safeties at all times in this day and age.
"What's happening in the NFL and if you want to be a little bit ahead of the curve as an evaluator of talent, you have to be looking that it's a pass-first league," Mayock said. "It's not stop the run and run the football anymore. If I'm a defensive coordinator and I'm an evaluator of talent of the safety position, I think that position is becoming more important. When you're seeing three, four, five wide receivers and detached tight ends like Dallas Clark, I want to bring a safety up that's just as athletic that will tackle. I'd give up a little bit in the run game to get better range and better man-to-man capabilities."
Mayock says those two guys that will go early are Tennessee's Eric Berry and Texas' Earl Thomas, long before the Bengals pick. But taking a safety in the first round would go against the Bengals' grain, except maybe not now if they buy into the throwing frenzy. Still, Zimmer said he's happy enough with his two starters, Chris Crocker and Roy Williams, that he's hoping Williams signs back even though he's played just seven games in the last two years because he fractured his forearm in both seasons.
"He'll be a factor if he plays 17-18 games," Zimmer said.
But it does fly a little bit in the face of how Zimmer has revived this defense. The Bengals have done it by stopping the run and being one of the stingiest teams in the league over the past two years on first down.
"You go through our cutups and we're beautiful in the running game," said Zimmer, world famous for being brutally honest and quite demanding. "We might get out-blocked out or outmanned or something, but we very rarely make a mistake. We went through a whole season in the running game. In nickel we weren't as good, but in regular defense there was hardly anything to complain about. For me, even."
And he also wants to re-sign Tank Johnson even though Johnson didn't rush the passer like Zimmer thought he would.
"But everything else was probably better than I thought," Zimmer said. "For what everybody said about him, he played pretty well for us."
He'll get some new guys, too.
But don't ask him just yet.