Updated: 7-24-12, 6:25 p.m.
If you listened closely enough at Tuesday's training camp media luncheon, you'd swear usually terse and tempered Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is actually fairly pleased with his guys.
And if you're into interpretation, it also sounds like the highly-regarded Zimmer is reaching some kind of a contract extension beyond this season. Asked if he's talked to the Bengals about an extension he said, "Yes." Asked if he had an extension, he smiled and said, "I'm not at liberty to say."
If Zimmer sounds upbeat about his future in Cincinnati and his defense, why not? He's given the Bengals four seasons of tenacious, creative production (two top 10 finishes, two playoff berths) and he sounds very eager about this fifth with a depth chart jammed with first– and second-rounders.
Naturally he didn't go off the deep end. He still challenged middle linebacker Rey Maualuga to play like himself and not Dhani Jones, wished safety Taylor Mays can harness his enormous athleticism, and hopes left end Carlos Dunlap has grown up enough to fight through injuries.
But Zimmer, who hands out compliments as if they're infected, thinks a defense that finished seventh last year in the NFL is pretty good, and that's news around here.
"This group defensively has great character. We've got good athletes. Good competitors. They want to win," Zimmer said. "They want to do things right. They want to please not only me, but the fans. They want to please everybody. They want to meet and accept the challenge. I feel real good about the nucleus of all these guys. We've got smart guys, we've got leaders. Are we the most talented in the league? No, but we have a lot of intangibles I really like."
And Zimmer really likes Maualuga, Mays and Dunlap because they are good guys with such big talents that he's so intrigued to find the key.
Maualuga? In his fourth season and second in the middle, Zimmer predicts he'll have a good year after an injury-plagued season he made the move to the middle replacing four-year starter Dhani Jones and had to fight letting the game come to him.
"He just needs to be more patient. He'll be good. He's a worry wart. He'll be fine," Zimmer said. "He's a little like Taylor. He's always worried about (making plays). I think we went into the offseason talking a lot about how we can help him to become a better player.
"Dhani Jones was a good player for us. He knew what everybody did every single play and he wanted to tell them what to do. Rey is not Dhani Jones. He wanted to be Dhani Jones. ... Hey, it's not (his) fault if that guy doesn't know what he's doing. That's my job to make sure he knows. ... His No. 1 problem isn't all the other things. His problem is at times he reads the plays so fast that he gets there before the ball does and he's out of position. He has to fall back, so I'm trying to get him to be more patient."
The 6-3, 230-pound Mays, who also happens to be one of Maualuga's closest friends on the team, looks to be the guy the Bengals will try opposite Reggie Nelson at starting safety in the hunt for Chris Crocker's successor. Zimmer sounded unusually mellow about the lack of NFL snaps there (Mays is the clear leader but only 60 of his estimated 400 came last season) when he observed, "I'm not nervous about safety at this point; ask me in a few weeks."
"Taylor Mays is a tremendous athlete. Sometimes he lets his mind get in the way of his athletic ability," he said. "He should free-flow a little more. He's always thinking about what he should be doing. I think that holds him back a little bit. Just listen to me and let it flow. One play you might see him and say, 'Wow.' The next play you might say, 'What the heck is he doing?' That's what I've got to get out of him."
But Zimmer's biggest assignment may be Dunlap, the second-rounder from 2010 who basically has 14 sacks in his first 20 NFL games, a guy that Zimmer calls probably his best athlete. How about that?
The problem has been keeping him on the field. In both his seasons Dunlap got hurt in training camp and missed time, not to mention a severe hamstring pull last season that knocked him out of four games and hampered him in the last four when he got back.
"He needs to grow up. I think (knocks wood) he's finally turning the page. Now he's not going to do it without the help of me and (Domata) Peko and Robert Geathers and Leon Hall," Zimmer said. "That's why I like these guys. They'll help me police other situations. And I'm not saying Carlos is a bad kid, because he's not a bad kid. What he is, he's a little bit immature right now. He needs to grow up. When he does, and if he does, then there's going to be a lot of tackles in the league who are going to be sweating. Until then, he might be seven good plays and three bad plays. We've got to get him to that point where he's doing what he needs to do all of the time."
Zimmer is particularly concerned about how the 6-6, 290-pound Dunlap has reacted to some of his nicks.
"Yeah, and that's due to immaturity, too, I believe. His first year was due to a lot of immaturity, and that's probably why he got hurt," Zimmer said. "The second year, I don't remember why he missed training camp (knee strain). He doesn't know how to fight through nagging things yet either. In this game, you can't be a track guy. You've got to be a football player. Because you're going to have bruises and bumps and be sore, so you've got to fight through it. That's a little bit of immaturity and growing up. Usually they say with defensive linemen it takes about three years before they really kind of figure it out. So this is his third year, and I'm hoping he can live up to my expectations."
But Zimmer is upbeat. About Dunlap. About his defense. About his contract. The guy who was turned down by the Dolphins and Buccaneers in this season's head coaching derby sounds like he's ready to be around awhile.
"I've been doing this for a long time now, and I've seen a lot of really good coaches get jobs and a lot of really good coaches not get jobs," Zimmer said. "Quite honestly, I've seen some not so good coaches get jobs. I don't know where I'm at in that bunch, but I'm somewhere. I know I haven't got the job yet.
"If it happens, great. And if it doesn't, I have a lot of unfinished business here. I feel good about the situation we have, the players. My No. 1 main focus is to get these guys to play great out there on Sundays."
BLACKOUT RULES HOLD: As expected, the Bengals are sticking with most of the NFL's small-market teams and have decided to adhere to the old blackout rule and must sell out 72 hours before the game in order to get it on local television.
The league had given teams the option of televising it with 85 percent capacity. But with the Bengals reducing the price of more than 14,500 seats (27 percent of Paul Brown Stadium), they weren't expected to also reduce capacity for a sellout.
"What we want are sold-out houses. We want to see the stadium full," Bengals president Mike Brown said at the media luncheon. "If you think back when they passed the sales to finance the stadiums (in 1996), they did it so people could come down to the stadiums and watch games. They didn't do it so people could stay at home and watch games on television. They could have done that without a new stadium. When I look around the league, most are staying with the old rule."
With the 85-percent rule impacting the home team's gate (it has to pay 16 more pecent per ticket to the visiting team for any seat sold above 85 percent), all the small markets but Tampa Bay have decided to go for the old 100 percent rule. The Bengals have pretty much sold out two games this season (Pittsburgh and Dallas) and are apparently trying to get the home opener against Cleveland done next. After having their sellout skein from 2004-2009 snapped in 2010, the Bengals are trying to build off last season's Wild Card finish.
"We're making progress. We want to get it back in the way it should be: a full house," Brown said. "If we have a good team this year, I think we have a shot at that."
BIGGER ROLE FOR HAWKINS? Special teams coach Darrin Simmons, who got a club-record year out of wide receiver Brandon Tate returning punts last year, says both return jobs are open.
Tate, who did both last season, is going to have a more extended role on offense, and punt return ace Adam Jones is healthy and expected to be ready for Friday's first workout of camp. So Simmons is looking.
Throw in fifth-round pick Marvin Jones, the wide receiver from Cal, and second-year wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, and Simmons says, "We've got a lot of options. It's going to be hard to spread those reps around so when those reps come, they better be good."
And that was before he got to a pair of rookie free-agent receivers that can flat-out fly in Kashif Moore of Connecticut and Taveon Rogers of New Mexico.
"They're going to get a lot of time," said Simmons, who is going to start out only using them on kickoffs in the preseason. "They are two guys that have legitimate home-run speed. Once they shake loose from somebody, no one is going to catch them."
The intriguing guy is the 5-7, 180-pound Hawkins. In his rookie year he emerged as a dynamo in the kick cover game and his role as a gunner on punts and covering kicks was a big factor in the Bengals finishing in the NFL's top 10 covering both.
But in last year's preseason he busted a 30-yard punt, his first return since Johnstown High in Pennsylvania, and Simmons is wondering.
"He was good. He was very good. Just like he was during the season," Simmons said of Hawkins's return work in the spring OTAs. "We just didn't feel comfortable enough to put him back there in a game during the season. Brandon was doing a good job. I'm really excited. I'm really looking forward to see Andrew return punts, get some confidence and it's probably just as important to get the confidence of his teammates that he can handle the ball."
Simmons says Hawkins could appear on all four phases of special teams after lighting it up on three last year.
"He's pretty damn valuable as a gunner, as a cover player," Simmons said. "You talk about somebody that plays with the quintessential NFL great story. It's him. The guy plays with unbelievable effort. He's fast, he's quick. It's like trying to hit a little moving car out there, trying to get this guy stopped in addition to playing with the heart and desire you can't coach."
» Zimmer said cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles) has not been cleared yet for Friday's first practice, but he's expecting to see him early in the sessions.
"Leon is one of the best competitors I've ever had, that I've ever coached. He's a great competitor, he's a tough guy, he's smart, he wants to go out and challenge people all the time," Zimmer said. "His mentality helps a lot of the younger guys. I know that a lot of the other guys defensively, when he's out there they feel like 'Hey, this guy's got him. We don't have to worry about him.' He's not Deion Sanders. He's going to get beat some, and that's OK. But I know the next play he's going to come in there and if I challenge him, he's going to accept the challenge."
» Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says he's expecting Brandon Tate and Armon Binns to share a lot of snaps at the No. 2 receiver and doesn't initially see one beating out the other. He says both top running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott, deserve the ball, but if one emerges, "fine." Gruden also clarified for the 100th time this offseason that quarterback Andy Dalton's arm strength isn't an issue but that his deep accuracy is an "issue." His arm is "plenty strong," and if anything Dalton had a penchant for overthrowing receivers or leading them out of bounds with powerful throws.
» Nothing new on head coach Marvin Lewis's contract status. Lewis said he had nothing to report and Brown said it's a private matter between him and Lewis.
» It looks like you'll be spending all day with the Bengals on Friday, the day they open training camp in a 3 p.m. practice on the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields. Channel 19 plans live reports on camp all morning during their news show that begins at 4:30 a.m. They will have a reporter and truck on the plaza level of PBS, near Gate B, with an overlook of the practice fields. Channel 9 plans a live show featuring training camp between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Friday with a couple of live interviews with players.