The blogs and boards call them the "Z-fense" in honor of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
What used be Marvin Gardens and Carson City is now Dhaniatti and Pekoville, home of the Three-Way on The Corner where Leon Hall supplies the bread-and-butter, Johnathan Joseph brings the spicy middle and Adam Jones has the mustard.
The home of Palmer and Boomer and Kenneth Allan Anderson is now a defensive town. The Ravens (No. 1) and the Steelers (No. 6) are again joined by the gate-crashing No. 9 Bengals in an AFC North mosh pit now not dominated only by Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Bengals are tied for second in the NFL with eight turnovers, seven more than what Baltimore has generated and trailing only Pittsburgh's 10. For the first time since the 1975-76 teams won 21 games, the Bengals defense is looking at finishing in the top 10 in back-to-back seasons.
"All we need is three points on the board and we go out there and try to stop their offense from scoring," says second-year SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga. "And we win the game. The offense will do their job. We don't need to worry about them. All we have to do is focus on our part."
A couple of years ago, that would have been Greek to Bengaldom. Now it is classic Bengals.
"It's been a long road; we've come a long way," says left end Robert Geathers, that 27-year-old graybeard that has been here the longest on defense. "It's taken a lot of work. A lot of sacrifice. We're accountable to one another. We don't play for the coaches or for a check. We play not to let the guy down next to us."
Former right tackle Willie Anderson, who came in for a visit this week, has been watching ever since Zimmer arrived. He shakes his head at the difference from back in the not too long ago day. Three TDs might not have been enough.
"Scoring 21 points now," he says, "that might be a blowout."
Radio personality John Thornton remembers the days he couldn't turn on the radio when he was playing defensive tackle for the Bengals. The fans were always griping about the lack of defense, how the corners always played soft and how the Bengals needed to replace that high paid tackle Marvin brought in from Tennessee.
"Even when we had a good game, we were always one play away from being back there," says Thornton, who now takes those calls on the radio. "Now it's completely different and I feel great for the guys like Robert and (Domata) Peko. I think Zim came in at the right time. He was able to come in with a view from the outside. These weren't his kids and he could be tougher on them."
Look at the impassive, stolid Geathers, the very picture of a pro, and you have the story of how this defense has evolved since he was drafted in the fourth round in 2004, Lewis' second season. The one season he played primarily on third downs as an edge rusher, 2006, Geathers had a career-high 10.5 sacks and was then signed to a $33 million extension. But he's been all over the place since, even playing linebacker for a stretch in 2007. Even in his second year, the club beefed him up to 280 pounds and put him inside to rush.
Since Zimmer arrived in '08, he's had the 265-pound Geathers do a little bit of everything and now his responsibilities change from game to game as Zimmer seeks matchups from his versatile group. Like the fans, Geathers would like more sacks, but he's played so many different spots that the scheme has always taken precedence. Now, guys like Odom and end Michael Johnson allow Zimmer to move everybody around inside and out.
"Those were my goals; to get (a lot of sacks) every year," Geathers says. "It's been kind of disappointing, but I've done a lot of things for this defense. I know the organization knows this. I know I don't make an excuse. I don't put my head down and pout. The first week I was inside a lot ... you never know. I go depending on what we're trying to do."
Geathers bought in and had one of the more courageous years a Bengal ever had last season when he rarely came off the field on any down while he gutted through a painful comeback from microfracture knee surgery. It's the kind of style that fits well with the hard-charging Zimmer.
His tough love dragged the unit from No. 27 when he arrived in January 2008 to No. 12 and then to No. 4 in the NFL rankings last season when the Bengals were the heart of the AFC North title. After getting strafed in the first half of this season's opener in New England and enduring Zimmer's wrath about their inability to take it to the next level, the Bengals have allowed just three touchdowns in the last 10 quarters.
"He tells us never to forget that we're a bunch of guys nobody wanted," Maualuga says. "That hits home. It makes us play hungrier and hungrier. He says it every week."
Zimmer was shocked at how badly the defense was regarded in its own city. But he has never stopped holding it over their heads.
"That's the one thing Mike Zimmer always said," says Thornton, who played one season for him. "It just takes one game, one big play, and you're going to be back to being looked down upon."
Maualuga, the projected first-rounder who fell to the second, is one of six starters Zimmer installed. Safeties Roy Williams and Chris Crocker, along with middle linebacker Dhani Jones and defensive tackle Tank Johnson, were on the street. WILL linebacker Keith Rivers came with Zimmer in the first round. Odom is this edition of the high-paid guy from Tennessee.
Geathers is the only holdover from the regime of Lewis' first defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, let go after two seasons and now the coordinator in Minnesota. His successor, Chuck Bresnahan, couldn't have been too bad. Under his watch the Bengals drafted Peko, Joseph and Hall.
"Leslie is a great coach; he's going to be a head coach," Thornton says. "(He and Lewis) didn't see eye to eye on things and I don't think Leslie was the coach he is now. And their philosophies didn't mesh. If Zim was here then, things would have been better. He's a more vocal guy than Leslie and he'd get his hands dirty (on the practice field) with the players. And the personnel is better."
The defense is more stable at linebacker, where last year Jones became the first middle linebacker to start back-to-back Opening Days.
Joseph and Hall are already up to the tricks that have made them one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL. The secondary picked off the dangerous Joe Flacco four times in the win over Baltimore and the defense helped hem in Carolina's top 10 running game just long enough to make rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen misfire on nine of 11 third downs. Hall's two interceptions give him 16 in his career, quietly as many as Deltha O'Neal and one less than Tommy Casanova on the Bengals all-time list.
Thornton sees Joseph as a key player in all this. O'Neal and Tory James weren't exactly known as physical and attention-to-detail corners when Joseph arrived in the first round in 2006. In fact, they drove Lewis out of his mind.
"(Joseph) came in playing like he is now," Thornton says. "Then he got hurt and got influenced by the older guys and Tory and Deltha were great ballhawks. When Zim came in, I think he and (secondary coach) Kevin Coyle got on him about getting back to being the physical guy that he was and Leon was already that guy when he got here (in 2007). They're different players. Leon is the better technician from one to 10 yards. Johnathan is the great athlete that can make up for any mistake.
"It shows you what you can do with two top cornerbacks and a great coach. It makes the safeties and the linebackers and everybody up front better."
Thornton believes the defense got its identity in Zimmer's first season as the Bengals tried to drag out of the 0-8 start in 2008 without Palmer.
"That was bad. What was there to play for?" he asks. "All we had was each other. So we just put our head down and played and we got better and we didn't even know it. Plus, the young guys played a lot that year."
The Bengals hope that identity is going to be on display Sunday. Stingy against the run on first down and then rely on their shutdown corners to choke off third down. The Browns are coming off a monster 144-yard rushing game by 250-pound back Peyton Hills, which plays into where the Bengals have lived since the second half of 2008. In that stretch they've allowed 97 yards rushing per game and in 14 of the last 26 game they've allowed 13 points or less.
The simpler and the tougher and the grittier the better for these guys, as Zimmer found out in New England. Maualuga says they'll face a lead fullback most of the time and the linebackers are going to have to stay in their lanes.
"The thing about Coach is he's always talking about not being satisfied no matter how good we're playing," Maualuga says. "We just have to play our run responsibilities. How we stopped the Panthers running game and had (Clausen) run out of the pocket. Hopefully we can come up with some sacks and turnovers. Just read our keys. Stay at home. Do our homework. Our keys will be in front of us."
The beat goes on. The defensive line has been down the last couple of weeks with Odom (wrist) and Jon Fanene (hamstring), so Geathers is back to grinding out pretty much every down, still waiting for a full rotation. It's what they do.
"I think all we needed was some core players who stayed together for awhile," Geathers says. 'Now we've got the chemistry. We're having fun."
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