Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer may have actually smiled Wednesday after practice if he heard what Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said to reporters about how the absence of Bengals Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins is going to impact Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Baltimore.
"I'm sure that will affect them in some way. But they've got a bunch of guys over there that can get after the quarterback," Flacco said. "They've got some good schemes in order to help free those guys up and get them in one-on-one situations also. But that's been a big staple of their defense the last few years and since I've been playing them. If you just listen to our offensive line talk about those guys after we play them, I think our guys have always had a really high respect level for the guys on Cincinnati's team just because of the way they do play."
Dealing with the season-ending losses of two staples of playoff defenses ranked seventh and sixth, respectively, the last two seasons, in Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall, Zimmer is turning to his unit's substance, its inner being, and not its personnel. No matter who is out there and who isn't out there, Zimmer is going to stay true to the style.
True grit. He's telling his people to stay true to what they are. The 10th week, he says, is no time to start changing a defense that is built on 11 men and not two.
"That's always been what we do. I hope any coach you ask that plays us says those guys play good team defense, they play good together," Zimmer said with echoes of Flacco. "Obviously the better players we have the better we play it. Our deal has always been to play good as a team. Do your job and everything else will take care of itself."
That's how Zimmer changed the culture of a defense when he arrived in 2008, taking it from 27th to 12th, and then making it the centerpiece of the 2009 AFC North championship.
He did it with two brilliant young corners, Hall and Joseph, a collection of blue-collar mid- and late-round grinders up front in Robert Geathers, Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene. A pair of rookies in right end Michael Johnson and SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga. A host of new-lease-on-life guys led by tackle Tank Johnson, middle linebacker Dhani Jones and safety Chris Crocker.
And no Pro Bowlers.
It's almost as if Zimmer is relishing the challenge.
"It's what I do. We'll see, though. It's a challenge, it's an opportunity," he said. "We've got some other good players in the locker room that we pride ourselves on playing good team defense. I can't reiterate that enough. That's what we do, that's what we've always done and hopefully we'll continue to do that."
The Bengals have been here before. Two years ago Hall went down with his first Achilles tear nine games into a playoff run. After playing in 74 straight games to open his career, he has missed 13 of the last 32. Last year the Bengals started the year with backup tackle Pat Sims on PUP, backup end Jamaal Anderson suffering a season-ending injury in the second game, and the secondary so banged up that the club re-signed Crocker off the street before the fourth game.
The Bengals have yet to play without Atkins and his marvelous push up the middle that has wreaked havoc from Big Ben to Diamond Tom Brady to the other Geno (Smith). His streak of 57 straight games to open his career comes to an end Sunday.
"We've got a lot of solid guys. There are all kinds of solid guys in the locker room. We don't have non-solid guys here. That's part of what we stress; you do your job, I do my job," Zimmer said. "Geno only played half the time. He didn't play every snap, so we had other guys playing. It's not like, well maybe we were (bad) half those other times.
"And Leon hasn't played in (five) games now. Obviously we'd love to have those guys because they're good guys and good players and fit into our system, but it is what it is. ... We've got competitors that like to compete. So they don't want to say, 'We can't win now because we don't have Geno and Leon and this guy.' They don't want to hear that. Imagine if I walked in that room and said that to these guys. 'Oh, no, we can't win. What are we going to do?' "
And you're going to have to imagine how Zimmer is going to replace Atkins's 29 career sacks because he's not tipping his hand on who's going to play tackle on passing downs.
Could SAM backer James Harrison play some end while Carlos Dunlap or Michael Johnson go inside to tackle?
"I don't know, we're just trying to figure out how to beat Baltimore," Zimmer said.
We know Peko and Brandon Thompson are going to play on run downs and each might get a few shots in nickel. But could backup ends like veteran Wallace Gilberry and rookie Margus Hunt move inside?
"We do what we do," Zimmer said.
After Atkins went down in Miami, Gilberry and Hunt took their shots. They're not ideal in there. Hunt is inexperienced, not to mention 6-8, and Gilberry is smallish for that type of work at 275 pounds. But he and Hunt are also the kind of solid guys Zimmer is talking about.
Gilberry, a throwback to '09 when he got a second chance in Cincinnati last season when Tampa Bay released him the weekend Anderson got hurt, gutted out 22 snaps in Miami despite a groin injury. He got dinged against Detroit two weeks ago but came back declaring, "Never count me out." He had 6.5 sacks last season averaging about 20 snaps per game, and some of those plays came inside on nickel, where he had been before.
"My experience came from being in Kansas City those four years playing in that 3-4 system," Gilberry said. "It's all about technique and leverage. True enough that the extra weight helps at times but when you go in there for a brief stint I can get it done."
It's not lost on Gilberry that an injury last year revived his career.
"That's how this business is. It's one of those things where it's sad to say something like that happens, it gives plenty of guys around the league … they got their start from guys going down in front of them. That's the nature of the beast … things happen. It's just your job to be ready, be prepared to take on the position."
Maybe Hunt is one of those guys. A second-round pick with off-the-chart measurables, he's played football for only five years but he knows it's a challenge moving from end to tackle. Even if for just one down.
"It's a lot of more compact, a lot less freedom to work with. It's harder for me because usually the guards are a lot shorter than the tackles, so I have to really focus on keeping my pads down. There are more double teams from the tackles," Hunt said. "It's tough because the entire time I've been learning defensive end stuff. Most of the stuff goes with every position you play, but still it's a lot tougher inside because the guards are a lot shorter so I have to really focus on staying low and getting off the blocks."
The only time Hunt worked inside in college is when SMU's 3-4 switched to a four-man front on passing downs and put the defensive ends over the guards. Still, he felt like he responded well Thursday.
"I had mostly the responsibility of taking on the guard and center. I was mostly on that side," Hunt said. "It's tough. I had some good push even though I had two guys on me. If you occupy two guys, other guys have single blocks so they have to make something happen."
Hunt has watched Atkins's strength collapse pockets single-handedly, and while he's got Gold Medal strength from the World Junior Championships discus and shot-put competitions, he's looking for the balance with the game.
"This is more than about having strength," Hunt said. "You have to be able to get off blocks and get to the ball. Those are things I have to learn still and get better at. You have to learn to use (strength) and not just have it."
Another intriguing brew of rookies and second-chance guys like Gilberry and middle linebacker Michael Boley and …
"What we have to do is affect the quarterback however we can affect him," Zimmer said. "There's a lot of different ways to do that."