Posted: 6:50 a.m.
Mike Zimmer admits "I can be a pain in the rear end on the field," but there is no question in his first spring as the Bengals' aggressive-blitzing-to-heck-with-you-in-your-face defensive coordinator he has done wonders for the program's two biggest names.
Head coach Marvin Lewis looks and sounds revived again when he talks about his third coordinator in six seasons and quarterback Carson Palmer is saying people won't be using the defense as the standard punch line as the Bengals end their mandatory minicamp with a Saturday morning practice that officially starts the training camp clock at 43 days to report.
"Not this year," Palmer said. "Very encouraging."
Stand between the lockers of starting cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall after Friday' morning's third practice of mandatory minicamp as they talk about their coverage assignments and you get an idea on how much Zimmer has changed the culture.
Joseph and Hall. Hall and Joseph. Two of Cincinnati's last three first-rounders and a young tandem Palmer says he'd rather have than any in the league.
Hall, who Palmer calls one of the most dependable Bengals, nodded.
"This year, zone is even bump-and-run. Now, every play it's just me and the receiver," Hall said. "As opposed to kind of reading and reacting to the receiver. Now, you just go out and play."
If there is anyone who has felt the sting of Zimmer's saltiness, it is the secondary because Zimmer coached the Dallas defensive backs for six seasons before he became the Cowboys defensive coordinator for the next seven in 2000.
All of which is no surprise to defensive tackle Mike Myers, the only Bengal who has played under Zimmer.
"He's going to be on them," Myers said. "He wants to do a lot of blitzing and they've got to play that bump-and-run style. He's always saying, 'Stay in his hip pocket.' "
On Thursday, Palmer said he liked Zimmer's bend-but-don't-break philosophy.
"I don't know if I'd call it that," Hall said, "because Zimmer doesn't like anything to get caught. Just try to tighten your coverage. Play tight. It's an aggressive mentality. It's what we needed."
It may be what Lewis needed.
"We see things out of the same eyes a lot of the time," Lewis said. "That kind of reinforces to him, 'Just take it and go.' ''
But don't start printing up defensive T-shirts just yet. Go back and you can read almost the same quotes when Lewis brought Leslie Frazier with him in 2003 and then when he replaced him with Chuck Bresnahan in 2005. The biggest mystery of Lewis' tenure is how one of the NFL's most highly-regarded defensive minds could produce one of the league's more disappointing units even though he was teamed with two respected guys like Frazier and Bresnahan.
"I feel there are things that will come up in a game plan situation during the week or maybe something happens on the practice field, and they're not going to be sitting around with their thumb up their butt waiting on me to figure out how they want to do it. I think they will have a plan and if I get my head in there and don't like it, we'll change it. But I think these are things I feel good about."
Zimmer, who turned 52 last week, says working for Lewis isn't much different than working under Bill Parcells in Dallas. He says both guys have pretty much let him do his own thing.
"It's worked out great for me," Zimmer said. "He comes into our meetings every day and he might have a suggestion on how they've done it in the past. And then he'll say, 'I see your point,' or I might say, 'I see your point, let's do it your way.' Or he says, 'Yeah, that's a good way. Just make your decision and go.' We've had a good relationship. There's give-and-take.
"One thing I've learned from Bill and Marvin. Bill was a good defensive coach. Marvin is a good defensive coach. I don't want to come off like I have all the answers. Those two guys have proven track records. I can learn from them, too."
If Zimmer's defense is in your face, then so is Zimmer.
"He doesn't wait if you make a mistake," Joseph said. "He doesn't say, 'I'll deal with it later.' He comes off the sideline and lets you know right then."
There are smiles when it comes to Zimmer's demeanor. He's not exactly kinder and gentler. Middle linebacker Dhani Jones says, "There's a fine line and he makes sure everybody walks it. There's a certain edge to him and that works well. It's something we need."
Zimmer nods. He knows he can get red in the face quite easily. The one thing his free safety from the Dallas days, Darren Woodson, remembers are the heated debates in the film room.
Zimmer is always saying "disrupt, disrupt, disrupt" before the snap, and he's usually talking to the DBs. He wants every pass to be contested; he wants every receiver to have hands put on him. The two signature plays of this different mindset is one from Thursday, when Joseph wrenched the ball out of rookie receiver Jerome Simpson's rib cage with Zimmer three feet away screaming, "Get it out, get it out, get it out," and one from Friday when cornerback David Jones didn't give up on a ball that wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was about to cradle into his chest and swiped it from him in midair as he ran through the play.
If anyone knows anything about cornerbacks, it's Palmer, and he's been raving about them this week. He says the Bengals corners simply don't get beat on double moves because they've been able to run with the receivers.
"(Zimmer) is going to get them to play to their strengths. You're only as good as your corners. Their strengths are they can cover. They can play man-to-man, they're in the right place. They understand technique. They understand the philosophy of the defense. They understand what leverage they have, where they're supposed to be on the receiver's hip. He's going to set them up to make plays on balls because they're kind of ball-hawking guys. ... The combination of Coach Zimmer and those guys, just their God-given athletic ability, is a great combination to have."
Palmer can see them coming with different looks, but always pressuring. Jones calls it "an aggressive defense" with some different techniques ("A little more physical in terms of getting up in your face and the safeties are over the top with the corners coming down," he says.)
One of the buzz words has been simplicity as Zimmer tries to reign in the confusion that has reigned on a unit that has been vulnerable to big plays. But Bresnahan really can't be blamed for last year because injuries at linebacker killed the defense even before it started.
Lewis does say he wants to be able to understand it first.
"(Zimmer) has been extremely thorough in every aspect of the things they're doing defensively so everybody can be on the same page all the time," Lewis said. "I want them to coach me like they coach the players. I want to be able to understand if was playing defensive tackle, defensive end, or safety, or linebacker. I want them to explain it to me like I'm a player in their room at their position. So if I go into the offensive line and he's going over the center's footwork on a certain play, I want the coaches to be able to explain it so me, the dumbest guy in America can understand it."
Lewis must be doing something right. Zimmer, always reserved on his opinions (probably because they cut to the bone), likes what he sees.
"I'm not trying to blow any smoke," Zimmer said. "I knew Marvin a little bit as a coach, but I didn't know him as a head coach. I think he does a great job with the team. He's demanding. He's fair. He treats them well, but he's on them to make sure they do things right. So I've been really impressed with how he's done things."
Meanwhile, watch the corners. If they keep impressing, so will Zimmer's defense. They say you'll see plenty of them.
"Every play is bump and run," Joseph said.
"Three out of four," Hall said.
"You're going to get winded. There are going to be times you have to play off," Joseph said. "But it still has to be tight."
"Even in zone," Hall said.