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Zimmer delivers

If any changes are coming with the Bengals, they may come as soon as Tuesday since head coach Marvin Lewis finished up his exit interviews with his players Monday.

How they deal with fixing the NFL's last-ranked offense remains to be seen. But one guy certainly staying put is defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer after the Bengals went from 27th to 12th in the NFL rankings in his first season.

"Choices, challenges, changes," said middle linebacker Dhani Jones as he recited his mantra Monday that he repeated to the defense during the season.

"Whatever that means," groused Zimmer with a smile. "Give me the name of a country in Europe. That's what he speaks."

If you want to know how Zimmer relates to his players, this gives you a pretty good idea. Jones, who became his leading tackler and on-field brains in his ninth NFL season, waved at Zimmer his helmet he was taking home.

"Hard work," he said after piling up what will be close to 160 tackles.

Zimmer sneered, "The shell isn't even cracked on it after 16 games."

But Jones got in the last shot: "That's because you're supposed to hit with your body and not with your head."

Jones, the intellectual globetrotter who spent last offseason playing rugby in England and hurling in Ireland, and Zimmer, the hard-boiled son of a Midwestern coach, couldn't be more different.

But they clicked out of respect for each other.

"He did a good job," Zimmer said, only when Jones was out of earshot. "Especially in a new defense. He's one of the smartest linebackers I've ever had."

But Zimmer got the Bengals turned around with high expectations and he wants more after coming up with just 17 sacks and 24 turnovers.

"We've got to get some more firepower, obviously," Zimmer said. "We've got to rush the passer a lot better and I'm not talking about just sacks. We've got to get to the quarterback better to create more negative plays. My emphasis this year going in was to make sure we got the run stopped, guys in the right places.

"I think they understand that part now. Maybe we can start turning them loose up front a little bit now. That will be my big project in the offseason. We've got enough blitzes, we've got a ton of blitzes. I've got to figure out how to get these guys rushing the passer better."

By virtue of holding the Chiefs to 220 yards in Sunday's 16-6 victory, the Bengals defense soared nine places to 12th for the highest finish in Marvin Lewis' six seasons as head coach and the highest since the 6-10 team finished ninth in 2001.

The Bengals finished 21st against the run and 15th against the pass but ended up 4-11-1 largely because the offense finished dead last for the first time in history with 3,926 yards, their fewest since the 1992 team finished 5-11 with 3,919.

It was also a jump from No. 27 last year for a defense that had finished higher than that only once since 2003. At 3.9, they became the first Lewis defense to allow less than four yards per carry.

As Zimmer went to his first offseason workout Monday at lunch time, he revealed to the media what he told his defense the night before the last game:

"I've coached some really good defenses, but none I respect more than these guys," Zimmer said. "These guys come to work every single day, they listen to me, they didn't complain. I was on them pretty good. I respect all those guys."

"On them pretty good" is an understatement. Zimmer made his mark with an aggressive in-your-face approach in which he doesn't like much.

And it worked.

SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty pointed to Zimmer as the main reason the Bengals improved so much.

"He's accountable. He's very demanding. He doesn't settle for less. He's going to tell you about yourself whether you like it or not," Jeanty said. "We fight more for each other."

Probably the biggest improvement came on third down. The Bengals went into the bye week at 1-8 giving up 49 percent of their third downs. In the last seven games, it was 34 percent.

And it was in the post-bye the defense lost for a stretch its top three defensive ends, two of the three top cornerbacks, and two of its top three safeties. It also mirrored the emergences of safety Chris Crocker and WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson.

"Maybe we were a little stagnant in the coverage. I was playing a little bit more single-high coverage than I was later in the year," Zimmer said. "There were things we practiced in training camp that we really didn't use because I got gun shy about this or that. Not necessarily blitzes, but we had deals where we doubled two or three guys and I didn't call it very much (later in the season). We went a little more two high. Some kind of shell high and I think that helped."

As expected, Zimmer wasn't bowled over by the ranking jump. Heading into the final week, there was a 21-yard per game difference between No. 25 San Diego and No. 12 Jacksonville. The Bengals entered Sunday's game less than 10 yards per game behind the No. 11 Colts and then offered the third-best effort in the NFL Sunday by limiting the Chiefs to 220 yards.

"The goal is to be higher," Zimmer said. "Maybe we would have been if we'd been healthier or better on third down (earlier)."

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