GEORGETOWN, Ky. — The man Domata Peko calls "The Mad Scientist," and the man Brandon Johnson calls "The Fixer," is back in the lab concocting another salty brew.
Bengals defense coordinator Mike Zimmer turned to one of his recipes Monday and said he was going to only show you one of the ingredients he wanted to see in last Friday night's preseason opener.
"Stop The Run With a Seven Man Front" is printed on a piece of paper Zimmer listed as goals for a team that did exactly that while allowing 2.1 yards per rush on 33 carries.
"That's one of the emphases we had," Zimmer said. "We can fix it if we stop the run. We can fix these other things. I'm not panicked. I'm actually encouraged."
Not many were after the 34-3 drilling that looked more like 7-on-7 with four Lions quarterbacks completing 23 of 33 passes. But Zimmer was almost taunting the critics after he watched the film.
"I came in here (Sunday) wanting to chew some (butt), but then I watched the tape," Zimmer said. "Not that bad. It was 'a correctable mistake.' Or 'that's on me.' Or 'just doing that makes it better.' I really might be stupid and like I told them, they have to prove me right. I think we can be pretty damn good. We're not where we need to be yet. But this defense can be good."
"That's OK," he said of the naysayers that have swarmed like Death Eaters over this team. "I like to be doubted."
If it is going to be good, Zimmer needs his best player to play better than he did Friday night. Fifth-year cornerback Leon Hall, who along with the departed Johnathan Joseph formed one of the more elite corner duos in the game, gave up three completions, two of them for touchdowns when his usually impeccable technique broke down.
But Hall is highly regarded in these parts, even more so with Joseph now in Houston. It was noted in some corners of camp that Joseph had a groin injury and couldn't play against the Jets Monday night after a season he played 52 percent of the snaps and a career he played all 16 games twice in five years.
And it was also noted that Hall has never missed a game in four years, one of the many reasons it is believed the Bengals are going to open talks with Hall's people about extending his contract long term so they can get a deal before he goes on the market in March.
And there are the other factors.
"He knows what he has to work on; he's a great kid," Zimmer said. "He's tough. He's smart. He's dependable."
Zimmer says the Bengals need more depth and that they need to keep looking for guys to add at spots. But it is guys already here like Hall why Zimmer thinks his defense can be good. Veterans and rookies. He sees a six-year, high-paid linebacker playing his first three weeks with the club in Manny Lawson always in the room of linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald. If Lawson's not in there, Kentucky rookie DeQuin Evans is.
It's the same in secondary coach Kevin Coyle's room, commanded by Hall and safety Chris Crocker but now infiltrated by the young backup safeties, second-year man Jeromy Miles and fifth-rounder Robert Sands, two guys starting to grow on Zimmer.
"They both study," he said. "The one kid, Sands, is in here all the time with Kevin and Miles is in here most of the time. They actually both did some good things. They also did some bad things, but they also showed a little bit of promise. Sands stuck his nose in there in the running game a few times. He's a good athlete. But he's going to do it the way we want it. Period. I don't care. He'll have to figure it out. I think he has an idea."
Hall, Sands and the rest of the defense in Monday morning's practice showed they'll still do it Zimmer's way and that he can still reach them like he did in 2009, when he took the Bengals defense to No. 4 in the NFL rankings without a dominating player and two top corners, while forming the heart of an AFC North title.
"When we had that meeting last night," Hall said of Zimmer's Sunday film session, "we talked about points of emphasis for every group. DBs, on top of our list was contesting the ball. It was the best practice we've had all of camp (defending the pass)."
The defense came out and swarmed like the critics, covering the short routes and intermediate missiles rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has been completing at will. After harping on contesting pass routes, Zimmer's guys put the offense through a miserable day.
Crocker knocked the breath out of rookie tight end Colin Cochart while knocking away a pass over the middle. Wide receiver Jordan Shipley made one of his sure-handed catches on a quick bolt over the middle, but so did cornerback Nate Clements coming from behind and Shipley had to wrestle it away. There were batted passes (left end Carlos Dunlap tipped a flare that still got completed), muffed handoffs (quarterback Jordan Palmer kicked one away), and a lap run because the first-team offense had a motion penalty after already going back to the huddle to clear confusion.
"It's good to turn on the tape and see our guys draped on guys," Zimmer said. "Soft coverage is not in my M.O. I don't play soft coverage. ... When I first got here four years ago, that was a big thing; contesting everything. ... I've had my thumb in so many places lately that I haven't emphasized that enough. ... They're completing about 90 percent of their passes, but we started getting on a few routes today and the completion rate went down."
"That's more my fault than their fault. They'll do what you ask," he said thinking of the vets like Hall and the kids like Miles, and the rookies like Sands that better.
Zimmer says there's a sense of urgency, but no panic. That's because the lockout and new rules have wiped out about 17 sessions or so for the veterans and an estimated 20 for the rookies. By now, Zimmer has had some of his notorious exotic blitzes installed. But he says he doesn't have any good ones yet in the package.
Which is probably just as well. Think back to last year's opener in New England. The Pats scored 14 of their 38 points on a kick return and a pick-six, but the Bengals also allowed Tom Brady to sift them on 25 of 35 passes while giving up more than four yards per carry, and Zimmer called himself out for making the game plan too complicated. And this after a preseason that wasn't bad stat-wise, allowing less than 100 yards rushing per game while foes had a 75 passer rating.
But fueled by Foxboro and the lockout, it is a back-to-basics summer.
"That was the emphasis going into camp; we're going to be solid fundamentally," Zimmer said. "We may not be real good in the first couple of preseason games because we're working on technique and coverage because I don't want to look like a sloppy defense. If you start out and you have no technique and add more stuff, then you become real (bad). There have been times we haven't put stuff in because we need more work on this, more work on that. Most of those things would be accomplished in OTAs. Our rookie safeties (and new veterans) would have heard it three times by now ... in the OTAs, minicamp and training camp."
Like Zimmer, Peko has heard the fallout from Friday night. He says he knows a lot fans "are ready to throw in the towel," but he doesn't think they realize "we've had no OTAs and (last week) was the first time we've been on the field together and playing against a team."
Head coach Marvin Lewis has indicated he feels these starting linebackers are the best he's had here athletically. But the outside backers, Lawson and Thomas Howard, have had just seven practices here and there's a new middle backer in Rey Maualuga. While the Bengals defense lost Joseph's breathtaking athleticism and speed, it gained Clements' experience, physicality and durability. But he's also had only seven practices with Zimmer as he tries to recapture '09.
"In '09 we played pretty damn good. We're not there yet. Too many new guys," Zimmer said. "They're not all for one and one for all yet. I've got to continue to develop that. We're not near as advanced as where we were (then)."
As Hall prepares for Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress against the Jets this week, he's going back to his own fundamentals after watching Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson beat him one-on-one in the end zone in Detroit. He watched it with Zimmer and by himself.
"At the line of scrimmage is where I hurt myself," Hall said, especially with Johnson's 26-yard touchdown catch. "I didn't really get a hand on him. He was just running free and in the defense we play, you never want somebody doing that. After that I'm just kind of fighting to survive. I hurt myself early in the route ... I've got to work on the first five yards."
Zimmer says it was a coincidence that Hall got beat on those three passes while playing left corner, Joseph's spot. Hall has played left frequently in the 13 games Joseph didn't play with him and when they followed certain receivers, but he's basically been a right corner. According to profootballrefernce.com, 107 of Clements' 144 starts have come at right corner, including 16 last season in San Francisco.
"It's training camp; we're trying to prepare for things that could come up in a game," Zimmer said.
Hall says he and Clements have switched every other series at camp and on Friday they switched after the first two series.
"I think I need to get a feel for both sides," Hall said. "Since I've been playing right corner for (four years), obviously I feel comfortable over there but I need to get that same feeling on the left side. The footwork is different, but it's not extremely hard. It just takes reps."
Hall says the sides weren't a factor Friday night. "It was my footwork in the first five yards."
The theme is what one expects: It's never as bad, or as good, as you think.
"Coming off the field," Hall said, "you would have thought we didn't do anything well, but after looking at it we did some good things. We obviously did some bad things that are fixable and that's the approach (Zimmer) took to it.
"Nothing is going to be perfect. Especially this year without having an offseason. At the same time, you have to do your job. There is a thin line where you want to make corrections, but at the same time our first game is less than a month away, so we've got a lot of work to do in three weeks."
And there is a very tall order along with it.
"I may be stupid, but I think we can be a good defense," Zimmer said. "But they have to prove me right."