You can't like some of the numbers heading into Sunday's 1 p.m. game in Atlanta (Cincinnati's Channel 12), but that's OK. Never mind Bobby Petrino. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hates numbers.
Lost in Zimmer's heartfelt rip job of Petrino after Wednesday's practice (the most candid comments in Cincinnati sports since the last time the Reds' Marty Brennaman used his Hall of Fame mike) were his even more passionate comments about his players.
"We're not discouraged. We're going to keep playing and keep getting better. I'm encouraged," Zimmer said as his players walked into the locker room behind him. "Because I know these guys ... these black shirts. They'll fight."
He gets one of them back Sunday in Jon Fanene, the end/tackle sidelined since the opener with a hamstring injury. In his first four seasons, Fanene had a total of one sack before putting together a career year last year with six. But with the Bengals next to last in sacks per pass, Antwan Odom suspended, second-rounder Carlos Dunlap not impressing in practice, and the Falcons ranked fifth in converting third downs, Fanene suddenly looks like Deacon Jones.
"We'll see," Zimmer said. "We thought some of these other guys would do something by now, too."
The Bengals are ranked 23rd in preventing third downs and while they are 31st getting to the passer, Atlanta is ranked 15th in protecting quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons may be having problems at left tackle with Sam Baker, but what impresses Zimmer so much about Ryan is how fast he gets rid of the ball.
It presents Zimmer with a dilemma underscored in the Tampa Bay game, where he wasn't looking for sacks and wanted the inexperienced Josh Freeman to unload quickly.
"I'm probably blitzing too much; the ball's coming out," Zimmer said. "We can cover and make the quarterback hold the ball. We can do that, too. It's just the philosophy you want. Do you want to try and get the ball out or do you want to try and make him hold it? There are different ways to go. This kid (Ryan) is going to get the ball out."
Zimmer won't say, naturally, if he'll try to make Ryan go against his style and hold the ball.
"Last week I tried to make him get it out; it's a week-to-week proposition," he said. "I might rush two guys the whole game. Maybe one. Maybe none. We might double everybody."
What the Bengals do know they have in Fanene is an athletic, versatile guy that can play anywhere across the front. Athletic enough and versatile enough that he was a high school quarterback.
"I didn't know that," Zimmer said. "Must have been the option."
"I like Fanene," he said. "He's a good kid, a hard worker and a try-hard guy. He's going to keep going the whole time. He's very conscientious. Never wants to make a mistake ... he got some (sacks) on first and second down. We don't have any there. That's a big part if you can get some on first and second down."
Fanene, who may join safety Chinedum Ndukwe as seventh-round starters Sunday, has made a six-year career out of hustle and quickness. He's not very big at 6-4, 292 pounds, but he can be a force in there among the big guys. And he brings in the calm of 54 NFL games to a pass-rushing line that has been using a lot of second-year Michael Johnson at right end and rookie tackle Geno Atkins inside.
As for Dunlap, the rookie pass rusher out of Florida, Zimmer has indicated he'd like to see more passion in practice.
"Size can help you, but speed kills in this game," Fanene said before Wednesday's practice. "There's a lot of pressure on us right now. We just need to keep the quarterback in the pocket, sack him, stay in our gap, trust our technique and make plays."
Zimmer is livid about not only his defense's failure to keep the passer in the pocket, but also their inability to finish off sacks. He's still shaking his head about the third-and-five on Tampa Bay's tying touchdown drive when linemen Robert Geathers and Frostee Rucker had Freeman in their sights in the open field and he still scrambled for a first down.
"Watch the tape. See how many free hits we have on the quarterback," Zimmer said. "We may not have sacks, but we've had free hits."
Fanene has watched the Tampa Bay tape as well as the two games before that, Carolina and Cleveland, and he sees the same thing: A lot of the big plays have come on the quarterback getting out of the pocket.
"He's pretty good," Fanene said of Ryan. "He makes plays in the pocket and out of the pocket. He can throw. We need to keep him in the pocket and sack him. Once you get a good hit on him, he'll start getting nervous and start making bad throws. If we just do our job, we'll be all right."
Zimmer says he's not just looking at just guys like Johnson and Atkins to do more. The kids have a combined one sack.
"Pass rush is a team thing," he said. 'We have to cover better. I have to coach better."