Posted: 7:45 a.m.
DALLAS - Mike Zimmer spent the week back in Cincinnati looking at The Star on tape in the middle of the field as he scouted the Cowboys' second-ranked offense in the NFL. But he doesn't figure to feel anything until Sunday afternoon.
"I think it will hit me when I get into the stadium," Zimmer said as he took a break early in the week planning the Bengals defense. "Good times."
They were the best of times and the worst of times during 13 seasons he worked for the Cowboys. His 10-year-old son held the cord for him in Super Bowl XXX when he was the secondary coach. His first defense finished dead last against the run when the Cowboys went 5-11 in 2000.
But the one thing Zimmer learned working under three head coaches has been a major principle in his attempt to rebuild the Bengals defense.
The way Zimmer has done it in Cincinnati is with some ballyhooed young players, an old-fashioned mentality and a scaled-down scheme. The Bengals are still ranked lowly against the run (28th), but they are ranked 19th overall, 17th in scoring and, most importantly, have played well enough in the four games to win.
"He doesn't want us to say that," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "We've had chances to take over some games and didn't do it. Four minutes left against the Jets. The long run at the end of the half against Tennessee. The two reverses against Baltimore killed us.
"We played well (but) in spurts ... we don't have a large margin of error."
The one thing that has Zimmer steaming and something he hasn't been able to fix is the appalling lack of pass rush. The Bengals have just one sack and with the assignment Sunday against a huge Dallas line, where is the next one coming from?
"No question," he said. "We have to get after it. We've got to play better in all areas and that's a big one."
But they do play with a lot of scrap, which hasn't always been the case in Marvin Lewis' six seasons. That's why Sunday's first drive against the Browns "shocked the heck out of me," Zimmer said. He watched Cleveland run it eight straight times for 60 yards before Thornton submarined running back Jamal Lewis for a two-yard loss on third-and-one at the Cleveland 5 to force a field goal.
That proved to be the norm during the game because the Bengals then held the Browns to 84 yards on the last 32 carries.
"We made some adjustments and I made some different calls," Zimmer said. "People talk about adjustments, but usually you just settle down. That's what we did. We settled down. They hit us in the mouth and it took us about three or four plays to hit back."
But that's been the story.
It's what middle linebacker Dhani Jones has been saying all season as one of only two starters on defense that have more than five years of experience. Jones is in his ninth season, Thornton his 10th.
But there are young players thriving under Zimmer. He points to second-year cornerback Leon Hall as a guy that has excelled early against big-time receivers in the last two games, the Giants' Plaxico Burress and the Browns' Braylon Edwards "and he's done it without a lot of pass rush," Zimmer said.
"The biggest difference is just the mentality," Hall said. "He wants the defense to be tough, physical, smart. He schemes pretty well. I don't think he over schemes. He lets his players go out and play and not think so much."
Hall says there's not a drastic overhaul of the playbook between games: "It depends from week to week, but a lot of stuff is crossover from team to team."
Thornton says the Bengals have made it simpler up front and don't move around as much in stunts and games.
"It helps you play blocks a little better; we don't rely on moving a lot," Thornton said. "That doesn't screw up the backend because they don't know where we're going to be. We had some guys that didn't understand football as well. We've got some smart guys back there (at linebacker) with Dhani and Rashad (Jeanty)."
Maybe the biggest difference is just Zimmer's demeanor. It's salty and blunt backed by 15 seasons in the league. Thornton calls him a "grumpy old man." Hall says he's a hands-on-guy that gets in your face.
"He calls me old," Thornton said. "But he's like every tough coach. He'll wear you down during the week and then bring you back up and the night before the game you're all together as one.
"There is no gray area with him. You know what to expect and by the end of the week he expects you to know the defense inside and out."
Zimmer broke into the Cowboys under Switzer with a Pro Bowl secondary that included safety Darren Woodson. Then when Campo came in, they overhauled it with no names and when Parcells took over in 2003 it led the league in yardage allowed.
Now the Dallas defense the Bengals play Sunday is full of stars that broke in under Zimmer with linebacker DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Terence Newman leading the way.
"Barry Switzer is a great man," Zimmer said. "Good guy and he let his players coach. Parcells was a tough guy, I guess a lot like me, but he was great to work for. He had his teams prepared."
Parcells wanted Zimmer to stay in 2007 if he decided to stick it out one more year, but Zimmer couldn't wait around for a decision with an expired contract and opted to become Bobby Petrino's coordinator in Atlanta in a disaster that saw Petrino flee back to college before the season was out.
"Atlanta was not a good time," Zimmer said.
But the principle has stayed the same.
No matter the talent, defense thrives if it is understood and played at 100 miles per hour. The pass rush is broken, but there are some trends Zimmer has brought from Dallas.
In six of his seven seasons, the Cowboys finished in the top five of scoring defense. The Bengals have improved to 17th this season despite little help from the offense.
And, three times the Cowboys led the NFL in passing yardage allowed, a category the Bengals are currently ranked fourth. That can be a throwaway category because of a lack of stopping the run or falling behind early. But the fact is the Bengals have finished 24th or worse against the pass in four of the last five seasons.
"It will be fun to be back," Zimmer said. "But only if we win."