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Zimmer seeks more

MOBILE, Ala. - NFL Network challenged the FCC Tuesday when it miked Mike Zimmer during the North's practice at the Under Armour Senior Bowl.

But like he did during this past season in his first year as the Bengals defensive coordinator, Zimmer didn't change his blunt, sometimes blue approach, and let the censors worry. In the end, they had to take out all references to the Bengals' "beleaguered defense," because Zimmer got them back in shape enough for its best finish in the NFL rankings in seven years at No. 12.

"I'm not going to change," said Zimmer and that's why guys like future Hall of Famers Deion Sanders and Bill Parcells, as well as one of his promising cornerbacks this week, are all ears when he speaks.

Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis probably aren't going to change the Bengals basic 4-3 look, but Zimmer also never says never in his crusade to get more pressure on the passer.

"If we get the right two or three players, we could do it," said Zimmer of the perpetual 3-4 question. "But you run into the problem that after a season you get everything corrected and you get your fits better and all that, can you improve if you do something else? I think we've got a good foundation."


Courtesy of Sanders, an NFL Network analyst, the University of Connecticut's Darius Butler had a conversation with Zimmer a few weeks ago when he found out Zimmer was coaching the North this week. Butler is a 5-10, 185-pounder with nice 4.4 speed that has a good rep as a cover guy and has showed those skills in the first couple of practices down here.

After Johnathan Joseph's injury-plagued season ended with a broken foot, the Bengals want a cover guy after they get done with some bigger needs earlier in the draft.

"I talk to Deion once a week, but this week he's calling me every day," said Zimmer, Sanders' secondary coach for five seasons in Dallas during the late '90s. "Sometimes he'll talk to me about what we're doing on defense, or who he thinks the best player is on the offense. Sometimes we don't talk about anything and we just get on each other."

Call them football's Odd Couple. Zimmer, the Old School fundamentalist, and Sanders, whose flamboyance gave rise to the new breed that changed athletes to entertainers.

"I don't mind flamboyance," Zimmer said. "Not when guys do what they're supposed to do. He always had good technique and if it broke down he could always rely on his speed. He was a pretty big guy, he had big, strong hands, and every time he touched the ball he was a threat to go all the way."

And they don't mind going after each other. Even though Sanders is regarded as the greatest cornerback of all time, he also earned a reputation as one of the least enthusiastic tacklers that ever lived and Zimmer got him good at one practice.

"I said, 'We're going to do tackling drills,' and I put down a shoelace on the ground for Deion," Zimmer said. "He says he's got a 59-minute highlight tape of his hits and that he needs just one more to finish it."

Membership has its privileges. Sanders ended his career with 53 interceptions and the Cowboys had the luxury of Sanders automatically erasing one side of the field. When Sanders gets on Zimmer, now the truth comes out.

"My cussing," said Zimmer after the NFL Network mike was safely stowed.

Now you can see Zimmer hooking up with Parcells, which they did in Dallas when Parcells decided to keep Zimmer on as his defensive coordinator after Jerry Jones plucked him from punditry and purgatory.

Both are hard-driving guys from another generation that don't mind offending the sensibilities. But they also needle each other even though Parcells has now moved on to run the Dolphins from a presidential chair.

The early-rising Zimmer met Parcells for breakfast Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. and Zimmer said it was so late because Parcells "had one of those administrative jobs."

"I like hearing his stories and I guess he likes hearing mine," Zimmer said. "He gets his mind set. He's got tunnel vision. He knows what he's looking for. He knows what types of players he's looking for. And he'll get them."

No doubt Zimmer picked Parcells' brain on how the defense turned it around in Miami this past season. He may like the foundation in Cincinnati, but Zimmer is putting a priority on improving the front seven.

"We've got good guys, but they've got to play better. We've got to get better," Zimmer said. "You can never have enough corners and we need some healthy ones. But I'm looking up front. We can use anything."

The Bengals have a potential 3-4 tackle in Domata Peko and two 3-4 outside backers in Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom. But the reason they most likely are going to stay put in what they've got is they've got a shortage of 3-4 ends.

But Zimmer still has to find a way to improve the NFL's next-to-last sack game and with the Bengals desperately in need of help on the offensive line and at running back, it doesn't look like any perimeter defenders are on their way in the draft.

"I dont think there's any question about that," he said. "We've got to at least disrupt the quarterback."

People have been impressed with the play of the North's defensive tackles, but the Bengals' No. 6 spot is thought to be too high for them. There are also some interesting mid-draft guys in the secondary, but Butler figures to be gone by the time the Bengals would turn to that need. The first two rounds, one would assume, has to be reserved for other gaps.

"When we found out he was coaching the North, Deion called him up and put me on the phone with Zimmer," said Butler after practice. "I like his style. He's intense and straightforward. I know he'll call Deion after practice and tell him what I did right and what I did wrong. Today? I don't know. Put on the tape."

Butler isn't sure what attracted Sanders to him and stirred his interest. They are fellow Floridians and he said Sanders got in touch with him through one of his coaches last year and has been coaching him up on the differences between the pros and collegians.

"I went to a small school and didn't get recruited by many colleges," said Butler, out of Fort Lauderdale. "Connecticut was there early and I stuck with them through the process."

Butler has looked good, but he knew Sanders was going to get on him about stumbling covering Ohio State wide receiver Brian Robiske, one of the few times a wideout has obtained separation against him this week.

He's also tough and played hurt for the Huskies this season despite a knee injury that didn't need surgery. But he's slight and he knows what he has to do before next month's NFL scouting combine.

"I'll pack it on," he said.

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