All indications are this is going to be an offensive draft in the first two rounds for the Bengals even if they lose cornerback Johnathan Joseph to free agency.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer would like Joseph to return, but he's not thinking about LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson or Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers or any prospect because as of this weekend at the NFL scouting combine he had yet to watch tape of any of them.
But isn't this defense supposed to be strong enough to weather the arrival of a rookie quarterback? As long as they run the ball? Isn't this pretty much the same defense that fueled the '09 division run?
"Right now we're not that," Zimmer fumed earlier this week at the combine. "They might have to get Joe Namath in here. Right now we ain't a good defense … I'm not worried one iota about the offense; we've got our own closet to clean up."
In fact, he's not worried about anything. He's flat out ripping his current depth chart after it fell from fourth to 15th in the NFL rankings this past season, and he doesn't see an answer in the draft. He says he doesn't know who's starting or staying.
"Everybody's in danger; we were 4-12," he said. "I'm in danger, they're in danger. Trust me. It's not scheme. It's not personnel. It's paying attention to detail. It's doing things the proper way all the time. Not half the time. We were trying to become the '85 Bears and not being the 2010 Cincinnati Bengals."
Zimmer believes he strayed too far from his Midwest football fundamentalism during a season the Bengals had everyone back from a top five defense and still finished 19th against the run. After being the centerpiece of a division champion that allowed just three runs of 20 yards before the throwaway last game, the Bengals became the first team in 52 years to give up a 20-yard run in each of the first 12 games.
"We tried to figure out the next greatest invention instead of worrying about if we had air in the tires," Zimmer said. "We were trying to live up to everyone else's expectations, including mine, and we were going to be the most feared team, we were going to create all these turnovers, we were going to do all this crap and not do what we do. I've said all along since I've been here we're going to be a sound fundamental defensive team that's going to make it hard when you play us. If they beat us, they beat us, but we're not going to beat ourselves. Consequently, a lot of times last year we beat ourselves. That's a disappointing thing to me. I kind of got away from what my beliefs are a little bit."
Zimmer agrees there is a glaring need at safety, but he also says cornerback and linebacker are unsettled and they need another big D-tackle. The Bengals have been grooming Rey Maualuga for middle linebacker with Dhani Jones expected to go to free agency and while Zimmer thinks he's ready, he needs more.
"He sure has to play a hell of a lot better than he did this year because he was extremely average," Zimmer said. "He's undisciplined. Half of our whole defensive team is undisciplined. That's why we give up big plays."
The Bengals gave up 17 runs of 20 yards. Only Denver (22) and Arizona (19) allowed more and Zimmer can tell you about all of them.
"Dhani will miss a tackle and another guy will jump out of his gap and the safety comes down and doesn't keep the ball on his proper shoulder," he said. "The defensive end has got him and he locks a guy out and he jumps inside too fast or he gets off a block or we jump offside on fourth and 1. All those things are discipline. We're an undisciplined defensive team."
The Bengals committed the most famous fourth-and-one blunder of the season when tackle Pat Sims jumped in the last minute of a game the Bengals were about to hold the Super Bowl-champion Saints to a tying field goal. But there are other examples.
"We've got two free blitzers and one of the guys that contained the rusher lets the quarterback out of the pocket. That happened on third down at least three times, crucial situations in a game," Zimmer said, recalling how the Bengals lost a 21-14 lead in the last three minutes against Tampa Bay.
"We had free runners all over the place. If we sack him it's going to be fourth-and-12 and they have to punt the damn ball. Just ridiculous things."
It all gets back to stopping the run. When he arrived in 2008, Zimmer restored the defense's self-image and self-confidence starting with defending the run. The defense went from 27th in the rankings to 12th. In 2009 the Bengals were one of the league's top teams on third down, but last year they were 14th because "we were awful on third-and-one, third-and-five … third-and-six (or more) we were OK," Zimmer said.
"That's just not paying attention to detail, especially with the secondary. Perimeter run force is the number one problem in giving up big runs," Zimmer said. "Then it got to a point if it was going to be a run we had to be in an eight-man front because weren't stopping the run in the seven-man front well enough. So that combined with some other issues. I was trying to be perfect with the calls. "
At one time or another, all the ends and safeties were responsible for giving up a big run. The ends also allowed Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman to skirt outside on some big throws down the stretch.
Zimmer isn't getting specific about personnel, but with Roy Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe headed to free agency and Chris Crocker coming off injury, safety is a priority. The Bengals also have to make a decision at end, where youngsters Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap are pushing the two highest-paid defensive players, Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom.
But Zimmer isn't looking at the roster or the draft right now. He's looking for discipline and fundamentals from anyone that commits.
"I'm going to fix it with any means necessary. I'm going to fix it. We're not going to reads our press clippings," he said. "We don't have to get anything new. We've got to do what we do better."