Even without players, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is on a blitz.
Zimmer and his guys are heading into heady waters once they get underway in 2011. For the first time in more than 20 years a Bengals defense is coming into a season after stringing together three straight years of a No. 15 ranking or better. Not since Mike Reid played tackle, Bill Bergey played the middle and the greatest Bengals secondary of all (Ken Riley, Lemar Parrish, Tommy Casanova) roamed has the franchise logged more.
From 1971-76, the Bengals were 12th or better and in the final regular-season game of that run they picked off Joe Willie Namath four times at Shea Stadium in his last game as a New York Jet in a 42-3 autopsy featuring three Riley interceptions.
Zimmer has used his uncompromising stare and unvarnished bluntness to change the culture of a defense that finished 27th or worse in four of the five seasons before his arrival in '08. And he's poised to make another run by harping on pass rush. Since 1995 the Bengals have had seven players with eight-sack seasons and he's got three of them on this roster with Robert Geathers, Antwan Odom and Carlos Dunlap.
Zimmer admits it has been tough to game plan during the lockout, since the rosters aren't set for the teams the Bengals are going to face and he's still not sure what he's going to have.
"And we can't try the things like we did last year when we moved Michael Johnson to linebacker from end," Zimmer says of the spring and summer experiment.
But he and his staff have been able to study relentlessly and isolate items they want to emphasize. After finishing 27th in generating sacks per pass last season, you know Zimmer has spent months tinkering with how to use Dunlap, Geathers, Odom and Johnson. The earliest and most visible evidence that the pass rush has been underlined is the drafting of speedy end/backer Dontay Moch in the third round.
Yet the Bengals defense has played well enough, you also wonder where it would have ranked the last two seasons without the last two minutes of a half or game. So does Zimmer.
But while his unit gathers for voluntary workouts the next two weeks without him, Zimmer isn't just looking to get to that 15 again from 2010 or even the No. 4 that was the centerpiece of the 2009 AFC North title. He's simply looking for 60 minutes instead of 56 or 58. Here's a defense that last season stymied playoff quarterbacks Peyton Manning on 187 yards, Mark Sanchez on 166 and Joe Flacco on 125 while keeping Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers from throwing a touchdown pass until 1:27 left in the game.
Yet the Bengals lost all but one of those games.
"That's the thing the players don't understand," Zimmer says. "We can be really good, but the end of the game is when you win or lose. The mistakes you make … the Tampa Bay game, the Miami game, I can name a bunch of them."
Since 2009 the Bengals have allowed points in the last two minutes of a half or game in 18 of the 32 games. They certainly weren't 4-14 in those games just because of that, but last-ditch drives got them beat five times in the game's last minute (Denver, Oakland, San Diego, Tampa Bay, New Orleans) and eight of the 14 losses were by six points or less.
How close is that?
Close enough to make one wonder where this defense would have finished in the rankings and where this team would have finished in the standings with a few more stops. Which is one of the many reasons Zimmer is enthused, infused and waiting.
"I can't wait to get the back into the room and talk to them about situational defense," Zimmer says. "I want to show them the play and I want to ask them, 'What exactly were you thinking on this snap?' And then we're going to go over what we want, what we're thinking, so players and coaches understand this is the crucial part of the game and we have to make those plays to win."
The coaches have gone through every two-minute drill against the Bengals last year. They've gone through the two-minute drills of other defenses to borrow, steal and affirm. And the players aren't immune. Zimmer has never backed down from his own mistakes and he says he's analyzing himself as he looks at the tape.
"They have to score a touchdown to beat you," Zimmer says for an example. "Why are you putting them in a one-on-one situation, or why are you doing this or doing that?"
When the players arrive after the lockout, one of the many things they'll be getting from Zimmer is a "Critical Situations Tape" to highlight what he wants when the game is on the line. It sounds like he's already come up with the dedication.
"We're going to be hard to beat and we're not going to beat ourselves," he says.