Zimmer vows better

Posted: 7:55 a.m.

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If the Bengals truly set up Saturday's AFC Wild Card game so they could play the Jets, one of the primary reasons is because they'd prefer to dare rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez beat them rather than a Joe Flacco or a Matt Schaub.

Sanchez never got the chance Sunday night, of course, when all he had to do was hand off as the Bengals allowed their most rushing yards in the six full seasons since the 2003 finale with 257. And, actually, Sanchez didn't even have to be in the play because a total of 90 of the yards came out of the Wildcat formation from wide receiver Brad Smith.

It was the Jets No. 1 rush offense vs. the Bengals No. 2 run defense, but it looked like the Bengals were in seven-on-seven without three of their stoutest run defenders in tackle Domata Peko, SAM backer Rey Maualuga, and safety Chris Crocker.  

So there is some gamesmanship going on between Cincinnati and New York this week. Did the Bengals play Sunday night's 37-0 blowout against the Jets in The Meadowlands for real? Or did they treat it like Chad Ochocinco said: Like it was a preseason game?

And while Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer insisted his team prepared, he also prepared his team for this week with, "I don't know if we can stop these Jets. They're pretty good," he said after Tuesday's practice.

And, "We kind of dared him last week and he still did it. They ran the ball very well against an eight-man front so we may have to put nine and 10 men up front."

If the Bengals wanted to be vanilla Sunday night, they succeeded because they weren't able to stop the run. Zimmer figures they were in the nickel package maybe twice and he says the Jets only got to see their blitzes on film.

"We've got some good ones if we can ever use 'em," he said. 

But you can believe that if Zimmer wanted to be preseason vanilla, he certainly didn't want his team to execute minicamp fundamentals. A man so proud that he didn't want to impose on anyone the night his wife died so suddenly and young back in October, had that pride cranked up Tuesday.

"I don't know if we're a great defense, but we're a solid defense and we didn't play that way Sunday night," he said. "But if you go back and look at our performances throughout the year when we did have (a bad) performance, we followed with a pretty good one."

It is a great defense in Bengals annals. It finished fourth in the NFL for the Bengals' highest finish since the 1983 club led the league. It is also their first top five finish since then and just the fourth in history. And even more important than the numbers, Zimmer has instilled his pride in a defense that was once perennial league doormats and a punchline around town.

"We've got a good game plan," Peko said. "They got round one. But there is going to be a round two."

Although Zimmer is less than pleased about what transpired Sunday ("They physically whipped us," he says), he's confident his unit will play a lot better Saturday simply because of this season's track record following bad performances.

After giving up 472 yards to Houston (385 coming from Schaub), the next week the Bengals picked off Bears quarterback Jay Cutler three times and held Chicago to 279 yards.

After giving up two touchdown passes at the end of each half in Oakland, they gave the Browns just 111 yards passing the next week. And after the Vikings gouged them for 142 yards rushing and 30 points the defense went to San Diego the next week and kept the red-hot Chargers offense relatively in check compared to everyone else by limiting them to 70 yards rushing and holding an offense that finished seventh in the league on third down to five out of 11.

"We are a confident bunch of guys that in the game last weekend, we kind of got kicked in the tail," Crocker said. "Now we have to amp it up. Now we know what we have to defend."

They have to defend Smith in the Wildcat and they have to defend first and second down so they can make Sanchez play like a rookie quarterback instead of a caretaker quarterback.

The stats say the return of Peko and Crocker should help enormously. Peko (knee) has missed the last five games, a stretch in which the Bengals have allowed 134.4 rushing yards per game. In the 11 previous games, they had allowed 82 per game. When Crocker reaggravated his ankle against the Vikings Dec. 13, the Bengals led the NFL in third-down conversions. After he missed the last three games, they finished 16th.

"It should help," Zimmer said of the cavalry. "But if we don't tackle, it won't matter."

They didn't tackle Sunday night and Zimmer is calling on that pride. "We'll be on point. We'll be all right," he said. "These guys will accept the challenge. They might beat us again, but we won't back down."

Smith is now a major concern. He broke the sixth play of the game for a 57-yard run off a direct snap, the longest run against the Bengals this season. He followed it up with the second longest run, a 32-yarder for a touchdown off a fake option pitch. All of which surprised Zimmer since teams have not tried to spring The Wildcat on the Bengals all that much in his two seasons as coordinator.

"Because we're pretty sound and solid and are usually in the right place. That just opened up a can of worms for us. We (brought it) upon ourselves," Zimmer said. "On those plays, it's like the college deal. They've got one extra blocker, even on an eight man front. They make nine gaps so you have to have something for it.

"We've played it really good (in the past). That's why I was surprised. I wasn't worried about it. I am a little now."

On the 57-yarder it looked like youth betrayed them when Crocker's replacement, rookie Tom Nelson, overran Smith and missed a tackle in the middle of the field. On the 32-yarder, Smith was aided by missed tackles from the usually reliable pair of SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty and Chinedum Ndukwe.

"It's mano on mano," Crocker said. "It comes down to getting off blocks. ... I think what happened is we missed some tackles early and then guys started to get out of their gaps trying to make plays."

Crocker, pumped about playing his first playoff game in seven seasons in the league, thinks his experience is going to help back there in recognition, but Zimmer is very impressed with what the Jets have up front. Particularly in center Nick Mangold and guard Alan Faneca.

"They're as good as football players as there are in this league and after playing them I have much more respect for them," Zimmer said. "They really got after us with those two. Faneca and what's the center's name? ... They should be All Pro, not just Pro Bowl."

Which is where Peko comes in.

And Peko says that's where Zimmer comes in.

"He'll fix it. He's on it," Peko said. "We're ready for Round 2."

Zimmer was able to find a silver lining. He thinks it helps that the Bengals are playing the Jets again. He thinks it helped the Jets, too, but he feels better because he thinks he knows more about Mangold, Faneca and the Jets zone blocking scheme, as well as Sanchez and the receivers.

"I treat it like a division game," Zimmer said.

He'd like those numbers. In six AFC North games, the Bengals allowed an average of 87 yards per game on the ground.

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