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Despite numerous injuries, Bengals still have hope for defense

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Ned Dishman / Getty Images
With losses such as first-round pick Keith Rivers, the Bengals have had to fill in several gaps on defense.


Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is not one to smile much or show any emotion that would signal he's got a sense of humor, let alone that he might be happy. With the way the Bengals' season has dreadfully unfolded, his personality is a perfect fit.

Yet, in a fleeting moment of disarmament, Zimmer, 52, sarcastically spoke through a chuckle.

"We only have to deal with Peyton Manning and those receivers and Joseph Addai this week," he said of Sunday's matchup with the Indianapolis Colts. "That's all."

While tongue-in-cheek, Zimmer, ever the realist, also is eager to see the latest effort his patched-holed, 24th-ranked defense can come up with. Despite the Bengals coming off a 34-3 thrashing by the Ravens and being part of a staff that's managed just one victory (and a tie), Zimmer, the former long-time defensive assistant and coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, said he thinks this might be the best coaching job he's ever done.


Matt Sullivan / Getty Images
Although the defense is giving up more yards per game this year, the unit's overall ranking has improved under new coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Total defense ranking
Year Rank Yards per game Record
2008 24th 349.3 1-10-1
2007 27th 348.8 7-9
2006 30th 355.1 8-8
2005 28th 338.7 *11-5
*Made playoffs

"I actually think I'm a much better coach," Zimmer said. "Even than when we were No. 1 in Dallas (2003). We're going through some of these things and we're fighting through all these different scenarios and the players and the coaches have stuck with it. I feel really good about what we've done."

The "things" and "scenarios" are these: Six opening-day starters are out or on injured reserve (DE Robert Geathers, DE Frostee Rucker, S Dexter Jackson, CB Johnathan Joseph, LB Keith Rivers and S Marvin White). Another soon could go on IR. Three cornerbacks have been hurt or still are. Upstarts that needed playing time to nurture their Pro Bowl potential, like Joseph and Rivers, the team's first-round pick, are having to watch with injuries.

Things are to the point where Cincinnati's current strong safety, Chris Crocker, signed in October after being cut by Miami is considered one of the defensive standouts after recording 18 tackles, an interception and 1.5 sacks in his brief stint on the roster.

It's easy to see why sometimes the Bengals appear to be playing six men vs. 11.

Despite his side of the ball ranking in the league's lower-tier -- the offense is ranked far lower -- Zimmer is drawing strong reviews locally and around the league because those who've paid attention see what he's working with. And while the results aren't what the franchise would like, the fact that players are still playing hard and following his lead are signs that he is doing something right.

Zimmer won't make excuses because there aren't enough of those to balance out the multitude of issues that have submerged Cincinnati's season at 1-10-1. It's not his style to pass blame onto players anyway.

"We lost a couple games early and in this league, when that happens, when adversity hits you, you tend to ask, 'What is going wrong? We can't do anything right.' Instead of saying, 'we can play with anybody,'" Zimmer said. "When you win games early you start to feel like you're pretty good and that you can play with anybody."

Zimmer has adjusted some of his teaching methods and, as the season's has digressed, learned to appreciate the smaller things outside of third-down percentage and red-zone efficiency. Some of the changes, obviously, were necessitated. Some stemmed from lessons learned. Some because Zimmer is dealing with players who have been more eager and trusting than many he's ever dealt with.

"I can be, how will you say, demanding," Zimmer said. "These guys haven't said boo. They really seem to want to do what's best for the team. They go out and play and play hard. I can't fault their effort. These guys have been nothing but great."

Zimmer is not the type to try and spin the message to make his players feel better or play harder for him. He could care less about how players feel. Zimmer has had better players in Dallas and in Atlanta and been in situations that were similarly adverse. The difference between then and now, he said, was his players and coaches are still competing as if there was something on the line other than high draft position.

Where Zimmer said he thinks he and his staff made end roads is how they've executed the message. Never in his 15 years of coaching in the NFL would he meet with the whole defense -- players and coaches -- every day and go over everything they were trying to do at practice and for the pending game.

Typically, there would be a defensive meeting and he would leave it up to position coaches to spread the word. He found out last season as Atlanta's defensive coordinator that in implementing his 4-3 based scheme with a new staff, position coaches aren't always teaching things the way he wanted and players sometimes got crossed up. He blamed himself for the communication breakdowns and realized something had to change this time around.

Zimmer also said that coach Marvin Lewis, whose pedigree is coaching defense, has given him autonomy to do what he likes. Lewis offers up advice but typically not until it's solicited, Zimmer said.

"It might sound weird but we've played pretty darn good," Zimmer said. "If you look at the overall stats they're not so good but if you look at the yards per play and yards per rush, those are pretty good. We're not getting off the field on third down enough but we're doing decent for the amount of plays we're on the field and the yards we're giving up."

Cincinnati's defense spends 33:50 on average on the field, second most in the NFL. The 66 plays a game the defense endures is tied for fifth most in the league. The woeful play of the NFL's worst scoring offense and the inability to stop teams on third down are the main reasons for the defense's extended turf time.

In addition, Cincinnati has played five teams (Baltimore twice) thank rank among the top eight in either rushing or passing in the NFL. It won't get any easier against the surging Colts, who have the NFL's eighth-ranked passing attack and have won five straight.

"I told the players that the only thing I want is at the end of every game and at the end of the year, I want the Colts and every team we play the next few weeks, to feel that they played a disciplined, good, hard defense and that they worked hard to try and beat," Zimmer said. "Or that they lost to."

The philosophy to carry out the plan, according to Zimmer, was stolen from legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee.

"We have to Rope-A-Dope teams," Zimmer said. "We're going to take some shots but we're going to try and keep it close and not let them hit us with any knockout blows. If we're able to do that, we could have a chance to try to win."

As bad as things are in Cincinnati, Zimmer doesn't think there needs to be many radical changes, at least defensively. If players like Rivers and Joseph come back healthy next season and a few spots are upgraded, the Bengals may have a defense that could be mentioned with some of their AFC North counterparts.

"Just a few more pieces," Zimmer said. "If we can stay healthy and keep the same attitude we have now, we should be able to get this together pretty quickly."

Zimmer, being Zimmer, was dead serious when he said that.

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