|With aggressive schemes and deft use of personnel, Mike Zimmer has built the NFL's top-ranked defense.|
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Move over Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the Cincinnati Bengals are the new bullies on the block.
That's quite a statement when you consider the rugged defenses of the Ravens and Steelers, but the Bengals now boast not only the AFC North's top defense but the top-ranked unit in the league. And they aren't showing signs of slowing down.
Let's take a look at how the Bengals have become an elite defense in 2011:
Mike Zimmer is on top of his game
The fiery defensive coordinator has long been regarded as one of the top defensive minds, and he continues to validate his reputation with his work in Cincy. Through his persistent preaching of toughness and accountability, he has molded the defense into a cohesive unit that adheres to a fundamentally sound approach. In watching the Bengals on tape, their solid tackling and relentless pursuit to the ball stand out. It is not uncommon to see two or three defenders put hats on ball carriers, and the commitment to gang tackling yields minimal yardage after contact.
Zimmer has also maximized the talent on the Bengals' defense by carefully assigning roles to his players. His experience directing 3-4 and 4-3 schemes gives him a unique perspective on how to put players in the best position to make plays. For instance, Zimmer has used a variety of players along the defensive line to best match up with the opposition. This has meant more snaps for Robert Geathers and Domata Peko against run-heavy teams, while more accomplished rushers like Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Jonathan Fanene log more snaps against passing teams. Zimmer's willingness to tweak his game plan and rotations on a weekly basis has enabled the Bengals to throttle their opponents regardless of style.
They're loaded with talent
The Bengals often get a bad rap based on their questionable personnel decisions in the past, but a close look at their current roster reveals a talented defensive lineup. The unit is littered with former early-round gambles -- Rey Maualuga, Dunlap and Johnson -- who were unquestionably talented, but surrounded by red flags that affected their draft status. The Bengals also have hit gold on several first-round castoffs -- Manny Lawson, Reggie Nelson and Kelly Jennings -- who were deemed expendable by their previous squads. As a result, the defense has a collection of talent that surprises and overwhelms its opponents. This was particularly evident when they held a Buffalo Bills team that averaged more than 30 points to only one offensive touchdown without an assortment of schematic tricks or gimmicks.
Stuffin' the box
The Bengals are holding their opponents to only 3.2 yards per rushing attempt, the third-fewest in the league. Their ability to snuff out the run can be attributed to the spectacular play of their interior triangle of Peko, Geno Atkins and Maualuga. Their dominance in the middle forces runners to bounce into the waiting arms of Thomas Howard, Lawson or Nelson. With few runners possessing the speed and explosiveness to outrun the Bengals' athletic trio, opponents are repeatedly forced to settle for minimal gains on the ground.
The Bengals rank third in passing yards allowed (191.0) and are holding opposing quarterbacks to a 56.7 percent completion rate. Although they have given up four completions of 40-plus yards, they are only allowing 6.6 yards per attempt, the fifth-fewest in the league.
Zimmer has orchestrated the stingy pass defense by instructing his corners to play an "in your face" style that challenges receivers at every turn. The Bengals rarely allow free releases on the outside, and the constant disruption of routes leads to poor timing between receiver and quarterback. Nate Clements and Leon Hall, in particular, have played exceptionally well against their assigned receivers. Even though the duo has yet to produce an interception (the Bengals only have one pick on the season), the blanket coverage on the outside has made life difficult on opponents looking to move the ball through the air.
Zimmer has also made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks by constantly varying his pass rush approach on passing downs. He has deftly blended man blitzes with an assortment of zone dogs to keep quarterbacks off balance. The aggressive tactics have not necessarily resulted in a slew of sacks, but they have quickened the clock in the opposing quarterback's head and led to errant throws.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.