Inside the NFL  

 

To stop complicated offenses, Bengals have simple solution

In his robust Inside The NFL notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics including (click on the link to take you directly there):

» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 7
» The college QB helped the most by Cam Newton's success
» Who the young Lions defenders turn to for leadership
» Why Raiders QB Carson Palmer is 'healthy as a horse'
» And more, beginning with how being simple has complicated things for Bengals' opponents ...

The Bengals' 4-2 start largely is a result of its defense, which is ranked second in the league in yards allowed.
The Bengals' 4-2 start largely is a result of its defense, which is ranked second in the league in yards allowed. (Joe Mahoney/Associated Press)

The scoring explosion of 2011 has been seen in most NFL cities this September and October.

But perhaps it can be best explained in Cincinnati, but not because Andy Dalton and the offense are lighting up the scoreboard. Rather, it's what the Bengals aren't doing that provides the roadmap for what is happening elsewhere.

Mike Zimmer's defensive group has held five of its six opponents to 20 points or less, is lodged between its AFC North rivals in Pittsburgh and Baltimore in ranking second in total defense, and is also top 10 against the pass (3rd) and run (6th).

While it should be noted that the the Bills boast the only top 10 offense the Bengals have faced this year -- the 49ers are next at 20th overall -- there's no doubting the impact Zimmer's defense has had on the Bengals' 4-2 start. And one reason for the renaissance of a unit that sagged in 2010, Zimmer says, stems from a couple of phone calls he made to prepare for post-lockout circumstances.

"I called Bill Parcells and Chuck Fairbanks in the offseason, and we talked about how to catch up, since I figured we'd be so far behind," Zimmer said Tuesday, shortly after Carson Palmer was shipped to Oakland. "Those guys have been through camps without OTAs and that sort of thing, and one thing they told me is that if you try to put everything in, you'll have a big mess and the players will be confused. So we went slow, putting in one coverage and one or two base pressures a day through camp.

"We were really slowing down the teaching. And then, when we played Cleveland that first game, we didn't install anything new. We didn't put in anything we hadn't run before that week. Now that we're game-planning, we're doing a little more each week. But the result is guys are playing hard, flying around and tackling well, for the most part."

Conversely, defensive problems with miscommunication and tackling have contributed to the offensive fireworks this fall, according to Zimmer and a number of personnel executives I spoke with. They all say there have been far more coverage "busts" early in the season than normal.

As Zimmer explains it, "With offenses being so multiple with their shifts and motions and different packages, they might come to the line with 10 things they can do, and if you have 10 things you can do, then there are 100 different categories when you say, 'If they motion here, you do this.' But if you have three checks, then it's down to 30. Basically, we've slowed it down so guys can play reckless."

Offenses most certainly have taken notice. "A lot of teams are going no huddle now, and that really stresses your communication," said one NFC personnel executive.

The other problem has been tackling. Since fundamentals and technique are things Zimmer has always emphasized, that's another area where Cincinnati has had a leg up.

According to one club's data, more than half of the explosive pass plays (18-plus yards) in the league through six weeks started at or behind the line of scrimmage, a jarring number that speaks to the number of missed tackles seen.

Another NFC personnel man, presented with those numbers, said, "When you're not teaching them how to tackle, and doing it physically, that's what happens. There's no question that with the parameters coaches have to work in now, not being able to do this or that, you're seeing an effect. Instead of being wrap-up tacklers, you're seeing guys becoming launchers. And on those screens and smoke-type plays, you have corners who don't tackle, and you put bodies in front of them, and big plays happen."

So with other teams seeing the problems, and having to strip down their defense or rebuild their fundamentals to combat them, Zimmer and the Bengals are now building up with their players. Apply logic, and Cincy should keep getting better defensively.

There has been personnel improvement, too. Nate Clements has done the job replacing Johnathan Joseph at corner. Reggie Nelson has been better than expected at safety. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins have ascended as sophomores, as have Rey Maualuga and Michael Johnson in Year 3, to bolster the front seven. Thomas Howard has been a nice addition, and Domato Peko remains steady in the middle.

Put it all together and those pieces are moving faster and more together because they're all pulling in the same direction. Zimmer admits now that his defense had become too complex last year -- in part because he installed a boatload of checks and coverages and fronts to prepare for the opener against Tom Brady and the Patriots -- which also played a role in his decision to go simple, along with the advice from Parcells and Fairbanks.

"We're pretty good when we play together, and not nearly good when they're guessing and doing their own thing," said Zimmer. "This is a close-knit group, they seem to like each other, and they pull each other up. If they're not having a good practice, they fall back on each other. And there's an attitude that, 'Hey, we're supposed to be really good', without being full of themselves, because that's not how they got here. They'll tell you, 'This is how we got here,' as opposed to, 'Hey, I'm doing my own thing today.'

"Maybe they're not great individually. They're good collectively, though, and they believe in each other."

When the second NFC personnel man was apprised of Zimmer's plan, he said, "That's a great adjustment by him. You have all these players that don't know what they're doing, so you pull it back, and simplify and, by getting that done, when you get games under your belt and they have the basis down, you put more things in."

That'll happen, as Zimmer said, based on what the Bengals are up against going forward.

But even with that in mind, Cincinnati's success, the coach continued, is reinforcement that complicating the game sometimes doesn't do much more than mix everyone up.

"Sometimes, as coaches, we spend so much time working to tinker and change things, and we've got some good coaches here who have good ideas," said Zimmer. "But I have to sit back and say - 'What can our players do well? What can they handle? What do the need to win the game?' The biggest thing I've taken from all this is you don't have to be the most innovative coach.

"You do have to make sure your players know what they're doing, play good situational football, on third down and in the red area, and play hard."

And it's amazing that such a simple approach could explain so much about the 2011 season.

A closer look at Palmer's arm

There's been a perception among talent evaluators that the torque in Carson Palmer's right arm and the zip on his ball haven't been the same since he started having elbow problems in 2008. He decided to forgo reconstructive surgery and did extensive rehab instead, a decision that was questioned at the time.

That elbow is now rested. And those around Palmer think the layoff did the quarterback some good in that sense, hard as it may have been to spend the last 10 months away from the game.

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"He's healthy as a horse," said former NFL quarterback Ken O'Brien, who's been working with Palmer during the ex-Bengal's time off. "I just helped him get through drills. And from where he was, he had to get healthy after the end of the season. That's the good part of the layoff. He rested his body up. … Everyone wants to be in top shape, but when you have an injury inside of you, with ligaments or cartilage, that takes time to heal, no matter how strong or muscular you feel.

"And athletes are gonna push it to get back sooner. The teams want them to play sooner. And that can be a detriment to the player long-term. So being forced to be out, I think, helped him in the healing process."

O'Brien added, more specifically on Palmer, "I do know that he pushed himself (with the elbow) to play sooner, and in my eyes -- he'd never say this, or make an excuse -- he wasn't 100 percent natural. He didn't look like his old self."

Over the past few months, Palmer and O'Brien would pick a park or high school to stage their workouts with some receivers, and work through drills -- footwork, drops, the passing tree -- to keep Palmer sharp.

O'Brien was Palmer's quarterbacks coach his first three years at USC, working under then-Trojans offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, and has been called on for "QB tune-ups" by Palmer periodically since. This offseason provided the two a chance to work together more frequently and, for what it's worth, O'Brien saw a player whose drive hadn't waned in the least.

"I never asked, but it was unsaid," O'Brien told me. "He's working hard at it. He's loved the game since he was a young kid, and being extremely talented doesn't hurt. He still has that desire, that competitive nature. Things didn't work out (in Cincinnati), but it's not because he didn't want to play. He stuck to his guns. Everyone has an opinion on that, and mine is it took balls to do it."

That part is over now. And if the elbow injury he suffered is truly behind Palmer, the complexion of the trade changes. The emphasis is going to be on whether or not Palmer is still a franchise quarterback not only now, but also going forward. "This is a long-haul deal for Carson," O'Brien said.

Bottom line: If the 2005 Palmer is back, then those two first-round picks won't seem like such a steep price.

"If everything else is equal, he has all the talent in the world to do whatever he wants to," O'Brien said. "Talent and desire is not an issue. It might've been a dysfunctional situation he was in, or being injured, where he didn't have as much success of late. And being healthy certainly helps. He can do everything he wants to do physically now, and that's exciting.

"Add to that, he and Hue have history together. Hue knows what to do, he's an exceptionally smart coach. Carson will fit right in, where they were looking for an answer. You can't just get guys like him."

The soul of the Lions

With 24-year-old Ndamukong Suh, 23-year-old Nick Fairley and 25-year-old Cliff Avril leading the charge, the Lions defensive line is at the heart of a franchise revival that's built to stand the test of time. But the soul of that group comes from 32-year-old defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch.

It's pretty obvious now why Detroit coach Jim Schwartz waited outside Vanden Bosch's house as the clock ticked to the start of free agency in March of 2010, and the reasons aren't confined to the eight sacks he's registered in 17 games as a Lion. Almost as important have been the lessons he's bestowed on what's becoming one of nastier and most feared units in the league.

"There's no question about it -- he's changed how I've played, changed my game, since I got here," Avril said the other night, over the phone. "The first couple of weeks after he came in, he wasn't talking to anyone, and some of the younger players thought he might be a jerk. And so the first time we're practicing out there, you see him, and he's running 50, 60 yards to the ball, getting in the quarterback's face, running down receivers. It was amazing.

"And guys are saying, 'No way he practices like that all the time.' I kid you not -- every day from then to now, it's been at that speed. And it's contagious. Now we're all like that."

So where the other defensive linemen initially thought Vanden Bosch was crazy, now, they're all crazy.

Vanden Bosch's backup at right end, former Seahawk first-round pick Lawrence Jackson, acquired via trade from Seattle, has actually studied the former Titan since he was in college. And the key, Jackson says, is what shows up on film also appears everywhere else with Vanden Bosch.

"Seeing him in film, in the D-line room, in the weight room, you say to yourself, 'This is a 10-year vet, and if he's practicing this hard, lifting this hard, why can't I do this too?'" Jackson explained. "He encourages you to do it, not because he's doing it, but because that's what you're supposed to do. It rubs off on everyone.

"He sets the tone, and a big part of that is peer pressure. His style of play creates room for someone else to make a play. For me, personally, I want to practice like that, I want to play like that, it raises my level. That relentlessness rubs off, it makes everyone play that way."

That much isn't hard to see watching the Lions.

Newton's success will help Baylor's Griffin

In 1998, Peyton Manning was as safe and pro-ready a quarterback prospect as they come. In 2011, Cam Newton was seen as a spectacular athlete, but a risk because he was raw at the position.

Both started in Week 1 as rookies, Newton with a truncated offseason. Their respective numbers through six weeks …

MANNING (1998): 113-210 (53.8 percent), 1,346 yards, 6 TD, 14 INT
NEWTON (2011): 134-229 (58.5 percent), 1,847 yards, 7 TD, 9 INT

So Newton threw more, for a higher completion percentage, more yards, more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than Manning. Both players' teams were 1-5 at that juncture.

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On top of that, going into last week, the Panthers had more explosive pass plays than any other team in the league, with Newton having thrown for every one of them. Already, teams are having to re-adjust the way they defend him.

"He'll break contain, then throw it, and there'll be a big play there for him," said one NFC executive. "You'll see more game plans now so he's not throwing it over your head. You have to get him in the situation where the field gets shorter on him, and make him make tighter throws. Red-zone scoring is where you see the rookie in him, where the field is constricted."

And as such, Newton has to keep adjusting, like every young quarterback does.

But all this begs the question: Will the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner change how the NFL looks at athletic, spread quarterbacks? The answer might just be yes.

"If you're looking for Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning, a guy that can take the snap, say, 'What's the coverage, here's the change we need, here's our routes,' and then find that hole in the coverage and throw it there -- to do all that in 3.5 seconds is amazing," said the NFC exec. "But get this type of quarterback in the spread, and he doesn't have to read. Cam is 6-foot-6, 260, so he doesn't have to anticipate.

"He makes plays by buying time in the pocket, and it's easier for him -- you don't rush as much, because if you rush, there's a lane open and he'll go. So he buys that time, and gets some more from the lack of rush, and eventually, the coverage will break down."

Ben Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls in that manner, and Newton is further proof that it doesn't have to look Montanian for it to work at the quarterback position. The NFC exec said, "I definitely put a note in my head about this kind of guy, seeing Cam's success," and he thinks one player who could be a draft-day beneficiary of that prosperity is Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Like Newton, Griffin (6-2, 220) is a freak athlete -- more explosive, but not as big as Newton -- and has the accuracy to make throws both from a stationary position and on the run to exploit a defense wary of his feet. If Griffin bolts Baylor early, he won't threaten Andrew Luck's spot at the top, but could creep up on Oklahoma's Landry Jones or USC's Matt Barkley, both juniors also, on draft boards.

Newton is unique. But with Griffin, as a mobile quarterback who can throw with accuracy (a stunning 78.0 completion percentage, 22-2 TD-INT ration through six games), there is carryover in evaluation.

"He's more like (Mike Vick) as a runner, quicker, more elusive," said the exec. "But he can really throw it, coming out of that spread, and buy time for a play to develop. If Cam's helping anyone now, it's him."

Four things I'll look for this weekend

1) Christian Ponder's readiness. The test for the Vikings rookie is a daunting one, facing the world champs. But the truth is that the Minnesota brass has been preparing for this since before Ponder was drafted (even if they thought they were making those preparations for Jake Locker). Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier knew they'd spend the 12th pick on a quarterback in April, and as such, they spent considerable time building an environment for such a player to develop properly. They brought in an offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, who was part of the nurturing of another young quarterback, Matt Ryan, who won 11 games as a rookie. They drafted a safety-valve tight end, Kyle Rudolph, right after Ponder. And now all that work gets put to the test, with Donovan McNabb on ice.

2) The scene in Miami. I'll admit, I don't quite get the fixation with Tim Tebow in Florida. Reverence is one thing. Most major college stars that win national championships get that long after graduation. What Tebow has goes past that, past what Tommie Frazier got in Lincoln, Neb., or what Charlie Ward got in Tallahassee, or what even Vince Young gets in Austin. Whatever. Tebow's presence at "Gator Day" in Miami should be mighty interesting for more reasons than just his unique skill set on display. With the Dolphins at 0-5, it may well be difficult to make out who the home team is, and there's a very real scenario where the home team could get booed, for the enormity of its problems, and the road team could be cheered, for No. 15's past contributions to the state. I know this: the business folks with the Dolphins didn't do the football people in their building any favors with this bit of planning.

3) Things in the Kansas City-Oakland tilt outside of just who's playing QB for the Raiders. Sure I want to see how quickly Carson Palmer gets up to speed, like everyone else. And it makes sense to play him. Part of the thinking in Oakland is that Palmer can get his feet wet now and, with the bye in Week 8, have tape to evaluate and mistakes to correct with the extra time. But I'm as interested in the Raiders' opponent on Sunday. Say what you will about Todd Haley. His team has improved. After embarrassing losses to Buffalo and Detroit to start the season, the Chiefs took the Chargers to the wire in San Diego, and took care of business against the Colts and Vikings. Quarterback Matt Cassel has overcome his slow start too, topping a 100 QB rating in his past three games, and carrying a 7-1 TD-INT ratio in that time. Not nominating anyone for Coach of the Year or MVP here, but K.C. hasn't folded like so many (I'm guilty) figured they would, after the tough start and loss of cornerstones Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles. Now, with a bye week under their belt, I'm at least intrigued to see how they play their archrivals.


For more on the fifth annual International Series game, featuring the Bears and Buccaneers, go here.

4) The Buccaneers' ability to build on big win last week. The job Raheem Morris' crew did in bouncing back from the 48-3 trouncing they took in San Francisco was admirable, with the club coming away with a signature win over the Saints in Tampa. And now, the Bucs have a new challenge on their plate: Dealing with prosperity. The game against the Bears in London will be Tampa's second at Wembley in three years. Last time they were here, they came at 0-6 and left at 0-7. Last year, they started 5-2, but that was a young team riding a wave without really being aware of its surroundings. Expectations weren't there for the Bucs. This is different. Now, they're in a tie for first with wins over Atlanta and New Orleans in tow, and the bye week ahead. Let's see how they handle all that.

Three conclusions

1) Tom Brady isn't the best quarterback of all-time. Yet. He has a chance to be, though, and the reasons why were on display last Sunday. Brady again showed that, even on a day when he's not at his very best, he can slit an opponent's throat. He closed his afternoon with throws into credit-card-sized windows to covered receivers Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. Poor Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins. They did their job on those plays, and never had a chance. The larger point here is that Brady's still in the phase of his career where it all revolves around him, and he's got a chance to do something that, really, no other quarterback has done. And that's win Super Bowls with one group of players, and then win another ring with an entirely different group. With center Dan Koppen on IR, and Kevin Faulk just coming off the PUP, there's only two players on the Patriots offense that were part of championship teams in New England: Left tackle Matt Light and receiver Deion Branch. On defense, Vince Wilfork is the lone representative from the glory, and even he was only part of one of the three championship teams. The closest anyone's come to what Brady can accomplish is John Elway, who went to Super Bowls with the late 1980s Broncos, and won Super Bowls with the club's late '90s teams.

2) John Beck isn't the answer in Washington. And if this seems like a weird time to say that -- given that he just inherited the starting quarterback job there -- then so be it. But the Redskins gave Beck every chance to win the spot in camp, and he was beaten out by Rex Grossman. If Beck was truly the guy, though, it stands to reason that Mike Shanahan would have rode out any problems (and really, he wasn't that bad in preseason, going 30-for-48 for 356 yards, a touchdown and two picks). There's a lot going right in Washington now. The defense has a handful of very good young building blocks, and the young talent on the team is better than it's been in a while. But my sense is the guy who will be the long-term answer at quarterback is not on the roster yet.

Chris Johnson's Game Log in 2011
Week Carries Yards Average TDs
Week 1 9 24 2.7 0
Week 2 24 53 2.2 0
Week 3 13 21 1.6 0
Week 4 23 101 4.4 0
Week 5 14 51 3.6 1

3) Prove-it time is now for Chris Johnson in Tennessee, nearly two months after he got the fat payday he was looking for. Johnson reported to Nashville out of football shape in September, which is, of course, understandable, given his time away from the game. He also needed to build up his cardiovascular conditioning. But after failing to average more than 3 yards a carry in any game until Week 4, and having just one performance approximating what he's capable of in the season's first five games, the club is expecting that, with the bye to rest up, this is when the old Johnson should return. It's a big spot for the Titans, too. With the Colts and Jags now AFC South bottom-feeders, Sunday brings the Texans to Nashville with division title ramifications hanging in the balance, and the visitors going it without Mario Williams or Andre Johnson. No pressure, Chris.

Two pieces of businesses

1) I tweeted earlier in the week that sometimes we, as the football viewing public, overvalue draft picks in trades, because the unknown is so intriguing. It was in reference to the Palmer deal, and with that one done, there's one recent transaction that's comparable, from a compensation standpoint, to put this one to the test -- the Jay Cutler trade. The deal sent Cutler and a fifth-round pick to Chicago for two first-round picks (2009, 2010), a third-round pick and Kyle Orton. The fifth-round pick for the Bears wound up being Johnny Knox. The first of Denver's 1s in the deal became Robert Ayers. Denver packaged the third-round pick, which became Mike Wallace (oops), to Pittsburgh to get back in the second-round and select TE Richard Quinn (double oops). The second 1 is harder to trace, because of a slew of trades, but the club wound up taking Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas late in the first round of that draft. So in the final analysis, to this point, the most productive of the above draft picks has been, interestingly enough, the throw-in fifth-rounder Knox, and the Broncos were left with a bunch of What-ifs and a benched veteran QB, which isn't exactly the haul they were expecting.

2) If Minnesotans think there's no way they'll lose the Vikings, they need to heed the words of NFL executive VP Eric Grubman, who said last week, "There's no plan for a stadium, and there's an alternative plan in another city." That those words came from, in effect, league headquarters at 345 Park is very bad news for the Twin Cities. NFL sorely wants to maintain its presence in Minneapolis, a mid-sized market with an outsized number of corporate headquarters locally and a rabid fan base. And the league has efforted to help make it happen. That a powerbroker like Grubman is ready to say those things publicly shows you the dire straits the Vikings are in trying to get a new stadium built. Remember how the Wilfs met with AEG officials in the spring? Remember how Cleveland built baseball and basketball/hockey facilities, passed on a new football stadium, and lost a team no one ever thought they would? Hopefully, someone in Minnesota remembers.

One prediction

This will be Donovan McNabb's final season in the NFL. Barring an injury to Ponder, McNabb won't get on the field again for Minnesota, and that means he'll go into the offseason having been benched in each of his past two stops, after being traded from a third.

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The 34-year-old wasn't horrific in his six starts. Yes, that sack number (16) is too high, and the 1-5 record didn't help either. But he did complete 60 percent of his passes for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns with a crumbling roster around him, and that, in most cases, would be enough to buy a quarterback a backup job somewhere the next year.

The problem is that McNabb isn't a backup. Never has been one. Doesn't have the personality of one. And teams know that.

Heck, had it not been for the Vikings and McNabb's relationship with Leslie Frazier, there's a good chance No. 5 wouldn't have found a starting spot this year. So that shot won't come next year.

I'd bet that's good enough for McNabb, since I'm not sure he has any interest in playing caddy to anyone anyway. He'll probably slide right into television, and leave us to discuss a complicated legacy that he'll leave, in Philly and elsewhere.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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