|Evan Pinkus/Associated Press|
|Rookie Vontaze Burfict wasn't even drafted back in April, but he's the Cincinnati Bengals' second-leading tackler.|
Mike Zimmer has a library of answers at his disposal every week, having a dozen years under his belt as an NFL defensive coordinator and more than three decades logged in the overall profession.
And that's why it was so confounding to him, through eight games, watching his Cincinnati Bengals defense play. The unit allowed more than 24 points six times, over 110 yards rushing five times, and generally put too much on Andy Dalton and Co. to win games, which 3-5 Cincinnati wasn't doing with enough regularity.
"We were watching our game against the Giants from four years ago," Zimmer recalled on Wednesday afternoon. "You always say as a coach, 'Hey, we want to stay one step ahead, or everyone's gonna catch up.' But we saw some really good things on that tape, and said we were gonna go back and be who we are. It was basically the thinking that we do these things really well, and decided, 'Let's do what we do.' "
Zimmer's group has been nothing short of smothering, allowing a total of 35 points (excluding a San Diego defensive score) over the last four weeks, holding three of its four opponents under 300 total yards and forcing nine turnovers. The two touchdowns the Bengals have yielded were a garbage-time score by Giants tailback Andre Brown and a Carson Palmer toss to Oakland Raiders teammate Denarius Moore with Cincy up three scores.
"Some of the things we'd done in the past, we kinda forgot about," Zimmer explained. "We looked at it and said, 'Shoot, these pressures are great. Why are we messing around?' We wanted to keep doing things the way that we'd done them."
Looking back to where Zimmer found the Bengals' elixir can bring clarity on how perception hasn't yet caught up with reality on the job he's done in five years as Cincinnati's DC.
The game tape that he pulled was from Week 3 of the 2008 season: The Bengals gave the Giants, in the midst of a 15-1 run that included a Super Bowl title, all they could handle in that overtime loss. That was Zimmer's first year in Cincinnati, the Giants were a juggernaut, and yet the reigning champs needed a controversial call on an Amani Toomer catch in the extra session to go their way to vanquish the visiting Bengals.
On a larger scale, 2008 was messy for the Bengals, but they still finished 12th in total defense. The three years between then and now, they've been fourth, 15th and seventh. And even after that uneven start this year, they're up to eighth now. With an average finish of ninth in the past four years, they're not that far behind Pittsburgh (second) and Baltimore (fourth).
The big difference now lies in the construction of the groups: Cincinnati's is eclectic in comparison to its blue-blooded rivals. There are seven former first-round picks in the secondary, but only two who were drafted by the Bengals. One starting linebacker is a rookie (Vontaze Burfict) who was considered so toxic he went undrafted despite being one of the bigger names in college football in 2011. The unit's best player, Geno Atkins, came into the league as a fourth-round pick.
But physically, they're big and fast and strong, which is why the slow start was so perplexing.
"I thought we'd be really good going into the year, and then we got punched in the face in the first game," said Zimmer, referencing a beatdown his team took in its opener in Baltimore. "We won that next game, but we still didn't play good ball. We lost confidence, we were shell-shocked."
Even more difficult to understand, from Zimmer's standpoint, was the variance from a normality in his scheme: "Typically in my defense, if the corners are playing well, we know we played well, and that wasn't the case early on. ... It's uncharacteristic of my guys. The corners were fine, but we were giving up big plays, and some really crummy runs; there was a 32-yard touchdown run we gave up in Week 2 against an eight-man box. We had to figure it out."
After Week 1, Zimmer says, he decided to stop looking at the league's defensive stats. Only after Thanksgiving did he allow himself to take a peak.
In between, there were tweaks. The team had to replace linebacker Thomas Howard, something that necessitated Burfict flipping sides. Safety Chris Crocker, released in April, was brought back in late September to help stabilize the secondary. And then, there was the simple principle that Zimmer kept drilling to his players: "The team that busts its rear end to the ball and makes less mistakes generally wins."
At the end of the day, the answer to all that ailed the Bengals was much simpler than anyone might have thought in September. After a half-decade with Zimmer, Cincinnati is establishing a level of consistency and quality on defense, which is what raised the expectations in the first place. And returning to what got the Bengals there, really, was all that Zimmer had to do.
"We're playing really good right now, and obviously we'll be playing a lot of good quarterbacks, so we have to keep that up the next four games to be considered with those teams," Zimmer said. "And hey, we may not get the recognition Baltimore and Pittsburgh get, but in my five years, we've been pretty good. This group has pride, a lot of young guys who don't remember past Bengals team, that stuff means nothing to them. And those guys want to prove something."
Against the Giants, Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers over the last four weeks, that young group has proved plenty. Against the Cowboys, Eagles, Steelers and Ravens over the next month, with a playoff spot on the line, they can prove even more.
Players on the spot
Dallas Cowboys RT Doug Free: The Bengals aren't overly imposing on the left side of their defensive front, but lately, it hasn't mattered who Free has gone against. His struggles were highlighted again by Eagles edge rusher Brandon Graham, who had a breakout performance on Sunday night, and you have to believe Zimmer's going to find a way to test the Cowboys' $40 million man.
Houston Texans CB Kareem Jackson: The former first-round pick has been a liability for the Texans, and there's no one better at finding a scab, ripping it open and bleeding a defense to a resulting death than Tom Brady. One AFC scout said of Jackson, "He's just not very good -- high cut, with questionable instincts and quickness." The Texans don't have many holes. This is one they'll need to cover up.
San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick: There wasn't an organizational consensus on Kaepernick before the season started -- despite his eye-popping physical ability -- and the train of thought is out there that sticking with Alex Smith would've been the smart play. The loss in St. Louis bolstered that idea. And the Miami Dolphins, who frustrated Brady to a degree last week, won't roll over for the Niners. This is a big one for the kid.
Pittsburgh Steelers LT Max Starks: Really, this goes for the whole Pittsburgh line. With Ben Roethlisberger returning from injury this week, protecting the quarterback is paramount. The team's season depends on it. Slowing Shaun Phillips is the key. The Chargers' top edge rusher has seven sacks on the year and is a smaller, quicker player who could wreak havoc on the Steelers' big linemen. Starks must keep Phillips at bay.
Coaches in the spotlight
Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron: The overarching goal for Baltimore in dealing with Robert Griffin III is to get him off-kilter and out of rhythm. Best way to do that: Make him go long stretches without the ball, and that means running the ball yourself. It won't be easy against the Washington Redskins' four-ranked run defense, but Cameron must find a way to get Ray Rice going on Sunday -- after giving the star running back just 13 touches in last week's loss to Pittsburgh.
Kansas City Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel: I wanted to find somewhere to write this, and this seems to be a good spot. No matter what you think of the job he's done this year, it's hard not to admire how Crennel handled the last week in Kansas City. One player told me Crennel was asked about being able to help his team through all this, even with all he was dealing with personally. Crennel responded that, for one reason or another, he's built to handle these kinds of things. You can say that again.
Something to spot on Thursday night
Growth in the Denver Broncos' run game. The Broncos haven't cracked 100 yards rushing in their two games since losing Willis McGahee, and this week is as good a week as any to get right; Oakland ranks 28th in run defense and allows 4.7 yards per rush. And with John Elway's stated goal to build a team that doesn't have to lean too hard on Peyton Manning to win, the Broncos' ability to rework the run game bears watching.
The New York Giants' secondary. New York has allowed a staggering 44 pass plays of 20 yards or more, something that led to a players-only film session of linebackers and defensive backs a couple weeks back. Next up: Drew Brees, who carved up the Giants for 363 yards and 49 points last November. Last year, the Giants were able to shore up the problem in December. This would be a good week to start doing it again.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.