AFTER MikeZimmer's first Dallas defense finished last in the NFL against the run in 2000,the rookie NFL coordinator put out an SOS to coaches he respected, asking forhelp on how to turn around his unit. One of those answering the call was MarvinLewis, then coordinator of the Ravens, whose run defense was best in theleague. Lewis went so far as to invite Zimmer to Baltimore to discuss conceptsand schemes for several days. The following season the Cowboys not only ranked13th against the run but also were fourth in the league in total defense.
Zimmer tells thatstory when explaining why he was quick to answer the off-season call forassistance from Lewis, Cincinnati's coach since 2003. After the Bengalsfinished in the bottom six in total defense for the third time in Lewis'stenure, he brought in Zimmer to be his coordinator. "I felt I owed himsomething," says Zimmer. "Plus, I knew if I could get this bunch turnedaround, my reputation would be back to what it used to be."
Zimmer's decisionto join new Falcons coach Bobby Petrino's staff last year blew up when Petrinoquit with three games to play; Zimmer was let go at season's end. The coachingfiasco in Atlanta, however, doesn't compare with the long-term suffering of theBengals' defense.
Soon aftersigning on, Zimmer started watching tape of his new players, but he quickly hitthe OFF button because he wanted to make judgments on the practice fieldinstead of in the dim light of his office. "As I got to know them, I foundthat they're good guys," Zimmer says. "They want to please you. Theywant to do everything they can to be successful. They'll do anything to getthat monkey off their back."
That was evidentin training camp, when the defense played with more passion and aggression thanBengals watchers had seen in years. In the team's annual intrasquad scrimmage,the defense outscored the ballyhooed offense (using a special scoring system)for the first time this decade.
"I've beensaying since minicamps and [off-season coaching sessions] that I couldn't waitto see those guys play," quarterback Carson Palmer says. "They'reexplosive, fast, young. It's great to see Zimmer coach because he doesn't putup with anything. He puts a lot of pressure on you and [insists that you] dothe right thing all the time. That is exciting to see."
Zimmer goes abouthis job spitting tobacco and expletives; no player is safe. Later they laugh itoff, knowing it's his way of making them better. "He has an aggressivementality toward us so that we can have an aggressive mentality on thefield," says middle linebacker Dhani Jones. "If you go full-out to theball, have that attitude that you can't be stopped, that translates into abetter squad."
Zimmer is keepingthings simple and using the Bengals' attack-mode offense as a model for hisdefense. He's abolishing the mass substitutions of his predecessor, ChuckBresnahan, and playing to his players' strengths. For instance, talented endRobert Geathers will be allowed to work from his preferred left side ratherthan be moved around in search of favorable matchups. Lewis thinks this willhelp Geathers return to his 2006 form, when he had 10 1/2 sacks playing in onespot. (He dropped to 3 1/2 last year.) Cincy will also start rookie first-roundpick Keith Rivers at outside linebacker in a role that relies heavily on ballpursuit. With less to absorb early on, Rivers should be able to make plays onsheer athleticism. Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, first-rounddraft picks in 2006 and '07, respectively, will move up to the line for morebump-and-run coverage in passing situations.
"Zimmerbrings a different mentality—the physical mentality, the stop-the-run,don't-give-up-the-big-play mentality," Hall says. "He has expectations,and you're either going to [live up to those] expectations or you're not goingto play. He's not going to take anything from anybody."
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH MARVIN LEWIS (42--38 in NFL), sixthseason with Bengals
Ben UTECHT -- NewACQUISITION
Keith RIVERS (R)-- New ACQUISITION
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 1 1/2
Antwan ODOM --New ACQUISITION
New ACQUISITION(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2007 RECORD 7--9NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 24/7/10 DEFENSE 21/26/27
7 at Baltimore
21 at N.Y. Giants
5 at Dallas
12 at N.Y. Jets
9 at Houston
20 at Pittsburgh (T)
7 at Indianapolis
21 at Cleveland
28 KANSAS CITY
NFL Rank: 6
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .547
Games against playoff teams: 8
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Bengals' units.
Palmer is one of the best; when he gets time, he can be great.
Need explosiveness; Johnson's 2.9-yard average doesn't cut it.
Both Johnson and Houshmandzadeh can take over a game.
Reggie Kelly slipped in '07; newcomer Utecht will be the playmaker.
Talented outfit that has renewed stability at the tackles.
Need Geathers to find '06 form and Odom to repeat '07.
Solid unit needs a playmaker; Keith Rivers could be it.
Two No. 1 picks at the corners, but safeties aren't physical enough.
Steady and consistent; Graham makes kicks from long distances.
Though 37 catches and two TDs were Utecht's seasonhighs in Indy, the Bengals believe the free-agent pickup will provide adependable outlet when defenses focus on star wideouts Chad Johnson and T.J.Houshmandzadeh. Carson Palmer says Utecht's abilities as a blocker and areceiver will keep teams guessing whether Cincy will run or pass.
NOW AT SI.COM
EXCERPTED FROM SI
December 14, 1981
COLLINSWORTH seems to hover over the surging sparrowsof the press. Ask of Cris a sentence and ye shall receive a paragraph. Ask ofCris a dumb cliché, and ye shall receive a bright, sensible and expansiveanswer. And because there is no telling what might pop out when a thought leapsfrom his fertile mind, it is best to drop by early. If you don't you're likelyto miss the meal.
-- John Underwood
Free access to all BENGALS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
STAY-AT-HOME Sticking on the left side should help Geathers snare more sacks.
LANE STEWART (COVER)