SI's 2008 NFL Scouting Reports
Cincinnati Bengals
Projected Finish: 4th in AFC North
Sticking on the left side should help Geathers snare more sacks.
Tom Lynn/SI
2008 Schedule

A new philosophy on defense -- more attack-minded, more physical -- might be just the jolt these underachievers need.

After Mike Zimmer's first Dallas defense finished last in the NFL against therun in 2000, the rookie NFL coordinator put out an SOS to coaches he respected,asking for help on how to turn around his unit. One of those answering the callwas Marvin Lewis, then coordinator of the Ravens, whose run defense was best inthe league. Lewis went so far as to invite Zimmer to Baltimore to discussconcepts and schemes for several days. The following season the Cowboys not onlyranked 13th against the run but also were fourth in the league in totaldefense.

Zimmer tells that story when explaining why he was quick to answer theoff-season call for assistance from Lewis, Cincinnati's coach since 2003. Afterthe Bengals finished in the bottom six in total defense for the third time inLewis's tenure, he brought in Zimmer to be his coordinator. "I felt I owed himsomething," says Zimmer. "Plus, I knew if I could get this bunch turned around,my reputation would be back to what it used to be."

Zimmer's decision to join new Falcons coach Bobby Petrino's staff last yearblew up when Petrino quit with three games to play; Zimmer was let go atseason's end. The coaching fiasco in Atlanta, however, doesn't compare with thelong-term suffering of the Bengals' defense.

Soon after signing on, Zimmer started watching tape of his new players, but he quicklyhit the 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 found thatthey're good guys," Zimmer says. "They want to please you. They want to doeverything they can to be successful. They'll do anything to get that monkey offtheir back."

That was evident in training camp, when the defense played with more passionand aggression than Bengals watchers had seen in years. In the team's annualintrasquad scrimmage, the defense outscored the ballyhooed offense (using aspecial scoring system) for the first time this decade.

"I've been saying since minicamps and [off-season coaching sessions] that Icouldn't wait to see those guys play," quarterback Carson Palmer says. "They'reexplosive, fast, young. It's great to see Zimmer coach because he doesn't put upwith anything. He puts a lot of pressure on you and [insists that you] do theright thing all the time. That is exciting to see."

Zimmer goes about his job spitting tobacco and expletives; no player is safe.Later they laugh it off, knowing it's his way of making them better. "He has anaggressive mentality toward us so that we can have an aggressive mentality onthe field," says middle linebacker Dhani Jones. "If you go full-out to the ball,have that attitude that you can't be stopped, that translates into a bettersquad."

Zimmer is keeping things simple and using the Bengals' attack-mode offense asa model for his defense. He's abolishing the mass substitutions of hispredecessor, Chuck Bresnahan, and playing to his players' strengths. Forinstance, talented end Robert Geathers will be allowed to work from hispreferred left side rather than be moved around in search of favorable matchups.Lewis thinks this will help Geathers return to his 2006 form, when he had 10 1/2sacks playing in one spot. (He dropped to 3 1/2 last year.) Cincy will also startrookie first-round pick Keith Rivers at outside linebacker in a role that reliesheavily on ball pursuit. With less to absorb early on, Rivers should be able tomake plays on sheer athleticism. Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, first-round draftpicks in 2006 and '07, respectively, will move up to the line for morebump-and-run coverage in passing situations.

"Zimmer brings a different mentality -- the physical mentality, thestop-the-run, don't-give-up-the-big-play mentality," Hall says. "He hasexpectations, and you're either going to [live up to those] expectations oryou're not going to play. He's not going to take anything from anybody." -- JimTrotter


SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.