These are not your father's Bengals.
To start the final Pittsburgh series Sunday at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger took over at his own 33 with 1:49 to play and Cincinnati leading 18-12. He stepped back into the shotgun and tried to do what he hadn't been able to do all day -- score a touchdown. In fact, dating to the Steelers' first game with the Bengals this year, Roethlisberger had gone 13 straight series without scoring a touchdown, and now he'd have to go 67 yards to break that schneid.
On first down, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer rushed six. Linebacker Brandon Johnson, a free-agent pickup after Arizona cut him two years ago, beat the block of running back Mewelde Moore and forced Roethlisberger to throw incomplete.
On second down, Zimmer rushed the customary four, and Roethlisberger, hurried slightly, misfired deep down the right side for wideout Mike Wallace, with another 2008 street free-agent, safety Chris Crocker, in tight coverage. Incomplete.
On third down, Zimmer sent five, and Roethlisberger had enough time to make a good deep throw to Hines Ward -- but Ward was blanketed by cornerback Johnathan Joseph, and the Bengals defender actually dropped an interception.
On fourth down, Zimmer sent four, including two third-round defensive ends -- Frostee Rucker (2006) and Michael Johnson (2009). They met at Roethlisberger, nearly sandwiched him, and Roethlisberger had to hurry a final incompletion to Ward.
I watched nearly every snap of this game, and that last series showed the defensive depth of Cincinnati. The two linemen who had the best games were end Jonathan Fanene and tackle Domata Peko, and they weren't even heard from on the series. Fanene sacked Roethlisberger twice, batted down a pass and had six tackles. Peko's no sacker, but he's a line-collapser.
If you watched the game, you wondered which nose man had more impact -- the famous Casey Hampton of the Steelers or Peko, who's known only for the hair exploding out of the back of his helmet and covering his back. I haven't seen Roethlisberger's pocket crumble the way it did Sunday since the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore. That's how strong Cincinnati's defense was.
Also, as impressive as corners Leon Hall and Joseph have been this year, that's how impressive nickel back Morgan Trent was Sunday. He broke up two passes and seemed to be in the middle of the action all day.
The Bengals, 27th in team defense when the buck stopped with Marvin Lewis two years ago, hired Zimmer to run the D his way in 2008. The Bengals were a surprising 12th overall last year, and they'll be better this year. After Sunday's game, Cincinnati was second in the NFL in points allowed, at 16.3 per game.
"What Mike's done that's been so valuable is he's taught a team defense to our guys, front to back, so they have total confidence in the scheme and know exactly why they're doing what they're doing,'' Lewis told me Sunday. "He's taught them how to adjust, why they adjust, the evolution of a game plan. And he's taught them how you win in the NFL.''
And Zimmer's appealed to their emotional side too. You'll read in a minute how the shocking death of Zimmer's wife last month has ruled his life -- rightfully so. Saturday night, he read the defense a letter -- written in pencil -- from a 9-year-old Indiana kid who loves the Bengals. He told Zimmer he was going to dedicate his youth football season to the late Vikki Zimmer. "Let's go out in this game and make little kids like this one proud of how we play,'' Zimmer told his players. Cornball, yes. Effective, yes -- because it came from Zimmer's heart.
The Bengals are 7-2, and so much of it is due to the emotionally wrung-out defensive coordinator and his men.
Mike Zimmer's slowly coming back in Cincinnati, under the kind of pressure that would break most of us.
Imagine what Zimmer's life must be like. The defensive coordinator lost his wife to a yet-to-be-determined illness Oct. 8, and he comes home to an empty house every night. His son, Adam, lives in New Orleans and is an assistant coach on Sean Payton's staff, and his two grown daughters live in Texas, and all are still struggling to cope with the shocking loss. All Zimmer knows is he's been told by the medical authorities that Vikki died of natural causes, and that two organs stopped working the week she died, apparently leading to the death.
"She lost her voice, and we thought she just had laryngitis,'' Zimmer said from his office. "I thought she just had a cold. There were no drugs or alcohol in her system. They just don't know for sure yet. It's pretty tough.
"The thing that keeps me going is I've got to be a father and a mother. It's difficult, but you've just got to do it. You've just go to go on. I call the girls down in Texas, and they answer the phone crying and say, 'I'm just so sad.' And it's been harder on my son than I thought it would be. I just try to be there for them as much as I can. I've had to do things I never really thought of very much -- make sure I have a will, make sure I have my insurance taken care of.''
He spoke almost in a monotone, like he was trying to put one foot in front of the other and just go on.
"The letters, the messages, the cards ... they've been overwhelming. I've probably gotten 500 of them. They've helped. I've heard from a lot of people with depression. I got a letter from one guy who said that seeing me coach with what I'm going through gave him inspiration. I appreciate that. The thing is, it's so hard to be happy, even with how well the team is doing. We beat Chicago really bad a couple of weeks ago, and I go home, and I was just miserable. I've been sleeping on the couch because I just can't get back into our bed. I'm getting ready to go back in there, but I can't just yet. That's tough.''
She famously baked for all the players. "She always took care of us,'' said cornerback Jonathan Joseph. "She was a second mom to a lot of guys.''
Owner Mike Brown and business manager Bill Connolly were superb in flying both sides of the family to Cincinnati for the funeral, and arranging a dignified service, which Zimmer says he'll never forget. And his players -- Zimmer couldn't ask for a better group. The Bengals aren't the most talented. "But what makes this group special is you never have to get on them to work,'' he said. "It's great to be around guys who want to play the game and want to excel the way these guys do.''
On HBO's "Hard Knocks'' last summer, Zimmer, to me, came across like a head coach in waiting. I've always known him to be a very good teacher; what I didn't know was how naturally hard-nosed and disciplined he is. It just flows from him, and it's not forced. In the midst of his greatest tragedy, he is building a solid case to be an NFL head coach. If you can turn the Bengals' defense into a top 10 NFL defense, you deserve a bushel of interviews. Maybe you don't deserve a job over the four Super Bowl coaches on the street, but you deserve an airing.
"You ask the guys on this defense,'' said Joseph. "We like his approach. He's not looking to make any friends. He's looking to win.''
In seven of the Bengals' nine games, the defense has allowed 20 points or fewer. I think Zimmer's done his job.
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