Zimmer'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 for
help on how to turn around his unit. One of those answering the call was Marvin
Lewis, then coordinator of the Ravens, whose run defense was best in the
league. Lewis went so far as to invite Zimmer to Baltimore to discuss concepts
and schemes for several days. The following season the Cowboys not only ranked
13th against the run but also were fourth in the league in total defense.
Zimmer tells that
story when explaining why he was quick to answer the off-season call for
assistance from Lewis, Cincinnati's coach since 2003. After the Bengals
finished in the bottom six in total defense for the third time in Lewis's
tenure, he brought in Zimmer to be his coordinator. "I felt I owed him
something," says Zimmer. "Plus, I knew if I could get this bunch turned
around, my reputation would be back to what it used to be."
to join new Falcons coach Bobby Petrino's staff last year blew up when Petrino
quit with three games to play; Zimmer was let go at season's end. The coaching
fiasco in Atlanta, however, doesn't compare with the long-term suffering of the
signing on, Zimmer started watching tape of his new players, but he quickly hit
the OFF button because he wanted to make judgments on the practice field
instead of in the dim light of his office. "As I got to know them, I found
that they're good guys," Zimmer says. "They want to please you. They
want to do everything they can to be successful. They'll do anything to get
that monkey off their back."
That was evident
in training camp, when the defense played with more passion and aggression than
Bengals 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.
saying since minicamps and [off-season coaching sessions] that I couldn't wait
to see those guys play," quarterback Carson Palmer says. "They're
explosive, fast, young. It's great to see Zimmer coach because he doesn't put
up with anything. He puts a lot of pressure on you and [insists that you] do
the right 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 an aggressive
mentality toward us so that we can have an aggressive mentality on the
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
Zimmer is keeping
things simple and using the Bengals' attack-mode offense as a model for his
defense. He's abolishing the mass substitutions of his predecessor, Chuck
Bresnahan, and playing to his players' strengths. For instance, talented end
Robert Geathers will be allowed to work from his preferred 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 1/2 sacks playing in one
spot. (He dropped to 3 1/2 last year.) Cincy will also start rookie first-round
pick Keith Rivers at outside linebacker in a role that relies heavily on ball
pursuit. With less to absorb early on, Rivers should be able to make plays on
sheer athleticism. Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, first-round
draft picks in 2006 and '07, respectively, will move up to the line for more
bump-and-run coverage in passing situations.
brings 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 going
to play. He's not going to take anything from anybody."
STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH MARVIN LEWIS (42--38 in NFL), sixth
season with Bengals