When the Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) take on the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) this Sunday in an important divisional battle, both defenses will command tremendous attention. While the Steelers have long been known for great defenses, it's the Bengals who are led by the more dynamic unit this season. And as much as the talk in the Queen City has been about rookie quarterback Andy Dalton(notes) and his targets, more focus should be paid to what defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has done with a group of no-names and relative afterthoughts.
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With cornerback Leon Hall(notes) out for the season with an Achilles injury, defensive tackle Domata Peko(notes) and linebacker Rey Maualuga(notes) may be the only active marquee Bengals defenders among the NFL cognoscenti. However, two reclamation projects formerly of Bay Area teams, linebackers Manny Lawson(notes) and Thomas Howard(notes), are playing at a high level in Zimmer's defense. Howard had just 10 tackles in 12 games for the Oakland Raiders last season and played mostly on special teams. But head coach Marvin Lewis knew what the Bengals would be getting if they took a shot on the free agent, who leads the team in tackles (63) through 11 games.
"I've never been around a finer athlete at linebacker than what he is," Lewis recently said of Howard. "He's learning to fit into spots, and it's fun to watch him. He really has seized the moment at this point of his career. From the physical aspect to the mental aspect of being prepared and understanding the opponent, he's embraced it all. He's been a great addition for his abilities, but also for his mental makeup and what he adds to the team."
Lawson, the second of the 49ers' two first-round picks in 2006, signed a one-year deal with Cincinnati after San Francisco's new regime selected pass rusher Aldon Smith(notes) in last April's NFL draft. He's played in every game and ranks second on the team in tackles for loss (5). After years of confusion in undefined hybrid defenses, Lawson has taken to his new strong-side assignment like the proverbial duck to water.
Another former 49er, cornerback Nate Clements(notes), replaced departed free agent Johnathan Joseph(notes) and has thus far escaped the overpaid/underperforming stigma. He has 11 passes defended this season, and he's fifth on the team with 41 total tackles in a new role that doesn't force him to take on speed receivers so often. He fits the picture, and he knows his role. It's an incredibly disciplined pass defense, with just four interference penalties.
That seems to be the secret to this hidden gem of a defense. If you're assignment-correct, you can find a place here, and you can shine. It's not a flashy defense, but it's caught the eye of other teams, and other people who watch a lot of game tape, like Greg Cosell of ESPN and NFL Films.
"Cincinnati's defense is very good," Cosell said. "They're difficult to prepare for because they're very good at disguising pass pressure, forcing your pass protection to react a certain way and then, either dropping defenders out or bringing other defenders. They don't blitz with high frequency; you wouldn't put them in the same category as the New Orleans Saints with Gregg Williams, but they're really tough to prepare for."
Lewis was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens from 1996 through 2001, and he's seen some of the greatest defenses of all time. But just as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin can rest easy knowing that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has a strong handle, Lewis can focus on the entire team, knowing full well that Zimmer has it all under control.
"[Zimmer] has a great feeling for what's going on in the mind of the guy on the other side of the field," Lewis recently said. "He's got an innate knack for play-calling, to know what the other team is going to do and respond to it. He puts our guys in position to win the down, and he makes sure they have the knowledge of what they and the other team are doing. You go into our meetings, and you see everybody taking notes like it's trigonometry class. And I know when he misses [a play call], he beats himself up unmercifully about it."
Once thought to be the Cowboys' head-coach-in-waiting (he was Dallas' defensive coordinator from 2000 through 2006), Zimmer's name may be among the top entries for an NFL head-coaching position at season's end. The Bengals were 27th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics in 2007 (the last year before Zimmer), and they've been much better in every year since. But that's not where the coach's mind goes.
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"We look at weird stats," Zimmer told the team's official website in October. "First-down defense, yards per play overall," Zimmer said. "Obviously playing good in the red zone, third downs. It's nice to get three-and-outs but if it's four [downs] it's OK to me. We had two series where we had three-and-outs where they were backed up and had to punt from their own goal line. Those are things we look at more than total stats. Keeping them backed up and punt[ing] out of their own end zone."
And in most of those specific regards, the Bengals are batting with a very high average. They rank 14th in FO's first-down defensive metrics, and though the third-down numbers are generally lower, Zimmer's defense does a great job of preventing third-down conversions – their 36-percent conversion rate is among the lowest in the league. Only the 49ers are putting their opponents in a bigger hole to start (Bengals opponents begin their drives at their own 25-yard line on average), and only the Texans and Ravens have allowed fewer average yards per drive than Cincinnati's 23.72. Opponents wind up punting on 52 percent of their drives. Only the Jaguars have a higher percentage.
Last time the Steelers and Bengals faced off, Pittsburgh stole a close one, driving away from Cincinnati in Week 10 with a 24-17 victory. In that game, it was the experience of one Steelers player who helped make the difference. With all the pre-snap looks given by Zimmer's squad, the more alert pass-blockers, the better.
"An important player in response to that for the Steelers is running back Mewelde Moore(notes), because he's very good at blitz recognition," Cosell said of that first game. "He made some key blocks the last time these teams played."
Still, Ben Roethlisberger(notes) was sacked five times and hit 13 more times. The Steelers were 5-of-12 on third-down conversions and averaged 4.8 yards per play. Hall picked off one pass and defended three more in the first half before suffering his season-ending injury.
It was business as usual for Zimmer's new defense, but a new experience for the opponent. That's been the story all year, and if the Bengals keep ascending, his charges will eventually escape from under the radar and find the spotlight.
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