On the sidelines, Mike Zimmer snarled, a rabid dog baring his teeth at those that disrupted his goal. Linebackers saw bubbles from his frothing mouth after a missed assignment. Referees heard roars more commonly attributed to prehistoric beasts. Mike Zimmer was intimidation and his defenses embodied his spirit.
The pre-Zimmer Bengals defenses were pathetic. Here are the team’s defensive weighted DVOA* rankings, beginning in Marvin Lewis’ first year as head coach in 2003 (rankings are out of 32 teams).
*DVOA stands for determined value over average. It is a method for evaluating players and teams that adjusts the importance of statistics according to each situation. The weighted version places an emphasis on games played later in the season. Check out Football Outsiders for more info.
Only in 2004 were the Bengals anywhere close to an acceptable defense, and even in that lone season they were the fifth least consistent defense in the league. Marvin Lewis came with a reputation and résumé built around successful defenses, but it wasn’t until Mike Zimmer showed up that the Bengals became respected on that side of the ball. The team’s defensive weighted DVOA under Zimmer:
Under Zimmer’s tutelage, the Bengals have morphed into a solid defensive unit that borders on great when all members are healthy and playing well. If it were not for the aforementioned intense personality, Zimmer likely would have jetted for a head-coaching gig a few years ago. But it was that intense personality and hard-love style that endeared Zimmer to players—many of whom referred to the coach as a father-like figure—that also scared off NFL teams.
Zimmer was overqualified for a coordinator gig, but the Bengals were able to take advantage of the rest of the league’s reticence, soaking up every last bit of his fire-breathing wisdom. In January, Zimmer finally became head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. (Rumor has it he showed up to the first team meeting wearing the pelt of a caribou he had skinned just seconds earlier. Probably true.)
The new defensive coordinator in Cincinnati is former linebackers coach Paul Guenther, who spent the past two years helping Vontaze Burfict grow into a Pro Bowler and making some use of Rey Maualuga. His familiarity with the squad is a plus, but Guenther will need to prove that his more laid back approach can corral an emotional group. (That group is led by Burfict, who tied for the lead league with 12 penalties in 2013, including six unnecessary roughness flags.)
All signs point to Guenther being up to the task. Burfict told USA Today shortly after Guenther was tabbed as Zimmer’s replacement that he loved the Guenther “just as much as I love my mom.” Which, I suppose is a good thing?
The good news for Guenther is that Zimmer did not leave impossible snakeskin boots to fill. The Bengals have been a very good defense, but not quite one of the league’s best. While their pass defense has been in the top 10 the past two seasons (again, according to DVOA), their run defense has been middle of the road. Last year their “stuff percentage,” a measure of how often a team stops a runner at or behind the line of scrimmage, was a measly 15%, fourth worst in the league. (By comparison, the Arizona Cardinals had the best stuff percentage at 28%.)
Guenther will also welcome the return of two healthy stars in Leon Hall and Geno Atkins. While both are coming off serious injuries, they are expected to be close to normal by the start of the season. Throw in an ever-improving Burfict and the 2014 Bengals should have stars on the defensive line, linebacker, and the secondary.
So what needs to happen for the Bengals to elevate into a dominant unit? Let’s take a look at each level of the defense to find players that need to step up their game if the Bengals are going to be one of the league’s best defenses.
Defensive Line: Carlos Dunlap
One could make a case for Margus Hunt, the second-year Estonian giant who is vying for the snaps vacated by Michael Johnson. Same goes for the under-appreciated Wallace Gilberry, who may be finally allowed to show off his pass-rushing chops next to Atkins on a regular basis. There is even a case that Devon Still and Brandon Thompson could usurp Domata Peko and improve the interior of the line. Those players won’t transform this defense into a special one, however.
The 25-year-old Dunlap has improved every season and made strides last year as both a run defender and pass rusher. His massive size makes him a natural run stuffer and he has shown good instincts in that role. With Johnson gone to Tampa Bay, however, he won’t have a bookend that excels against the run, putting more pressure on Dunlap to continue to improve in that area.
As a pass rusher, Dunlap has flashes of brilliance yet struggles to string together consistent performances. In weeks 2–4 of 2013, Dunlap totaled five sacks, one QB hit and three QB hurries. That was followed by one sack over the next five weeks. Dunlap has more physical abilities than anyone on the defense, and if he can manage the difficult task of stopping the run and attacking the quarterback each week, the Bengals have a chance to be dominant up front.
LINEBACKER: Emmanuel Lamur
Before going down with a shoulder injury in the preseason last year, Lamur was lauded by the coaching staff. He had speed and coverage ability, which would complement Burfict’s run stuffing instincts and counteract Maualuga’s sloth. Up to that point, though, he had only played 136 snaps in the NFL, roughly the equivalent of two meaningful games.
Heading into the 2014 season, Lamur still has just 136 snaps under his belt but the same weight of expectations. He’s expected to be a three-down linebacker, specializing in covering tight ends and slot receivers on passing situations. With Maualuga relegated to primarily a first-down player at this point, Lamur will likely assume a huge responsibility this season.
For all we know, they hype is justified and Lamur will shine with extended playing time. The fact remains though that we know very little about what he can do in an actual game. If he can allow the safeties to roam a bit more freely though, the Bengals secondary should be solid again.
SECONDARY: Dre Kirkpatrick
The Bengals secondary is by far its most talent-rich unit on either side of the ball. Six of the team’s top seven defensive backs (including Cincinnati’s top five corners) were first-round picks, either by the Bengals or picked up as cast-offs of other teams, creating a glut of talented players.
Alas, while the group does have talent, they are an aging bunch. Terence Newman will turn 36 before Week 1. Adam Jones will turn 31 a few weeks later, and in December, Leon Hall will turn 30. The team needs their young studs to start pulling their own weight.
It starts with Kirkpatrick, who has struggled to stay healthy for most of his first two seasons. Last year, he was pressed into duty following a rash of injuries and certainly had some growing pains. He was targeted seven times in his first two stars, allowing 5 catches for 73 yards and 1 touchdown. But the next two games, including a playoff game against San Diego, Kirkpatrick was targeted 13 times and allowed just 6 catches for 40 yards and no touchdowns. He is being pushed in camp by 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard, who Marvin Lewis called the best rookie corner he has ever seen. If Kirkpatrick can earn playing time and stay healthy, he’ll allow Guentherto rotate the cornerbacks more freely and perhaps preserve some of the older legs.