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Hurricane Zimmer pelts big names

Posted Oct 7, 2013

Now the opponent doesn't even have a prayer against the Bengals defense because, as usual, Mike Zimmer already drew one up.


Chris Crocker

Now the opponent doesn't even have a prayer against the Bengals defense because, as usual, Mike Zimmer already drew one up.

Zimmer, the salty and serious Bengals defensive coordinator who is the hottest name in NFL defense today, almost didn't want to admit it Monday.

But he's got a ritual he has been following before games for the past two or three years in the coaches' locker room. He wrote it himself and repeats it softy to himself.

"Because I’m a nervous son of a (gun). It helps calm me a little bit," Zimmer said.

"This is going to sound stupid. Every week I've got this little prayer I say. 'Let me make the right calls with the right adjustments. Let the players play smart and with great unity.' As long as they do that, I'm good.

"I say it about 100 times."

On Sunday, Zimmer's prayers put New England—from Woonsocket to Waldoboro and Foxborough to Framingham and all points in between—into a state of nervous exhaustion. Six-state icon Tom Brady suffered his worst statistical game in 71 weeks and nearly six seasons when his 52.2 passer rating was the biggest casualty of Cincinnati's 13-6 victory at Paul Brown Stadium.

A deluge of rain lasting 1:48 is now known as a Zimphoon. But Hurricane Zimmer has been wrecking big names all season with waves of veterans and winds of youth hooking up with a tried and true system.

It was the third time in 20 days Cincinnati took out a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the almost surreal combined third-down percentage of 22 percent. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger suffered through 3-for-12, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers puttered to 4-for-13, and in the piece de resistance Brady could only muster one out of 12.

And in vintage Zimmer, the slot corner who saw those third-down snaps against the NFL's most prolific slot receiver on Sunday, safety Chris Crocker, wasn't even on the team for the first two masterpieces.

At age 33 and 11 days after his first practice of the year, Crocker played 52 of his club's 63 snaps and helped hold slot receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to six catches for 90 yards. Brady threw at Edelman, his favorite slot receiver, seven times and only connected twice for 35 yards.

PATCHWORK QUILT

Cincinnati's best cover cornerback as well as top slot corner, Leon Hall, was out, as was its next slot corner, Brandon Ghee (thigh). Dre Kirkpatrick, the first-rounder from 2012, apparently isn't ready for the slot. Crocker, who first hooked up with Zimmer in Atlanta in 2007, is.

"You just keep playing until it's out of your blood," Crocker said Monday. "I'm lucky. I've got people here that trust me, fight for me. I've been with Zim for a while. He knows what I'm going to come in and do and being a consistent player, so it's easy to bring as guy like me back in."

Zimmer thrives on guys like Crocker. He's revived more careers than LinkedIn. He lets guys do what they can do and not what he hopes they should be able to do.

He took Crocker off the street in 2008. Same last year with right end Wallace Gilberry, the man who made the fourth start of his career and first as a Bengal last Sunday when he filled in for right end Michael Johnson, who he missed his first NFL game with a concussion. Safeties Reggie Nelson (2010) and Taylor Mays (2011) came in trades.

And you know how Mays isn't supposed to be able to play in space? Like he did against Rodgers when Hall couldn't play the last series, Mays at times helped out in the slot.

"A lot of guys stepped up. Taylor Mays played a lot in the nickel against four wides," Zimmer said. "We were down some players. Crocker went in there and it maybe it wasn’t the best matchup with him and Edelman or him and Amendola."

Zimmer can see why maybe Gilberry is working on his fourth team in his sixth season, but he doesn't focus on idiosyncrasies. What he knows is that Gilberry busts it in practice when he's working on the scout team and even though he's a bit undersized, he's been versatile enough to play at end on running downs and inside next to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins on passing downs.

Not wanting to overuse Gilberry with his size, the Bengals used him about 25 snaps per game last year and he came up with an astounding 6.5 sacks. With injuries to two ends, Johnson for this week and Robert Geathers for the season, Zimmer was a bit concerned about giving the 6-3, 270-pound Gilberry those 52 snaps on Sunday but he more than held up.

"He sometimes drives me crazy," Zimmer said. "He doesn’t drive me crazy in the games, but sometimes he’s standing back there not paying attention and things like that, so I have to get on him a little bit. But he’s played good. He played very well this week. He had a couple nice rushes. He hit the quarterback the one time (for a roughing penalty). But it’s nice to have a guy in there to go along with Geno when they’re turning to him."

HUNT PROJECT

Now Zimmer has another guy that is unheralded. Right end Margus Hunt, who made his NFL debut Sunday thanks to the Johnson injury, may have come in the second round and not from the street. But given that Hunt, the Estonian Junior Olympian has played football for just five years, he's supposed to be seen as a project.

But Zimmer liked Hunt's one pressure and bull-rushing for his first time out. And Zimmer knew Hunt wouldn't be awed.

“He was in the World Olympics, so this game isn’t that big a deal. ... He did some good things and the things he needs to continue to work on, he has to. It’s just the finishing. He gets to a point and now what do I do? We have to get him to the point where it just happens naturally … it’s not fluid yet," Zimmer said.

“He’s just learning. He didn’t use his hands well at SMU and this is part of the progression. First thing you have to do is get him off the ball and then where do I place the hands? And then the third thing is when he gets up too high when do I come up underneath and then the fourth thing when I get my hands on him what do I do? He’s probably at step three to four right now in progression. It’s going to continue to be awhile."

If Zimmer can work with projects like Hunt, then he can also work with misplaced veterans like Gilberry and Crocker. Crocker literally came out of nowhere Sunday to make seven tackles (two for loss) along with two passes defensed. He blew up a screen so quickly it looked like Brady was throwing it to him.

"He’s an instinctive guy. Sometimes too instinctive, like when he jumped offsides on the fourth-and-four," Zimmer said of the final drive Brady got more lives than a cat shelter. "But he is instinctive. Some of the reasons he plays so good is because he has great vision and instincts. But sometimes he guesses a little too much. But for a guy to come in off the street and play as many plays as he did against those guys ... but there were a lot of guys. Gilberry and (cornerback) Adam Jones played the last couple weeks now the entire game. Those things are good when we’re missing some guys, so that we don’t fall off the boat."

Maybe the matchups weren't perfect, but Zimmer and Crocker made it work.

"I just tried to smother those two guys, Edelman and Amendola. Take away Tom Brady's first read because he likes to go to those two guys a lot," Crocker said. "What makes Zim so good? I feel like we make really good adjustments during the game. Obviously they're going to make adjustments as an offense and then the defense has to adjust. It's a chess match. I feel like we're very good at making adjustments during the game. I've been on teams and seen staffs and that hasn't gone very well. I have the kind of mindset where I'm not facing a certain player; I'm facing a certain coordinator."

ADJUSTMENT ATTITUDE

These guys know who Zimmer is. Two weeks ago he got a pregame salute from Rodgers and he returned a thumbs-up. On Sunday he got a wave from Brady before the game. On Monday he was getting a thumbs-up from everyone.

Here was one adjustment Sunday that came between Brady's last two passes, when Zimmer opted for a double zone instead of a single-high safety. The Patriots were taking advantage of the man-to-man coverage with pick plays, so Zimmer dropped back and that's when Brady threw into a maze of Bengals that included Adam Jones for a game-ending pick of another sort.

While Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gets acclaim for taking away a team's strength, that's exactly how Zimmer retooled this Bengals defense into a top 10 staple the past six seasons, and that last Sunday sequence was as good of an example as any.

"I think we took some of the strengths away. That can be frustrating because you have to go to his second thing,” Zimmer said. "The coverage we were running at the time was good against it. The last play, the one where we got the interception on, we called something else. Sometimes you hit and sometimes you miss."

Zimmer said he did that several times and it helped. On some run downs he'd let one of the ends get upfield, guessing the Pats would be passing or going play-action and he was right more than he was wrong. Against Green Bay, the Bengals pretty much ignored the run, but not Sunday because they respected New England's run game.

The strengths Zimmer took away? He won't say. But the guesses are he prevented Brady from stepping up in the pocket and he did some games in the middle, while also preventing Edelman from hurting him with just two catches. Zimmer basically said to Brady, "Beat me with your rookie receivers," and he couldn't.

There wasn't a lot of mystery. There may have been times that Zimmer had linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga hover in the A or B gap and then when Brady declared them for protection, they would switch at the last minute. But the Bengals don't think Brady was confused. Maybe frustrated with his young receivers, but not confused.

"We don’t really disguise much. What we do is we try to line up the same all the time, so that’s really our kind of disguise," Zimmer said. "We’ve got two guys in the A gap and two guys down and a middle-of-the-field safety and we do different things off of that.

"We practiced it this week and talked about where we need to get to and how we need to control his hot throws and sites. He’s very, very good. Most quarterbacks we would’ve had him a lot of times. But he re-checked it and told the receivers where they were going and the play clocks getting down to two a couple of times. He got it right most of the time. There were just some lucky things we hit."

There was no sign in Zimmer's office Monday of the game ball that Lewis gave him after the game. It was in the coaches' locker room and it sounded like it may be there for a while.

"It’s a football," he said. "The players did all the stuff."

That ball doesn't have a prayer. But Zimmer does.

 

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