It started during the lockout with their linchpin tackle holding a clipboard with his practice notes installing schemes. Now the proud Bengals defense goes into the playoffs in Houston (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 5) locked back down in those grimy basics that made them No. 1 in the NFL for a few heady weeks in October.
“When you have that type of leadership, you can do some good things,” Domata Peko said after practice in a January chill heated with summer fundamentals. “I guess it paid off, because you reap what you sow, and we sowed some seeds of hard work. We tried to start early, and we’re reaping the harvest right now.”
On Wednesday his coaches tilled some fertile earth. While head coach Marvin Lewis opted for a day to return to the Runs of August and put his team back in pads, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer went back to his Detroit Declaration the day after the disastrous Aug. 12 preseason opener when he didn’t rip his unit for its woeful outing and instead massaged it.
In fact, he went so far to assure the owner this defense would be good.
And on Wednesday he reminded his players and everyone else.
“We forget that we are pretty good, too,” Zimmer said.
There have to be some reminders because just a few days ago Ravens running back Ray Rice ripped the Bengals for two long touchdown runs totaling 121 yards. They didn’t allow that number on the ground in 11 games or in the previous two games.
And the Bengals are preparing to face the rookie quarterback that just 25 days ago gouged them for 163 yards in the game’s final 11 and a half minutes, most of them when third-string-fifth-round-pick T.J. Yates went to the air. The Ravens passed for less than that last Sunday. So did the Browns six weeks ago and Denver's Kyle Orton, San Francisco's Alex Smith and Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick barely did it in their entire games against the Bengals.
“We are (good),” said safety
So the Bengals this week are going back to where it all began.
While left tackle
He had help from cornerback
“We’ve been using some of that stuff we installed,” Peko said, not without certain pride. “Leon put guys through different coverages. We went through run fits and things like that. We went over different runs that hurt us last year.
“I just wanted to get a head start; get something going. I wanted the rookies to see the way we had done things here and get that going.”
The one thing that Peko didn’t have on his clipboard was chemistry. But he furnished that, too, when he went into his pocket to pay for the rookies’ hotel rooms and any other player that didn’t have money coming in, as well as producing some rental cars.
“Start building that chemistry,” Peko said. “Defense is a lot of chemistry. When you get that good chemistry, you can play really well and be comfortable with one another.
“You think about the good teams like that. Tom Brady. He’s always out there and he’s in command of his offense. When you have that on our team, it shows that we can do some good things, and it really helps the coaches out there.”
The players didn’t have pads, of course, during the lockout but that same kind of commitment was on display Wednesday when Peko says Lewis put them back in pads for the first time in a couple of week.
“Let’s get back to when we were No. 1 in rush defense,” Peko said of this week’s message. “I think that’s why we threw the pads on, to kind of simulate that. You lose sight of the technique if you don’t have your pads on. You (have to) stay low and get off blocks, so we’re trying to simulate that. It’s good to get back into pads because we play in pads. I think we needed that. We needed to get back into that. We were playing really great and then we lagged for the last couple of weeks. We had some big runs on us. That stuff doesn’t sit easy for me. I hate that stuff. If someone breaks a big run, I take that personally.”
The Bengals have been off and on lately. Before Rice’s two runs, the longest run the Bengals had given up in the previous two games was 18 to the Rams’ Steven Jackson.
But in the Dec. 11 loss against the Texans, running back Ben Tate broke one for 44 yards. Rice, naturally, began Cincinnati's big-run woes on Nov. 20 in Baltimore with a 59-yarder that set up a field goal. Before that, the Bengals had allowed just four plus-20 runs with Seattle running back Leon Washington logging the longest with 28.
“The game we played last week was so, we had lost our minds, all our guys were trying to do was make this play, make that play, do this, do that,” Zimmer said. “We are doing things outside their responsibilities. I think that was a good thing, you know, because now I can talk about, hey, we have been there already, now we got all that stuff out of us. Let's line up and let's do what got us to this point and why we are where we are and hopefully they'll understand that because last week we had guys that, quite honestly, lost their minds.”
But he’s got a bunch of sanity in guys like Peko and Crocker. They were here back in ’08 during Zimmer’s first season when the Colts and Ravens put up 69 points on the Bengals in back-to-back games. They were also here in ’09 when the Bengals allowed seven offensive touchdowns in the six-game sweep of the AFC North and anchored this season’s 6-2 start allowing 3.3 yards per rush and allowed 17.5 points per game.
“From Day One we believed in him and what he was coaching,” Crocker said. “Sometimes you forget that, and try to do something extra when you don’t have to. We’ve kind of gotten back to that. We don’t have to do anything extra. Just do what we’re coached to do.”
For most of this season Crocker has been taking Wednesdays off to rest nine seasons of hits. But not this Wednesday.
“We all deal with injuries and we go through certain things during the season; but this is sudden death,” Crocker said.
Which is what Yates did to the Bengals 25 days ago and Zimmer has been watching.
“I didn't know a lot about him but the kid's got good poise, he makes good decisions; he reminds me of our quarterback,” Zimmer said. “He seems to be a smart guy, he throws the ball away when he needs to. He did a good job. We gave him a couple plays during that last two-minute drill. We had a busted coverage and a pass interference, a third-and-17 where we had him sacked and he scrambled for a first down.
“There were so many plays in that ballgame that could have won the game the other way, the fumble earlier on, the third-and-17 play, I mean, we had the guy sacked, he got out of it. This is going to be a different game and I anticipate plays like that will win the game for one or the other."
But Zimmer reminds his players the Texans had to throw because the Bengals shut them down early, which is a huge factor. It’s dangerous to fall behind to a team that has the NFL’s second-best defense and running game.
“They threw for a lot of yards but we got up on them (16-3) and they had to throw the ball a little bit more,” Zimmer said. “Every game is different. You can't go into this one and say 'oh, they didn’t' run the ball good this time.' They might have the mentality that's what they are going to do the whole game. I don't think so, but every game is different.”
Different enough they are going back to August, more proof that Lewis's roster changed but not his hard-driving practice weeks. Crocker gave a weary smile. "He's the son of a (steel worker). We're always grinding."
It seems to be what the Bengals do best.
“No one gave us a chance. But coming out of Georgetown (training camp), we really did feel good,” Crocker said. “It all started in Detroit. We went up there and got whooped pretty bad, but there were still a lot of good things we took from that tape.
“We started to form a team chemistry, and guys started coming together. In that preseason game, we got kicked in the face. Sometimes you kind of need that. At that point, we didn’t know what kind of team we were, or were going to be. It gave us a lot of things to work on. If that hadn’t happened early in the season, who would have known? You’d rather have it happen early than late.”