November 26, 2014

The Zimmer Era

Mike Zimmer, easily one of our favorite coaches, is bringing his badass style to the sideline for his fifth season as the Bengals’ Defensive Coordinator. He has overseen a transformation of his unit from a group that routinely ranked in the bottom third of the league into legitimate top-10 contenders. The progress is easily visible in their league rankings.

Below each ranking, I have listed the Bengals’ stat for that season and its relation to the top team’s stat for that season.

DEFENSIVE RANKING
Area 2008 2009 2010 2011
Overall 12
325.5 yd/gm (+88.3)
4
301.4 yd/gm (+49.1)
15
332.0 yd/gm (+60.4)
7
316.2 yd/gm (+44.4)
Passing 15
205.4 yd/gm (+48.5)
6
203.1 yd/gm (+49.4)
T-14
216.8 yd/gm (+39.0)
9
211.6 yd/gm (+39.7)
Rushing 21
120.1 yd/gm (+43.2)
7
98.3 yd/gm (+15.0)
19
115.2 yd/gm (+52.4)
10
104.7 yd/gm (+27.4)
Scoring 19
364 pts (+141)
6
291 pts (+55)
24
395 pts (+163)
9
323 pts (+96)
Sacks T-30
17 (-42)
16
34 (-14)
T-27
27 (-21)
5
45 (-5)
Interceptions T-21
12 (-14)
9
19 (-11)
T-14
16 (-9)
T-26
10 (-21)

A quick look at these numbers shows — and a perusal of the memory banks confirms — that the defense took a huge step forward in his first year. They had ranked #27 overall in 2007, which sadly was their best showing during Chuck Bresnahan’s 3 years as DC. At that point, just having a respectable defense felt almost dominant. Fans knew that they had a keeper in Zimmer.

They took another huge step forward in 2009, becoming downright stingy in the year of the ‘Cardiac Cats’. The offense went stale in the back half of the season, only scoring more than 20 points two times in the final nine games. The defense was the only reason the team was able to finish 5-4 after the bye week, holding opponents to 13 points or less in each of those five victories.

2010 saw a step back for two reasons. First and foremost, the defense ended the season with 11 of its members on IR. Eleven! 7 of those 11 were from the secondary. That is difficult for any team to overcome. The team had to deal with all of these injuries while playing a division winner’s schedule, pitting them against the top offenses from the AFC. But the emergence of the ‘Fisher Price package’ still gave us something to cheer for.

Finally, last year saw a return to the top 10. Injuries were not as numerous, but they still had an impact. A run defense that at one point was in the top 3 (along with the Ravens and Steelers) slipped after injuries to Pat Sims and Carlos Dunlap, while the secondary fought valiantly after Leon Hall was lost to an Achilles injury.

A pessimist might look at the pattern of these numbers and conclude that the defense is due for a mediocre season. But I see several reasons for optimism that they will not only repeat their top 10 ranking, but may move themselves into the top 5.

Key players are still in place. The defense lost declining safety Chris Crocker, rotational linemen Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene, and versatile backup LB Brandon Johnson. Rucker and Fanene, who accounted for 10.5 (23.3%) of sacks last year, will be missed the most, but they will be replaced by some combination of free agent ends Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey and rookie tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, making the loss minimal. However, they held on to Reggie Nelson, Manny Lawson and Pat Sims. Leon Hall continues to mend (targeting to be in training camp) and key linemen Atkins — excuse me, ProBowler Geno Atkins — and Dunlap will continue to power the line.

Ground control. By retaining Pat Sims and adding both Still and Thompson, the Bengals got stronger and deeper in the middle of the line. They will have to control the line of scrimmage, considering the string of potent RBs that the Begnals will face this year: Richardson x2, Rice x2, MJD, McFadden, McCoy, Bush, McGahee, Mathews, Charles/Hillis. That list includes 6 of the top 11 performers in 2011, plus the rookie TR. [For perspective, they faced 6 of the top 8 RBs in 2011, and only 2 of them -- McGahee (101) and Rice (104, 191) -- got more than 100 yds, and 3 of the other 4 -- Lynch (24), Gore (42), and Foster (41) -- were held under 50 yds rushing.]

Turning the corner at corner. I could not have said that phrase with a straight face a couple of months ago, and I have not bought in completely yet, but my perception of this group is changing. As I continue to read about Allen and Newman, the memory of Kelly Jennings is beginning to fade. There is a good chance that they will field 6 former first-round picks if Hall is ready to take the field for Training Camp. This group just might surprise us.

The glaring need is to improve in turnovers. A mere 10 INTs is a pretty sad numbers. Improvement in this single stat, along with getting near or into double-digits again in fumble recoveries, is the biggest key to making the defensive unit a difficult one to beat. And with Zimmer running the crew, we have every reason to believe that the defense can get there.