Before becoming the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis made a name for himself as one of the best defensive minds in the NFL.
Yet during his first five years in Cincinnati the team’s defense has struggled, finishing in the bottom half of the league in both points and yards allowed each season. In need of some help before starting his sixth season at the helm in 2008, Lewis turned to an old friend that he helped once before, Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer became the third defensive coordinator to serve under Lewis after the team fired predecessor Chuck Bresenhan following the 2007 campaign. Zimmer, who had spent the previous season in the same capacity with the Atlanta Falcons, made his mark serving as the defensive coordinator in Dallas for seven years.
Lewis and Zimmer have deep roots together. The two first met in Los Angeles during the 1980s. Zimmer was recruiting for Weber State and Lewis for Idaho State. Zimmer turned to Lewis after a tumultuous first season as Dallas’ defensive coordinator for help. After Zimmer spent a weekend with the then-Ravens’ defensive coordinator in Baltimore, the Cowboys’ defense turned the corner.
The unit ranked second-to-last in team defense in 2000 and couldn’t stop the run to save their lives, ceding 4.9 yards per carry. Following the meeting with Lewis that offseason, Zimmer gained confidence in his approach.
The results were evident. The Cowboys improved to fourth in the NFL in defense in 2001 and 13th in rushing defense. Within two seasons they would have the league’s top-ranked unit and be third against the run while qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
“You play defense with 11 guys, not two or three," Lewis said shortly after the Bengals hired Zimmer. "Mike is getting that across. He's very confident in the approach and scheme he developed in Dallas."
Zimmer has worked quite a bit with the secondary during his coaching career. He started his career as a part-time defensive assistant at Missouri in 1979. His next stop was at Weber State before moving on to Washington State as the school’s defensive coordinator.
After his Cougars’ defense was ranked eighth in the nation overall and third against the run in the 1993 season, Zimmer jumped at the opportunity to join Barry Switzer’s staff in Dallas in 1994.
His initial role with the Cowboys was as the assistant coach of the nickel defense. The following year he was promoted to the defensive backs coach before becoming the team’s defensive coordinator in 2000. The fact that Zimmer stayed with the team through four coaches further displayed his value to the organization.
Zimmer primarily implemented a 4-3 defense during his tenure with the Cowboys. However, after giving up the fewest yards in the league with a speedy and aggressive 4-3 scheme in 2004, new head coach Bill Parcells would still ask him to switch to the 3-4 defense upon is arrival to the Cowboys in 2005.
When Cincinnati pegged Zimmer as their defensive leader there was speculation that Zimmer would transition the Bengals from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but the team’s personnel didn’t allow for it to happen.
The 3-4 requires a big and strong nose tackle up front, to draw double teams and open up rushing lanes for linebackers. In addition, you need to have a nice stable of pass-rushing outside linebackers to make it efficient. After missing out on acquiring both Shaun Rogers and Dewayne Robertson last off-season, the Bengals opted to stay with the 4-3. The decision appears to have been the right move.
Lost in the Bengals 4-11-1 season in 2008 was some of the success that the defense had and the impact that Zimmer made in his first season. For the first time in the Lewis’ era, the team finished in the top half in yards allowed (12th) and were in the top 10 in rushing defense, allowing just 3.9 yards per carry.
Zimmer’s mark was also felt in the secondary where the Bengals saw vast improvements in their young cornerbacks, former first-round picks Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall.
The players love playing for Zimmer. His approach connects and inspires them to perform at a higher level. This was evident this off-season as two former players, veterans Tank Johnson and Roy Williams, rejoined their former coach in Cincinnati despite opportunities elsewhere.
Both Johnson and Williams excelled in a 4-3 defense, but suffered in the Cowboys’ 3-4 system. They are looking forward to getting back to the basics with Zimmer.
“There were a couple of teams offering considerable more money, but Roy liked the fit in Cincinnati,” Williams' agent Jordan Woy told Bengals.com shortly after the safety signed with the team. “It's a good fit for both sides really. Roy obviously has a great relationship with Mike Zimmer and he's excelled in that defense and the Bengals are happy to get a guy like that for their defense.”
Under Zimmer from 2002-06, Williams posted 487 tackles, including 6.5 sacks, with 17 interceptions.
Johnson was force for the Bears during their Super Bowl run and he’s hoping that getting back into a 4-3 scheme under Zimmer in Cincinnati will be just what the doctor ordered.
Zimmer plans to use Johnson in a three technique, which is more of a pressure type of defender with pass rushing ability.
“In the 3-4 nose tackle wasn’t really his thing,” Zimmer said. “When he was in Chicago he did well when he played there. Playing in a three technique gives him greater flexibility to play both sides. We needed a pressure type of player who can create havoc and push the pocket.”
The Bengals have turned the corner defensively in the first year under Zimmer’s tutelage and have the potential to be a top 10 unit this upcoming season after filling many holes via free agency and the draft. Expect even bigger improvement in the year ahead and further development for the team’s young players.