Bengal Gambles Having Early Payoff

Doug TifftContributor IAugust 22, 2009

CINCINNATI - 2008:  Mike Zimmer of the Cincinnati Bengals poses for his 2008 NFL headshot at photo day in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Getty Images)

You have to take some risks to reap some rewards.

The Cincinnati Bengals have not seen much of the latter in recent years, leading them to shake things up this offseason.

One area of modification has been on defense, a unit that was ranked 12th in the NFL in 2008. However, the Bengal defense featured a putrid pass rush—30th in the NFL with 17 sacks—leading defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to take more drastic steps before heading into 2009.

Zimmer, along with the Bengals front office, began the overhaul by addressing personnel deficiencies on Draft Day.

Cincinnati brought in middle linebacker Rey Maualuga—an All-American known for his straight-line bone-crushing inertia—who fell to pick No. 38 of the second round due to his limited lateral quickness.

By utilizing Maualuga as a blitzer, as was the case on a third quarter pressure of New England quarterback Brian Hoyer in the Aug. 20 preseason game, Zimmer is maximizing his new weapon’s talents, adding a talented pass rusher to his defensive repertoire.

Thirty-two picks after Maualuga, the Bengals also rolled the dice on defense, drafting defensive end Michael Johnson. Johnson was acknowledged as among the best pass rushers in the 2009 draft class, yet had obvious warts in his run-stopping abilities.

Zimmer has compounded the gamble even further in training camp, moving Johnson to linebacker to maximize the number of pass-rushers on the field at one time. While Johnson has been quiet of late—failing to record a tackle against New England—the experiment at linebacker has not blown up in Zimmer’s face.

The simplification of the pass rush from the standing, linebacker position—utilize your quickness and hand-fighting moves to get to the quarterback—are the traits that Johnson possessed and excelled with in college.

Zimmer’s gambling spirit has extended into his game planning, as well. Sending linebackers like Maulaluga and Johnson into the backfield has long been a staple of the Zimmer zone-blitzing scheme, especially in his stint with Cincinnati’s unit that lacks a dominant rusher at defensive end.

However, the emergence of an up-the-middle surge from defensive tackles Pat Sims and Domata Peko has allowed Zimmer to take gambles by sending members of the secondary into the backfield as well. The decreased time and comfort in the pocket for opposing quarterbacks keeps opponents from dissecting the newfound hole in the Bengal defense.

Questions still remain as to whether the risk of the new permutations of the defensive personnel and scheme will withstand the adjustment cycle of NFL offensive coordinators. But as the preseason drags onward, the chips pushed to the middle of the table by the Bengal defensive alterations have proven to accrue mild returns.