GEORGETOWN — One season into his career as an NFL defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer was frazzled. His 2000 Cowboys couldn't stop the run — and if you can't stop the run in the NFL, you can't compete for playoff spots.
The Cowboys finished 31st in the league in run defense that season, allowing 164.8 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry, and never contended for a playoff spot. They finished 5-11.
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So Zimmer called an old friend, someone he met in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, when he was recruiting for Weber State and his friend was recruiting for Idaho State. Their friendship was rekindled in 1995, when they coached against each other in the Pro Bowl, then again in 1996, when they coached against each other in the Super Bowl.
Marvin Lewis did Zimmer a favor in 2001. Seven seasons later, Zimmer hopes to return the favor.
Lewis was the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens and the architect of one of the best run defenses in NFL history in 2000. The Ravens allowed 940 rushing yards, a record low for a 16-game season. Opponents averaged 60.6 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry against the Super Bowl champions.
Sure, Lewis told Zimmer, let's talk. Come on up to Baltimore for the weekend. So Zimmer spent three days in the Ravens' facility that off-season watching game tapes with Lewis, discussing schemes and philosophies.
”We went through how we coached different things and how he was coaching it,“ Lewis said. ”We shared things. I think we were able to reassure him that some of the things he was doing were good. He was sound. It was just a matter of getting the players in step.“
Zimmer got his players in step quickly, improving to fourth in the NFL in defense in 2001 and 13th against the run. By 2003, the Cowboys ranked first in defense, third against the run and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in the decade.
Lewis became head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003, and now he has the defensive problems. The Bengals finished 28th, 30th and 27th in defense the last three seasons.
So Lewis hired Zimmer as his defensive coordinator this season. Zimmer had offers to coordinate other NFL defenses, but he remembered that weekend in Baltimore.
”We spent a lot of time talking football,“ Zimmer said, ”and we got a lot better on defense in Dallas after that. That was part of the reason I wanted to come here. I wanted to repay Marvin.“
Lewis gave Zimmer the freedom to implement his scheme and terminology in 2008. After two weeks of training camp, Lewis said he is excited about what he's seen from the new-look Bengals. They are tackling better, covering better and playing with greater awareness.
”You play defense with 11 guys, not two or three,“ Lewis said. ”Your eyes have to work to play defense. You need 11 guys playing together. Mike is getting that across. He's very confident in the approach and scheme he developed in Dallas.“
The Bengals used two recent first-round draft picks on cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall. They were players on the defense in 2007. Lewis expects them to be playmakers in 2008.
”Mike was trained as a secondary coach, so he's been great with our two young corners,“ Lewis said. ”I think we're going to reap the benefit of two first-round corners big time. Also, the two safeties were drafted last year. He's a teacher, and he's very demanding. He's getting our guys to do things right.“
Zimmer also is excited about what he has seen from the Bengals this summer. He says they remind him of that 2001 Dallas defense, which finished fourth in the NFL with a blue-collar cast of starters that included linemen Brandon Noble, Michael Myers and Peppi Zellner and linebackers Markus Steele, Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley.
”The players here are good guys,“ Zimmer said. ”They've been beaten up so badly, they'll do anything we ask of them. If you tell them to do this, they may not be able to do it, but they're going to try every single time to do it right.“
With a franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, and a top-10 offense already in place, the Bengals don't need to dominate on defense to qualify for the playoffs. But they do need to become competitive.
Zimmer is going to demand it. And coach it.
”He's changing things from the ground up,“ Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton said. ”He has a different style of calling the plays. He and Marvin are similar in their approach to the game, but this is Zimmer's defense. He's holding everyone a little more accountable.“