CINCINNATI — Now that receiver Chad Johnson has thrown in the towel on his holdout threat, the Cincinnati Bengals' focus can shift back to their biggest shortcoming as they open training camp.
With this franchise, it's always the defense.
The Bengals changed defensive coordinators after another abysmal showing last season, the main thing that brought them down to a 7-9 finish. Mike Zimmer has revamped the defense — the cornerbacks will be more aggressive, the alignments more unpredictable — and tried to give it a new attitude.
Starting on Monday, they'll find out how it holds up. Zimmer installed his defense piece by piece during off-season workouts, then tested it against the starting offense during minicamp last month. So far, he likes how it looks.
”They've been very receptive,“ Zimmer said. ”They've bought into what we're trying to get them to do. The big key with this group is going to be to have some success. They're really eager to believe in something. If we can have some success early, I think that will allow them to buy into it a little bit more and maybe get the ball rolling a little bit.“
The defense has dragged the Bengals down during most of Coach Marvin Lewis' five seasons in Cincinnati. He's on his third defensive coordinator in those five years. Chuck Bresnahan was fired after last season, when the defense ranked in the bottom third of the league again.
There seems to be more urgency to finally get it fixed. Players are expected to report Sunday at Georgetown, then hold their first workout a day later.
”Eliminating explosive plays on defense is going to be a big part when we get to camp,“ Lewis said.
Quarterback Carson Palmer and the starting offense got to run plays against the revamped defense during minicamp last month, and noticed the changes.
”I think the entire offense has noticed a difference, and we're all excited about the way our defense has performed so far,“ Palmer said.
One of the most obvious changes involved the coordinator's approach to practice. Zimmer berated players for every mistake during minicamp, using profanity to get his point across. His loud voice was often heard across the practice field.
”You can tell Coach Zimmer doesn't take a whole lot,“ Palmer said. ”He's a guy you don't want to make mad. You don't want to let him down because he'll be on you, he'll be all over you. And that's something that those guys need, and they welcome it and they like it.“
Owner Mike Brown watched the minicamp workouts and came away with the same impression of Zimmer.
”I like him,“ Brown said. ”He's a good coach. He's aggressive. He's a hands-on coach at practices. The players know he's there. It's forceful when he addresses them. He doesn't hold back, no matter who he's addressing. I think he's going to be a real help for us.“
The Bengals have stayed with their 4-3 defensive alignment, but Zimmer plans to give it a different look at times. He might use five defensive linemen or only one safety. He's trying to expand some of the players' roles as he gets to know them better.
”We've just got to be a little creative and inventive in some of the things we do,“ Zimmer said. ”We'll find out. We'll learn a lot more when the pads come out.“
Caldwell close to signing
The Bengals' Web site reports that third-round draft pick Andre Caldwell will sign a contract Sunday in preparation for Monday's first practice at training camp.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Caldwell, the brother of NFL receiver Reche Caldwell, had a school-record 185 receptions for 2,349 yards (12.7-yard average) and 16 touchdowns in his career at Florida. He also rushed 41 times for 293 yards (7.1 average) and four TDs.
First-round pick Keith Rivers, a linebacker out of Southern Cal, remains unsigned.