GEORGETOWN — For all the talk about their many offensive weapons, the Cincinnati Bengals should not be overlooked on the other side of the scrimmage line.
Defense wins championships, right?
The reigning champs of the AFC North finished last season with the No. 4 ranked defense overall (301.4 yards per game), their best ranking since 1983, when they were No. 1. They finished sixth in the league in points allowed, 18.2 per game, their second-best ranking ever in that category.
Cincinnati was sixth-best against the pass (203.1 ypg), No. 7 versus the run (98.3).
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
"I'm excited," said Mike Zimmer, who returns all his starters in his third year as defensive coordinator. "If things go as planned, we have a chance to be pretty good. We have a chance to be better."
Roy Williams, a five-time Pro Bowl safety during his days with Dallas, is back after being limited to four games last season because of a forearm injury. Ditto for tackle Antwan Odom, who had eight sacks in six games before a ruptured Achilles' tendon ended his season.
Free-agent additions include safety Gibril Wilson and cornerback Adam Jones.
"Man, we can be as good as we want us to be," Jones said. "The sky's the limit. 'Zim' paints a great picture when he explains the defense."
Zimmer is in his 17th season as an NFL coach and 11th in a row as a defensive coordinator.
In 2008, his first season with the Bengals, the defense improved from 27th in yards allowed to No. 12, then to No. 4 last year. Now, he wants his defense to play even better.
"Lots of ways (to improve)," he said. "It's a third year with the guys hearing the same things. I think we're deeper. I think we're more athletic."
When Zimmer says he thinks he has what could be a special group, the sense is that he's not blowing smoke.
"It's the most talented since I've been here, for sure," he said. "We were pretty talented in Dallas one year. But the talent doesn't mean anything at the end of the day. It really doesn't. I've had really talented teams that have not played well, and I've had poor or lesser talent that have played extremely good.
"So the key is getting all these guys to play. How do we play on Sundays? How do we play in the games? And are we going to fight when our backs are to the wall and we've got to stop them here to win the ball game?"
Certainly this is one of the deepest defenses the Bengals have had in a long time.
The top 20 tacklers return, including 100-plus linebackers Dhani Jones (142) and Keith Rivers (101). Cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph each started every game last season, and each picked off six passes.
"Considering that we were fourth, we've still got three slots that we need to improve," Hall said. "We want to be No. 1. We talked about it (Wednesday) night, being No. 1 on defense.
"You've got to go game by game but ultimately, obviously, you want to get to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl. With the team we have this year, I think we can do that."
Defending the run is the key to becoming No. 1, according to Domata Peko.
"That's where we can improve big-time, and that's where it all starts — stopping the run," said Peko, who started 11 games at tackle and missed five games due to leg injuries. "That's where you get into situations — third-and-long, second-and-long — where it gets our nickel guys in there to rush the passer and create turnovers and picks and sacks."
Tank Johnson, who played through a foot injury much of the season and started 13 games, was asked about the pass rush.
"I hope it gets better," he said. "It starts with the run game. You've got to stop the run, then you'll be good."
Zimmer led top-10 defenses at Dallas using 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. During training camp, he'll see whether the Bengals might be able to play more 3-4 than in the past.
"We messed around with it some in spring, and I think we have some advantages with the personnel that we have now," Zimmer said.
"We might mess around with it a little bit in training camp and maybe a couple of pre-season games. If we're not good at it, I'm not going to play it. But if we can be good at it ..."