CINCINNATI -- Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- who is as intense as any coach in the NFL -- was eerily subdued in preparation for the Baltimore Ravens.
Zimmer didn't call out his defense after the Week 1 debacle against the New England Patriots. He took the blame in the media for everything that went wrong and kept the pressure and attention off his players. Even behind closed doors, players said Zimmer's demeanor was encouraging and complimentary, which isn't his usual style after a bad performance.
But Zimmer's rarely used strategy worked this week. His unit played loose and responded by forcing four turnovers during Sunday's 15-10 division victory against the Baltimore Ravens (1-1).
"Usually, Coach Zimmer is [a] brute," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "But he took the bullet and as a defense, we were like 'wow.' That let us know that he has our back regardless of what happens."
What happened Sunday was Cincinnati's defense looked more like the unit that finished No. 4 in the NFL last season. In a close game that included six field goals, the Bengals (1-1) dictated the pace with their defense, which continually stuffed drives. Linebacker Brandon Johnson, safety Chinedum Ndukwe and cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones had interceptions for the Bengals.
Cincinnati's offense sputtered against Baltimore's defense, which still hasn't allowed a touchdown this season. But the Bengals' defense remained undeterred. The Ravens, who have plenty of talent on offense, could never gather any momentum, converting only 4 of 15 third-down conversions and gaining only 259 yards. In Week 1, Cincinnati’s defense gave up 376 yards against the Patriots and a near-flawless Tom Brady and fell behind 31-3 early in the second half.
"I wasn't surprised; I was just happy to see them play that way," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said of Cincinnati's defense. "You know, there’s a lot of talk about Baltimore’s defense and everybody talks them up -- and they’re great. But I think our defense takes that as a personal challenge, and they outplayed them today."
The Bengals focused on confusing and pressuring Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who had the worst game of his career. Flacco finished with 154 yards, one touchdown, a career-high four interceptions and a 23.8 quarterback rating.
Flacco did not look comfortable and his mechanics gradually got worse as the game wore on. The Bengals only had one sack but kept the pressure on Flacco, who completed 17 of 39 attempts and threw off his back foot way too often. Three of Flacco's interceptions came in the second half.
"I felt like he was frustrated; his picks were more out of frustration," Crocker said. "We tried to show him different coverages also, and I think that helped. But I think he was definitely pressing."
The Bengals still have plenty of concerns, particularly with sloppiness and penalties on offense. Cincinnati once again was heavily penalized (nine for 56 yards). Many of the mistakes were mental errors that could have easily been prevented. But as long as Cincinnati continues to win in the division, the team will be in good shape. The Bengals, the defending division champion, have won eighth straight division games dating to 2008.
Even more important is that Cincinnati was able avoid an 0-2 start, which would have reduced its chances of making the postseason. According to ESPN’s Stats and Information, only 13 percent of teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-2 since 1990. I believe Sunday's performance was closer to what we will see from Cincinnati’s defense in 2010. Week 1 now feels more like an aberration.
"Zim had no problem taking one on the forehead, but deep down as a player you know he’s not the one making tackles," Johnson said. "He's not the one letting guys get open, and he’s not the one getting blocked. So even though he took the blame, we had to look at the man in the mirror, and that’s what we did. Everybody in the locker room had to come out and play better and play harder."
With this type of dominant performance, perhaps the Zen version of Coach Zim is here to stay.