AFC North: mark lewis

CINCINNATI -- Before Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer jogs onto the field each week, he goes through the same pregame routine.

He checks back through his game plan one last time, and confers with coaches and players about various details they will want to look for once the whistle blows. He roves the field during warmups, watching the opposing skill players, looking for any game day hitches in their play. Any extra weakness they might show could be something his defenders can later exploit.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsMike Zimmer's defense limited the Patriots to just two field goals on Sunday.
And then, moments before team introductions are made, he goes into his secret place. Inside the Cincinnati coaches' locker room before kickoff, he recites the same prayer he has uttered the last few seasons.

Let me make the right calls, the correct adjustments. Let the players play smart, with great effort and great unity.

"There's more to it, but that's it," Zimmer said Monday afternoon, grinning with his head down. He cannot remember whe he started saying the prayer, but he knows he's said it "hundreds" of times.

"It helps calm me a little bit," he said.

To understand Zimmer, is to understand the virtue of patience.

He is a deliberate man; both in action and in speech. He often takes his time answering reporters' questions, as he tries to figure out whether he wants to answer the inquiry (there are times he declines to do so because he feels the question may be too intrusive upon his game plan); and how best to describe what he wants to see out of his defense in layman's terms.

To the benefit of Bengals fans, he's also been a deliberate man when it comes to getting a promotion. Despite routinely being one of the most talked about names for offseason head-coaching vacancies, the 57-year-old still has yet to land his first head coach gig. He has been a defensive coordinator for the past 14 seasons. He had had several good defenses in those years, too. This season he may well have the best unit he has had during the six years he has been in Cincinnati.

When asked during an interview Monday afternoon on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" show if he ever questioned why he had been passed over for jobs in the past, Zimmer admitted that he did at first. He was quick to point out that he is happy in Cincinnati and glad to be assisting the Bengals.

But the fact he is still an assistant is quite amazing.

Since Zimmer's arrival in 2008, the Bengals have been ranked in the top 5 in the following defensive categories: yards per game, yards per play, passing yards per game, first downs per game and fourth-down conversion percentage.

Against the New England Patriots in Sunday's 13-6 win, Zimmer limited Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to 197 yards passing and allowed him to convert just one third down. The only time the Patriots advanced past the first-down marker on third was in the second when Brandon Bolden caught a pass for a 14-yard gain. New England's eight percent showing on third-down was its lowest in 10 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

It was also the first time since Week 2 of the 2009 season that Brady did not throw a touchdown pass. Brady had found the end zone at least once in the previous 52 games. Had he done that again Sunday and once more next week against the Saints, he would have tied quarterback Drew Brees for the longest streak with a passing touchdown in NFL history. Brees' 54-game streak was halted last season.

Let me make the right calls, the correct adjustments. Let the players play smart, with great effort and great unity.

Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict did not want to give away any secrets to Cincinnati's game plan, but he did credit Zimmer with drawing up the perfect scheme.

"Coach Zimmer knew exactly what they were going to run and called great defensive plays," Burfict said. "We executed, and hats off to him."

It took some prodding, but near the end of a 26-minute interview with reporters in his office late Monday, Zimmer finally admitted what everyone already knew: "Just like the players," he said. "Players know when they play good for the most part, and you know when you call a good game or when you call a [bad] game. That was a good one."

Let me make the right calls, the correct adjustments. Let the players play smart, with great effort and great unity.

Head coach Marvin Lewis thought the game was so well-called that he gave Zimmer his second game ball. It's only the third time Lewis has handed out a game ball to a person who was not a player. The first time came in 2003, when he handed owner Mike Brown a ball after a win. No. 2 occurred five years ago this week.

On Oct. 11, 2009, the Bengals stymied division rival Baltimore Ravens on the road, beating them, 17-14. That afternoon was a lot like Sunday. Just like the Patriots, the Ravens rushed for just 82 yards. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 186 yards.

It was one of the finest defensive performances of Zimmer's career. It was also one of the most memorable days of his life. Just three days prior, on Oct. 8, his wife Vikki died suddenly.

Months later, Zimmer spoke to ESPN.com for a story about how he moved forward following her death. "The hardest part," he said, "is probably the loneliness, I guess."

He wasn't alone Sunday night. While relishing another win, Zimmer had dinner with son Adam, a Bengals assistant, and one of his daughters, Marki.

The victory dinners have been pretty sweet two of the last three weeks in particular. If his players continue performing at the high, unified level that they have so far, they'll start tasting even better. All the players have to do is execute. All he has to do is keep saying that prayer.

 

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