With most of the attention this offseason focused on upgrades and changes to the Bengals' offense, things around the defense have been mostly quiet. But that doesn’t mean that coordinator Mike Zimmer hasn’t been trying to tinker with improvements.
While the team has not made any free-agent signings since quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan on March 6, it has had notable visits from two former Dallas defensive players -- Roy Williams two weeks ago and Tank Johnson on Thursday.
“The visit was fine. It was more of a get to know each other session,” Zimmer said.
After being released by Chicago in 2007 following a run of off-the-field incidents, Johnson has played in Dallas the last two seasons. Last year Johnson saw action in all 16 games and had 45 tackles with a sack, three tackles for loss and nine QB pressures.
Regarding the visit, Jerrold Colton, who is Johnson’s agent, said that the visit went well and that he was impressed with the team and the coaching staff.
Johnson played in a 3-4 with the Cowboys and struggled as a nose tackle. With the Bengals’ 4-3 scheme, Johnson could play either the right or left side and would be more of the pass-rushing tackle like he was with the Bears.
There’s also the question of where Johnson might fit if he was signed. Domata Peko who finished third on the team in tackles last year, has established himself at left end while Pat Sims, who was drafted in the third round last year, did a solid job during the second half of the season after John Thornton was injured. There is also the albeit slight chance that the Bengals may try to re-sign Thornton, who is an unrestricted free agent.
Whatever the case is, both sides are doing their due diligence before continuing.
“I called a lot of players in Dallas and talked to former players, front office people and former D-line coaches about what type of guy he is,” Zimmer said. “I also encouraged him to call former players about me. Sometimes I’m not the easiest guy to get along with and they need to understand what I am about.
“We’ve got a good nucleus of guys who know how to do things. That’s been one of the positive things so far and we don’t want a guy coming in here disrupting the chemistry.”
The Bengals are still trying to make a couple of signings, but it is likely that they will wait until after the draft, which is three weeks from today, before making a move.
Johnson and Williams are also garnering interest from other teams, so that timetable might move up if someone makes a move to sign.
Besides the tackle spots, there is also some concern about the ends. Robert Geathers is still rehabbing from a knee injury and won’t be back on the field until the June minicamp.
When it comes to pressuring the quarterback, the Bengals have fallen short in that area the last couple years, seeing their sack totals drop from 35 in 2006 to 22 in 2007 to 17 last year.
But pressure does not mean sacks alone. The Bengals have to become better at collapsing the pocket, creating negative-yardage plays and also forcing opposing offenses into mistakes.
“We emphasized a lot last year about guys being in the right place,” Zimmer said. “Maybe I stagnated some of the progress last year because I was harping on getting them to stop run, then working on the pass rush and then the blitz. Now that we have a little better understanding of lining up and where we need to be, I can turn them loose a little more.”
More pressure by the line could also free up linebackers Rashad Jeanty, Dhani Jones and Keith Rivers to rush a little more. Typically in Zimmer’s scheme, Jeanty at the strongside spot would get the majority of opportunities.
At the league meetings last week, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis liked the way Jones played last season as he led the team in tackles with 165. Lewis also thinks that a healthy Rivers, who played in only seven games last year, will also help improve the group.
As for the secondary, Zimmer has been pleased with how the unit played last year and expects more improvement this season.
“One thing about the guys on the back end, they showed they are good competitors and not back down from certain situations,” Zimmer said.
While the Bengals did finish 12th in the league in total defense, Zimmer knows that the expectation levels this year are higher. Those goals were spelled out on Monday when the team began offseason conditioning at Paul Brown Stadium.
“It’s important that the players know that we as coaches consider this an important time of the year and do things correctly,” Zimmer said. “We have to be stronger and healthier. If our good guys aren’t playing all the time it puts us at a disadvantage.”