Since Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer took over the reigns as Bengals defensive coordinator before the 2008 season, his unit has been annually ranked within the top-ten in total defense. The finger that one would point to the success of the unit obviously starts in Zimmer's direction, but there are a combination of factors at work aside from his fiery leadership. Some wise draft choices, some solid free agent deals and the development of the players in both of those categories has been key. But so have the staff members working under Zimmer.
Nine years ago, the Bengals hired a defensive coaching assistant named Paul Guenther. His initial role was helping out as an assistant with the staff, but was soon promoted to working with both the special teams and the linebackers. In 2008, most Bengals fans were pleased with the hiring of former Ravens defensive assistant, Jeff Fitzgerald as the head linebacker coach-- a role he kept until the 2012 offseason. Displeased with the development of Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers and others who made up the position group, Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis made the decision to let Fitzgerald go after his contract expired. He linked onto Chuck Pagano's staff afterward and is currently working in a similar capacity in Indianapolis.
When Guenther was named the team's new linebacker coach in the 2012 offseason, fans had a collectively apathetic sigh, pointing to the predictable nature of the franchise and its penchant for promoting people within their own walls. Yet, in one and a half seasons in his new role, Guenther has been a critical cog in the team's rise to a top-five unit.
Lewis has praises Guenther's abilities, telling Bengals.com: "I have a high confidence level working with Paul and so does Mike Zimmer. We’re excited about what he has brought to this role." Guenther reciprocates the appreciation in working with Lewis and Zimmer, saying: "I like working with Zim because he’s so aggressive and likes to be on the cutting edge. It’s important to understand the whole concept. What kind of routes they are running against the pressures? What are the protection schemes against the pressures we run? Get the players to understand the big picture."
Understanding the big picture is vague and really just scratches the surface of what Guenther has done in his time here. There are a couple of areas that I see Geunther's abilities at work to make this defensive unit the strength of this Bengals team.
DEVELOPMENT OF PROJECT PLAYERS AND/OR UNDRAFTED ATHLETES:
The obvious example here is Pro Bowl linebacker-in-the-making, Vontaze Burfict. The biggest named undrafted player in quite some time leads the NFL in tackles and just earned himself AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his amazing performance against the Browns. While Burfict was fun to watch last season, he is a straight up monster this year, creating turnovers and becoming a tackling machine.
What about Vincent Rey? The undrafted kid out of Duke slid in to replace to other injured middle linebackers in Rey Maualuga and Michael Boley in his fourth season. In three starts since both players have been out of the lineup, Rey has collected 32 total tackles, three sacks and an interception. Geunther has prepared a player, whose primary role with the club had been on special teams, well enough to potentially vie for more playing time when the other two are finally healthy.
Though Jayson DiManche hasn't quite had the same impact as the other two, he has shown enough to keep a role on this team. His main job has been on special teams and we saw him come up big with a blocked punt last week that Tony Dye returned for a touchdown. Even so, we have to believe that Guenther is helping out his linebackers that play special teams because of his stint as an assistant in that capacity for years.
CREATING THE ABILITY TO BE DOMINANT WITH SO MANY INJURIES:
Perhaps no other unit on the Bengals was hit as hard as the linebacker corps this season. Emmanuel Lamur, who was slated to have a big role with the club this year, injured his shoulder in the third preseason game and landed on Injured Reserve. Brandon Joiner, one of those undrafted players that the coaches love, also landed on IR early on. Fourth round pick Sean Porter showed versatility early on, but he too landed on IR. As if that wasn't enough, Rey Maualuga has missed a month with a knee injury and street free agent Michael Boley missed two weeks with a hamstring problem.
Yet, through it all, the linebackers have remained almost as effective as the stout defensive line. Kudos to Geunther and the rest of the staff for preparing all of the players for the potentiality of asserting a big role because of injury, as well as creating a deeply talented group. It's also about creating an attitude amongst the position group to be nasty and have a nose for the ball.
RESURRECTING FREE AGENTS' CAREERS INTO SOLID ONES:
Lewis, Zimmer and Guenther love the guys who have a chip on their shoulder because every other team deems them worthless. There are so many names over the past handful of years at so many positions that we can point at. In Guenther's tenure as assistant linebackers coach, as well as the past two seasons heading the group, many examples are seen in the unit.
Starting in 2011, the late Thomas Howard enjoyed a career renaissance playing at a near Pro Bowl level under Guenther (and Fitzgerald) and Manny Lawson found himself useful as a rotational player for two seasons under Guenther's tutelage as well. Luckily, the Bengals found upgrades to these two (as tough as that is to say in the wake of Howard's recent death) in Burfict and James Harrison.
Harrison is another scrap heap guy that has come in to this locker room and brought a mixture of leadership, swagger and the approach of a pit bull. He was shunned after he was deemed too old by almost every other team, but the Bengals' coaching staff saw that he still had good football left in him. Guenther and Zimmer deserve credit with Harrison's successful morphing to a new role in a different scheme, while allowing him to still make plays. As a rotational guy, Harrison has two sacks, a beastly interception and a fumble recovery on a unit currently ranked No.6 overall.
THE IMPACT ON REY MAUALUGA:
You can also tie Maualuga into the previous category as a free agent that wasn't coveted in the 2013 offseason. Still Lewis, Zimmer and Guenther all saw that Maualuga had good football that could be coached out of him and we've seen the results in 2013. Though he has missed three games with the knee problem, we have seen the fifth-year middle linebacker play disciplined football and miss much fewer tackles than in previous seasons. He hasn't been a superstar, but has quietly done his job well, allowing Burfict to make more tackles and big plays. My personal opinion is that Guenther's coaching and Harrison's leadership have completely rubbed off on Maualuga.
So, while much of the credit gets heaped onto Lewis and Zimmer (and rightfully so), keep Guenther in that conversation. There have been improvements made at linebacker on an already formidable defensive unit, so feel free to give the assistant coach some pats on the back.