Mike Zimmer was succinct in his analysis of how his defense played last Saturday night in a 13-0 loss against New Orleans.
"We sucked," said the Bengals' new defensive coordinator a couple of days later after having time to digest the game film.
The Bengals gave up 458 yards to the Saints in their third preseason game, the game that is generally viewed as the final dress rehearsal before the regular season. It follows games against Green Bay and Detroit in which the Bengals allowed 383 yards and 375 yards respectively to the Packers and Lions.
The Bengals close out the preseason tonight at Indianapolis against a Colts team that with or without quarterback Peyton Manning is going to provide another formidable test before the season kicks off on Sept. 7 at Baltimore. Zimmer has been given the task of reshaping the Cincinnati defense not just in scheme but psyche. This is a unit that has had too little sustained success in its past to fall back on for reassurance.
This preseason finale is just another chance for Zimmer to establish some belief.
"The really disappointing thing was the overall effort in the game," said Zimmer about the New Orleans game. "They just weren't flying around to the football like they had been all through camp. I don't know what the reason for that was, but that was disappointing."
Through the first three preseason games the starting quarterbacks – Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay, Jon Kitna of Detroit and Drew Brees of New Orleans – have combined to complete 26 of 40 passes for 392 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Their combined passer rating is 111.7. Overall the Bengals have given up eight pass plays of 20 or more yards in the last two games and for the preseason have allowed their opponents to convert 45.6 percent (21 of 46) of third down opportunities.
It is a familiar storyline for the Bengals; the defense has trouble getting off of the field unless it forces a turnover. Or the other team scores. While Bengals punter Kyle Larson has been used 23 times this preseason, including 10 times against the Saints, opponents have had to punt just 15 times.
The big plays allowed, in particular, are disturbing.
"I would say that it should raise some eyebrows but it's nothing that can't be fixed," said cornerback Johnathan Joseph. "We have to clean up the technique and that would eliminate the big plays right away."
There is going to be a learning curve that goes along with learning Zimmer's system. He is the third defensive coordinator in the sixth season of Marvin Lewis' tenure as head coach. It hasn't been a quick study so far.
"Early in training camp we're going against the offense every day and we knew what was coming and what to expect," said Joseph. "Now we've gotten into live game action and different situations arise and we have to react to those better. We have to think faster."
Zimmer is looking for better results faster.
"I'm not too concerned about what they think about anything right now," said Zimmer. "I just know that some things they're still learning, understanding what this check is, that check is, this situation, that situation. That's going to take a little bit of time. Like Keith Rivers, he missed 10 days of formation adjustments and things like that. Like today (in practice), we had a formation adjustment and he was just a little unsure of what's going on."
The Bengals have nine days after tonight's game to get those things figured out before the big plays, yardage and points allowed start counting against them for real.
"You always have a concern but I don't think it will be indicative of how we'll play this year," said Thornton. "Once we play Baltimore and we're more honed into it we'll be OK. We still have to understand where we are. We can't panic but we have to know that we have to get better."