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Next safety (s) up

Posted Aug 22, 2017

With the Bengals hoping to get starting safety Shawn Williams back around Oct. 1, the Bengals may decide to replace him with a couple of guys.

The Bengals lost one of their tough guys last week, but Shawn Williams won't be shelved long.

With the Bengals hoping to get starting safety Shawn Williams (dislocated elbow) back for the Sept. 24 game in Green Bay or the Oct. 1 game in Cleveland, it looks like they’ll try to coax the roster through the first couple of games with special teams ace Clayton Fejedelem and slot corner swingman Josh Shaw in the bullpen manning the spot opposite George Iloka.

Also swirling in the wake of four injured safeties is undrafted rookie Demetrious Cox making a serious run at a roster spot with his versatility. But the Bengals traditionally keep just four safeties and the experience of three-year man Derron Smith in the middle of all this carnage is a story line, too.

The knee injury that has taken Iloka out of the first two pre-season games has already had defensive coordinator Paul Guenther in back-up mode. They’ve been so devastated at the spot with Iloka, Williams, Cedric Thompson, and Brandon Wilson hurt that even on Saturday night against the Chiefs linebacker Marquis Flowers took some snaps at his one-time position at Arizona State.

Don’t look for Flowers when the snaps get serious, but we’ll see everybody else Sunday (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 19) in the third pre-season game in Washington.

“Those guys have been getting a lot more snaps,” Guenther said. “Josh is getting some snaps at safety; Derron is getting a lot more. He played 40-some the other night. It’s good for those guys. (Cox) has been in there a lot playing. It’s good, the more you can get experience now the better off you are down the road.”

But the guy who the Williams injury impacts as much as Guenther is special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. Fejedelem, a key cog in all four kicking phases, and Shaw, a member of three, are two of Simmons’ most valuable guys.

“There will be a trickle down,” Simmons said.

The 6-0, 205-pound Fejedelem has been an object of intense curiosity around these parts. As soon as he arrived in the seventh round out of Illinois last year advertised as a special teams maven, he began practicing well enough that by the end of the year there was a sense he deserved a longer look at safety. So that had already been in the works, but the injuries solidified it.   

His story caught the eye of the Bengals scouts, not to mention his teammates. Not to mention Iloka, the five-year starter drafted in the fifth round. Coming out of Houston, one school, Boise State, offered Iloka. Coming out of high school in suburban Chicago, Fejedelem went small school before transferring and walking on at Champaign.

“I think he’s a blue-collar guy like myself,” Iloka said. “You know his story. How he ended up at Illinois. How I ended up at Boise. I know that about him right there. He plays with a passion, he’s physical. He’s someone I trust out there. He’s a guy that’s taken advantage of his opportunities and I hope he continues to do that.”

His teammates know exactly what they’re missing without Williams.

“His physicality,” Derron Smith said. “He’s one of the most physical safeties in the league. He brings that presence to the defense.”

“His physicality and I have that trust in him out there,” Iloka said. “You ask any of the defensive backs and Shawn is a guy you can depend on. That’s so key at safety, the last line of defense.”

Fejedelem knows.

“Shawn prides himself on being a tough guy and I think we’re very similar players from that aspect,” said Fejedelem, who likes the blue collar label. “I think we’re guys that aren’t afraid to dig our face in there, play ball, take the hit.”

In one year as a starter, Williams meshed his physical play against the run with solid work in coverage. After a bumpy early part of last season, he and Iloka pretty much kept the middle of the field barren.

Now for the Sept. 10 opener against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, Guenther has a bunch of qualities from a couple of different players. Fejedelem is an athletic guy that hits. Smith is a ball hawk. Shaw covers well enough to play corner. Cox is athletic enough to have played three spots at Michigan State. How Guenther deploys them is a question that should take up the rest of the month in Washington and Indianapolis on Aug. 31.

“You can manage it by personnel. It might not be just one guy. It might be a couple here and there,” Guenther said. “That’s what these games are for. Getting a feel for who can do what. You got four games for research and development. Is this guy going to make it? This guy going to make it? You have to get those guys into the game against good players. And they work it out.”

 

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