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Rookies on parade

Posted Dec 10, 2009


Michael Johnson

Posted: 5 a.m.

You may have to go back 36 years to Paul Brown’s first 10-win team to find a Bengals club where so many rookies have contributed so much to a playoff drive.

And even in 1973 it was only two with first-rounder Isaac Curtis and 12th-rounder Boobie Clark combining for 17 of the 32 Bengals touchdowns that season.

This Sunday in Minnesota the generation gap will be even more jarring because the kids who were born in 1986 and 1987 are going against 40-year-old Brett Favre.

“I’ve got a buddy who’s a huge Brett Favre fan,” said rookie safety Tom Nelson, who grew up in Chicago and has lived the Midwest battles with Favre. “He told me to get his autograph. He was just joking. Yeah, I started watching the NFL when I was six or seven, and he was playing.”

“I’ve played a lot of rookies before,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, in his 16th NFL season, “but never this many on a team that was good.”

Zimmer looked out there last Sunday against Detroit as the Bengals wrapped up a winning season with their ninth win and there were three of them in the third-down packages and two of them that made significant plays in the game when third-rounder Michael Johnson tipped a pass for an interception return touchdown and free-agent Tom Nelson picked off his first NFL interception in a game the Bengals moved into first place in the NFL in third-down percentage.

The week before in a game against the Browns, nickel back Morgan Trent, a sixth-rounder, picked up his first NFL sack in a game the Bengals put Cleveland through a 4-for-14 misery on third down.

And that doesn’t even count rookie starting SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga, whose 61 tackles working primarily on first and second downs are fifth on the team.

Also Sunday, special teams coach Darrin Simmons sent out another free-agent rookie, wide receiver Quan Cosby, to add kick returns to his duties along with punt returns, as well as a rookie punter and cover teams saturated with them. And he didn’t even have his most decorated rookie with an AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in running back Bernard Scott out with a turf toe injury.

“A lot of times this year we’ve had five rookies covering kicks,” said Simmons, ticking off Maualuga, Cosby, Trent, Nelson and Michael Johnson. “And if you count Maurice Purify as a rookie, you can add him, too.”

Ironically, this is the one year the first-rounder gave the Bengals nothing before Thanksgiving. Even the injured No. 1 in 2004, running back Chris Perry, played two games.

But here comes Andre Smith ever so quietly. After making his debut Nov. 29 against the Browns on about 10 snaps at right tackle, he played a little more last week and impressed people with how he finished blocks and looked comfortable pass protecting. The massive Smith’s appearance looks to coincide with the Bengals desire to smash the ball down the stretch. In the last two games they’ve rushed it 89 times.

Go back to the 1990 AFC Central championship where first-rounder James Francis had eight sacks and running back Harold Green had 4.3 yards per his 83 carries and you’ll find some solid rookies.

But this many with so many game-changing plays?

Cosby’s two long punt returns and Maualuga’s forced fumble turned the first win of the year in Green Bay when the Bengals were 0-1, one of the top three wins in head coach Marvin Lewis’ seven seasons. Scott’s 96-yard kick return in Pittsburgh was the only touchdown in an 18-12 victory. Michael Johnson’s tipped pass last week erased a 7-0 deficit. Take your pick on Huber, who is also the holder while his ratio of 20 kicks inside the 20 compared to six touchbacks have been huge in a season the Bengals have won five games by a touchdown or less.

1988?

Running back Ickey Woods, a second-rounder, had 1,066 yards rushing and fourth-rounder David Grant came off the bench to play well in the Super Bowl. But first rounder Rickey Dixon made the switch form cornerback to safety and had just one interception playing behind the SWAT Team.

A lot of these guys have been there before in some shape or form. Cosby is a 26-year-old who played on the big stage at Texas, not to mention four years of minor-league baseball. Huber was an All-American at Cincinnati and kicked the Bearcats out of enough pressure situations that he had a New Year’s Day stage.

“A lot of times, I’ve got no choice,” Simmons said of playing rookies. “But these guys are good kids and the game is important to them. You talk about the maturity of guys like Cosby and Huber. But all these guys are like that. This year shows you that stuff goes a long way.”

The class of ’05 could get downfield in the debate. First-rounder David Pollack had 4.5 sacks and was the first Bengals rookie to get a playoff sack. Second-rounder Odell Thurman was an NFL Rookie of the Year finalist at middle linebacker with five interceptions and four forced fumbles. Third-rounder Chris Henry had 31 catches, six for touchdowns. Sixth-rounder Tab Perry was a force on special teams and also won a game in Pittsburgh with a kick return.

But that class gets forgotten because Pollack and Perry suffered what turned out to be career-ending injuries and Thurman and Henry blew up because of off-field issues. Thurman hasn’t played in the league since and Henry hasn’t had problems since he got cut and was re-signed.

“We don’t have guys like that; this is a different kind of group,” Simmons said. “The one thing you can’t account for is injuries and it’s the one thing out of your control. But these guys have great attitudes.”

As Zimmer said, “That goes a long way. If a kid is smart, does what he’s told to do, is a good kid, that’s half the battle, and that’s what we’ve got.”

Of course, there is always room for improvement. Zimmer and Lewis had a thing for Mike Johnson even before the draft, so when the club got him in the third round it was Christmas in April for two defensive gurus with Johnson's 6-7, 266-pound athleticism.

“He’s going to be better after an offseason he puts on more weight,” Zimmer said. “Right now, he’s trying it make every pass rush in football. He’s young. He’s trying to do it all at once. Once he gets it down to one or two things and has a better plan of what to do, he’s going to get better.”

Maualuga, the second-round pick with a first-round impact, has been as advertised. A tough, downhill slugger, he’s a reason the Bengals are No. 2 in the NFL against the rush. But then, none of this is too big for him, either, and he’s responded in a mature fashion.

“He better be, he’s from USC,” said middle linebacker Dhani Jones, who has been a factor in Maualuga's development. “Rey is a strong blitzer. He’s a strong run player and he plays the pass well. He’s helped me, too. If I forget a call he remembers a call. That’s why you draft people: To match their strength and capabilities with the strength and weakness of the other guys. That’s how you make a team.”

Lewis has often said he knows how young this team is when wide receiver Chad Ochocinco has a parking spot reserved for the guys with the most seniority. “We have to play well beyond our years,” he says and there may be no greater example than Nelson, who turned 23 last week.

If he wasn’t here, he says he’s probably be in grad school back home in Chicago at Northwestern or DePaul studying marketing. At 5-11, 200 pounds, he doesn’t cut an imposing figure. But he’s quick and smart.

“I wanted to give this a chance before I did anything else,” said Nelson, who did it all at Illinois State as a corner, safety and both returners. “But I think I’ve proved I can play here. They obviously think so. The whole thing is doing your job.”

Which is how Nelson got his interception last week when the Bengals were in Cover 2 and Nelson alertly saw Lions quarterback Matt Stafford giving his tight end the eye. Nelson was out there because Chris Crocker was out with an ankle injury. Crocker says he’ll be back this week, but Nelson is on standby.

“He’s been a good soldier,” said Crocker, another veteran who has been able to help develop a kid. “He’s prepared each week like he’s going to play and last week he got a lot of time. He’ll be ready. Tom has also done his thing on special teams. You don’t have to be big in this game. You have to know what you’re supposed to do to be able to execute. Tom has played football a long time. Who cares about size?"

“It’s all about when you get the chance to get out there about making a play,” said Nelson, who started doing it from Day One when he saved the preseason game in New England with a hit near the goal line.

He’s seen enough Bears-Packers games to know what is coming.

“You know what he’s going to do. The pump-fake, the throwing it around; the guy’s great,” Nelson said. “He’s so good that he throws it into tight spots. We’ll get some chances, but you have to play disciplined. It’s going to be fun.”

Fun? A Hall of Fame quarterback leering at you over the middle?

Maybe this is the gift of youth. Zimmer, who shares the same alma mater, will get on Nelson about that if he screws up.

“He plays with good technique and he’s smart,” Zimmer said. “That’s how you make plays. Yeah, if you think of a guy from Illinois State, that’s what I would want to think: Solid.”

They will all have to be solid Sunday. But Simmons has already seen them play big games in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Green Bay.
 
“They were rookies,” Simmons said. “They’re not rookies anymore.”

 

 

 

 

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