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Think tank

Posted May 26, 2012


Mohamed Sanu

With the first week of voluntary camp in the books, it's time to pay homage again to Cincinnati TalkMaster Lance McAlister and Sports Illustrated NFL maven Peter King with another session of Things I Think I Believe:

I Think I Believe that special teams ace Jeromy Miles is getting shorted when the derby for the safety starting opposite Reggie Nelson is discussed. Miles, in his third year as a free agent out of Massachusetts via Navy, has done nothing but impress two sets of secondary coaches now that Mark Carrier and Hue Jackson have seen him for the first time this week.

At 6-2, 215, Miles has nice size, good smarts, and he's got the range of a guy that has 20 special teams tackles in 22 games, and Carrier coached a pretty good one in Baltimore with similar dimensions, in the 6-1, 215-pound Dawan Landry.

When the Bengals special teams pulled out last year's Christmas Eve win over the Cardinals for the club's ninth win, it will be recalled that Miles came up huge. With the Bengals punting from about their 5 and Arizona having no timeouts with 57 seconds left, Miles dumped Andre Roberts at the Cardinals 40 for a one-yard loss as the Bengals held on for the 23-16 win.

The key for Miles, as it is for Taylor Mays and Robert Sands, is how they react once the Xs and Os start flying.

I Think I Believe for all the ink spilled on the Bengals cornerbacks this week, the one guy that may have had the most important week was the one guy that was barely mentioned. Brandon Ghee, the 2010 third-rounder who has played all of 13 snaps from scrimmage in his career and just two last season, apparently isn't backing down in the face of six first-round cornerbacks and showed up this week. Which poses the question, can a team keep seven corners? Maybe if one of them (Leon Hall) starts the season on PUP, but he has looked excellent in rehab.

I Think I Believe that thanks to the draft, the Bengals are one of the two or three hottest teams in the NFL when it comes to preseason popularity. Sure, the ESPN guys picked the Bengals to go to the playoffs (in a nice change of wind direction a year after they named them the worst franchise in sports), but it hits home when you talk to a guy like Hue Jackson.

When Jackson, then the Bengals receivers coach, left to become the Falcons offensive coordinator, Cincinnati had badly underachieved at 8-8 in 2006 with a roster that had gone 11-5 the year before. Five years later, Jackson said this is a better team than what he saw in '05 and '06.

"This is what I've been saying to Marvin (Lewis) and Mike Zimmer. This is a bigger, more physical team than when I left in '06," says Jackson, the assistant secondary and special teams coach. "We were very talented on offense, but that team wasn't a big team. When I see these young men walking around, this is a big physical team, which you have to be in the AFC North. Starting with Mike Brown, Marvin, Zim, Jay Gruden, these guys have done a great job making them a bigger, more physical, more athletic team. In my opinion it's better. You never know until you play, but the feel of it, the looks of it, it looks like it to me."

In '05 and '06, the Bengals had defenses that finished 28th and 30th, respectively. But that was a long time ago.

"What have we got, seven first-round DBs?" asks Jackson, counting Nelson. "Not even close."

I Think I Believe that rookie free-agent middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict is going to be one of the bigger preseason stories in the NFL. Silly me. I never thought he'd make it to training camp, but if he keeps convincing the coaches he deserves a shot with his first two impressive weeks on the field, he may do more than make it to camp.

Or "The Devil," as linebackers coach Paul Guenther likes to call Burfict, and don't read anything into that. That's short for his Arizona State Sun Devils. Guenther has been impressed with Burfict's ability to handle the calls as well as his movement. Guenther and the coaches have put Burfict's bad 2011 tape out of their minds and have started from scratch with his 2010 tape, which they say is very good.

I Think I Believe with the depth on the defensive line and in the secondary, Guenther isn't going to get a seventh linebacker on the final 53-man roster. Six linebackers give the Bengals a chance to keep nine down linemen or 11 Dbs.

After the first four linebackers (starters Thomas Howard, Rey Maualuga, Manny Lawson and first man off the bench, Dan Skuta) it's going to be an intriguing mix of young guys.

Burfict is probably going to be slamming it out with 2010 fourth-round pick Roddick Muckelroy and a first-year player that has looked very good in his first two weeks on the field, Micah Johnson. Johnson, out of Kentucky, is a big body guy who has been impressive enough that he's been moved to SAM, but he can also go back to the middle. Muckelroy plays the middle, but could back up SAM. Also in that mix is 2011 third-rounder Dontay Moch. After he didn't appear in a game last season, Moch is starting from scratch in his climb up the depth chart. That final spot, backup WILL, looks like it may be incumbent special teams ace Vincent Rey against Kansas State free-agent rookie Emmanuel Lamur, an interesting guy that made the switch from safety late in his college career.

Of course, all training camp battles get thrown out the day after the final cuts, when teams attack the waiver wire looking to upgrade those last one or two spots at each position.

He may not be Isaac Curtis, A.J. Green, or Cris Collinsworth, but I Think I Believe that third-round pick Mohamed Sanu is going to pass other rookie wide receivers in the Bengals record book.

Certainly Chad Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2001 (28 and 21 catches, respectively), and Carl Pickens in 1992 (26). Because the Bengals receivers look to be pretty balanced, Darnay Scott in 1994 (46), Peter Warrick's 51 catches in 2000 and Eddie Brown's 53 in 1985 may not be in the realm.

Former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, an analyst for the Bengals Radio Network, thinks Sanu is a pretty polished route-runner right now after watching tape of the first voluntary workout.

"He's very smooth; he doesn't give away his routes," Hawkins says. "He's big, a nice target, and looks to be physical with solid hands."

The nice problem is that first-year receiver Armon Binns has torn it up during his first two weeks on the field and seems to have the edge to be the No. 2 receiver opposite Green.

"No one knows about him but his teammates and when other players talk about a guy like they talk about Armon, that tells you something," Hawkins says.

And from what Hawkins can tell, Green is just getting better and better as he watched one-on-ones where Green glided past cornerback Terence Newman and caught a go ball from rookie quarterback Tyler Hansen straight over his head.

"A Martian," Hawkins says.

I Think I Believe that Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap is the Bengals equivalent of Reds closer Aroldis Chapman. If Chapman is "The Cuban Missile," then Dunlap is "The Carolina Cruise Missile," the guy that suddenly explodes with great quarterback pressure in the fourth quarter.

While the debate rages to keep Chapman as a closer or take advantage of his 100 mile-per-hour arm every fifth day as a starter, Dunlap is fighting for the starting job with Robert Geathers so he can get on the field for 60 percent of the snaps instead of 40.

But will more snaps make Dunlap less effective? Will he be tired when third down or the fourth quarter come around? Has part of the reason for his extremely productive first two seasons been because he's been part time?

Or will that production rise with his snaps?

Just like it's a no-brainer to give Chapman 100 pitches every fifth day as a starter, it would seem to be the same logic that says if Dunlap gets on the field more, he'll make more plays. Plus, at 285 pounds or so, you can move him into tackle on pass rush downs. The guy is so enormously talented.

But in continuing signs that the 23-year-old Dunlap is figuring it out, he knows he's not getting on the field more until he can prove to be as reliable and as durable as Geathers.

And, well, if the Bengals keep him in the bullpen until the fourth quarter, maybe that's a way to go, too. But maybe it's not so close in the fourth if he's playing the first three.

Anyway, it's an interesting debate.

I Think I Believe that the best dee jay in Cincinnati is versatile Channel 5 sports anchor Ken Broo. I wish he'd devote a half-hour of his Sunday morning talk show on 700 WLW to a great segment he used to do with sports figures. He'd sit down and talk to them about their favorite music and weave it into their careers and lives. Really good stuff.

After going to two Reds games this homestand, you can't help but think about sports and music. There are so many similarities with the performers and fans that it's always been a match.

Going all the way back to the first World Series and Red Sox fans raiding a current Broadway musical to heist the song "Tessie," and serenade the boys out of a 3-1 hole with the Pirates in 1903 to win the first Fall Classic.

Nowadays the personal music for each hitter is a nice way to keep up with the trends and it gives a glimpse into the guy.

And music is such a huge part of the NFL stadium experience. A game's soundtrack draws as much criticism as the play calls. But it's so different than baseball. It only happens 10 times a year at home, so there's more emotion, more partying. The NFL is an '80s heavy metal concert. I'd love to hear the piano in the first few bars of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" whenever running back BenJarvus Green-Elis converts a third down or scores a TD. But it just doesn't fit.

Speaking of Hue Jackson, I Think I Believe the lack of African-American NFL offensive coordinators is going to become a hot-button issue once the hiring cycle begins again next January. After the NFL scouting combine ended back in February, Yahoo.com's Jason Cole reported there was only one black offensive coordinator and that was Curtis Modkins in Buffalo. And head coach Chan Gailey runs the Bills offensive show.

Not only is it disturbing that Jackson barely got a sniff for a coordinator's job after he got fired in Oakland, where he led the once-horrific Raiders offense to two top 10 NFL finishes the past two seasons while rehabbing quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Carson Palmer. But one of the big head-coaching pipelines, the offensive line, is virtually empty of African-Americans. Only two blacks, Cole reported, (George Warhop in Cleveland and Harold Goodwin in Indianapolis) coach offensive lines.

By the way, Jackson has found his double in Cincinnati.

If he was a huge factor in turning around Oakland (the Raiders won 16 games in '10 and '11 after winning 16 games the previous four seasons), then Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is just as big a reason why the Bengals went to the playoffs last season with a rookie quarterback and lead receiver.

Both guys have done it the hard way. Jackson has coached five positions in the NFL while Gruden coached in the arena league and UFL. Both guys use their enthusiasm to relate well to players. Both guys are going 100 miles per hour during practice and have been known to jump into drills. Gruden joked that once the offense gets settled, he could see some trash talking during practice between the two. And both guys are just plain sharp.

 

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