10-26-04, 4:10 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Redemption, NFL style, could get no sweeter for a couple of Denver draft choices named Tory James and Deltha O'Neal and their defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier.
On Monday Night's national stage during the Bengals' 23-10 victory over the AFC West-leading Broncos, O'Neal showed Broncos coach Mike Shanahan he never belonged in his doghouse, James proved he's got something left at age 31, and Frazier paid back Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis for showing faith in his ability to call a game when his much-maligned defense rose up and shut down the Broncos with their new-found blitz on their last five third-down tries in the game's final 22 minutes.
"I thank Marvin for having enough faith to put me back in that role he hired me to do,' said Frazier, a week after Lewis took over the play-calling duties in Cleveland. "It's been an interesting week. At least in my life, when you go through tough times, it makes you stronger."
Frazier took a page out of Denver's playbook, which came in ranked first in the NFL, and blitzed liked the Bengals have never blitzed this year. In order to do so, he asked James and O'Neal to hold up in one-on-one coverage on the outside.
What popped out of the playbook was holding the Broncos to 318 total yards, about 50 below their average, and halved their scoring average. This by a unit mired at No. 26 in defense, but Frazier's dead-last run defense held on some critical third downs with the ability to blitz.
"They did a great job,' said Frazier of the two corners. "We felt like we needed to be aggressive to get our guys going, and our guys responded. We have to continue to be aggressive in our play calling. We have the type of players that have to have that to get them going. It's not so much that they're passive. They've had great effort. You take some of the concern out of it when you say, 'Get to this spot right now because it's a pressure.' It eliminates some of the things that guys think about."
O'Neal has thought about nothing but this game after the Broncos traded him to Cincinnati right before the draft for a first- and fourth-rounder. He resents Shanahan for not only benching him last year, but for also playing him at receiver for a few weeks.
But O'Neal only response was sticking his index finger in the air as he began to return his first pick as a Bengals 29 yards to the Denver 24 with 7:14 left in the second quarter to set up what turned out to be Shayne Graham's longest field goal ever. The 53-yarder gave the Bengals a 10-0 lead.
"I don't want to get into passing words back and forth," O'Neal said. "I'm going to stick to my game plan and keep my head on straight and try to play good ball."
O'Neal played the ball in the second quarter when Denver quarterback Jake Plummer tried to go to one of O'Neal's friends on the sideline, wide receiver Ashley Lelie. On first-and-20 and with safety Kim Herring behind him, O'Neal jumped on the underneath route and leaped in front of Lelie to catch it.
Then came the index finger and while O'Neal said, "I don't want to talk about that,' Lewis indicated they would because he said, "We're going to get that fixed."
"Bad throw on his part. Bad read," O'Neal said of Plummer. "I'm glad Tory got one, so he can get a few of their votes to go over the water (to the Pro Bowl.) He's playing well this year."
James, a second-round Shanahan pick in 1996, nabbed his NFL-leading fourth interception with a stupendous one-handed grab midway through the fourth quarter on Plummer's high throw that set up Graham's 35-yard field goal with 7:31 left for the game's final points.
O'Neal, a first-rounder in 2000, admitted openly that he played with plenty of emotion, "because of that team we played." It was a coincidence, but Lewis put him back there to return punts for the first time since he severely injured his ankle, and it had to feel pretty good that he took the second one 17 yards right past Shanahan on the Denver sideline.
"Oh yeah," said O'Neal, when asked if this was his sweetest game ever. "Knowing how the Broncos defense is doing this year, I was trying to light the defense up. Let them know that we have to match their intensity. If they make a play, we have to make a play."
Frazier kept calling the pressures with safety Kim Herring sticking most of the time in the box.
"Kim was in the box quite a bit. To match up with their wide receivers, we think we have good corners," Frazier said. "I know for us, we like to match up outside and that's why we like big corners. We have to if we're going to be a pressure team. We have to be committed to it. We have to do more of it."
Frazier and everyone else acknowledged that having the lead for the game's final 51:34 was huge. That's about five more minutes than the Bengals led in the previous five games combined.
"The call list gets bigger on defense and smaller on offense," Lewis said.
With the lead, they could do wonderful things. A team that came into the game with just five sacks in the five games, had three alone in the fourth quarter. On the third play of the quarter, weak-side linebacker Brian Simmons was able to blitz on third-and-20 for a sack. With less than five minutes left, defensive end Justin Smith was able to get back-to-back sacks working one-on-one on third-and-7 and fourth-and-17.
"Look at how the game went," said linebacker Kevin Hardy. "We had a couple of three-and-outs, the offense scored, and we've got the lead. Then we made it 10-0. Because of that, we were able to dictate the flow of the game."
O'Neal, trying to keep a low-profie this week so as not to upset his old mates and coach, was the most effusive he's been here.
"I was taught not to worry about the little things, but thiis was big," O'Neal said after the game. "We were the only game today. It was big. We showed the nation we can still play football even though we've been in a slump the last coupe of weeks.