Back-er story

Posted: 6:45 p.m.

During the last four seasons as linebackers coach in Baltimore, Jeff FitzGerald bossed the biggest names in the backer business and one year all his starters went to the Pro Bowl.

In his first season with the Bengals, FitzGerald has exactly 0.0 Pro Bowlers spread through his corps but he still believes there is a good enough mix of athletes and maulers to bring out the multiple in new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's scheme.

"Names aren't what matter. Names become big names and we have guys who have the chance to become big names," FitzGerald says. "It looks like we've got guys who are willing to do what they're told and that's the big first step."

With the Bengals investing draft picks in the secondary and money in the line, they are still reeling at linebacker from the retirement of David Pollack and the suspensions of Odell Thurman since they last played a snap 30 games ago.

The biggest name, first-round pick Keith Rivers, and the oldest, nine-year veteran Dhani Jones, are the most solid at a position fraught with youth and inexperience. Rivers starts at WILL and Jones in the middle, Marvin Lewis' sixth different Opening Day middle backer in his six seasons.

After that, it's eight guys jockeying for the last four or five spots depending if the Bengals keep seven or eight backers.

One certainty?

At some point out of a base 4-3 defense, Zimmer hopes to confuse offenses with various three-man and four-man looks. So versatility and brains will be scoring.

With the first practice of training camp 38 days away, Bengals.com wraps up its look at each position:

A LOOK AT THE BENGALS LINEBACKERS

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Darryl Blackstock (6-3, 255, Fourth Season, 46 NFL Games with 44 tackles)
A third-round pick by the Cardinals in 2005, Blackstock has been trying to find a niche in the NFL and this one is making the move from defensive end to SAM backer behind Rashad Jeanty and Ahmad Brooks.

FitzGerald likes the pass-rush ability Blackstock can bring from the edge (three sacks last season) and he may have some value as a zone blitzer. But his fate, no doubt, is tied to special teams, where he tied for third last year in Arizona with 11 tackles.

 

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Ahmad Brooks (6-3, 259, Third Season, 13 NFL Games with 54 tackles)
For the first time since his move from middle backer to SAM earlier in the spring, Brooks rustled with life at last week's minicamp. Just in time as the Bengals continue to be confident his enormous physical skills will bring out his best.

But they are waiting. And they are giving him a chance to get a good long look to start by splitting evenly the first-team SAM snaps with Jeanty.

"Things started to click with him by the time we finished," FitzGerald says. "That's good because as he gets more serious, it's going to help him get off to a quicker start in camp than the one he had in the spring."

 

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Anthony Hoke (6-0, 240, Rookie)
A defensive end at the University of Cincinnati, where he set the school's sack record with 13 last year. His switch to middle backer has been hampered by his inability to work out with the veterans until last weekend. An undrafted free agent, Hoke looks like he's competing for a spot on the practice squad.
 

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Dan Howell (6-0, 247, Rookie)
He impressed right away when he tried out at the rookie camp undrafted out of Washington and the Bengals gave him a contract. They've got him at SAM, but he's shown enough movement and coverage skills that he also might be able to play the other side.

The problem is, like the Cincinnati players, his school's graduation date prevented him from working until last weekend. But he's a guy to keep an eye on at training camp.

 

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Rashad Jeanty (6-2, 245, Third Season, 22 NFL Games with 91 tackles)
He's missed 10 games the past two seasons with nagging injuries, but that didn't stop him from becoming the regular SAM because he played well against the run.

With Brooks rotating with Jeanty, FitzGerald says no decisions have been made yet in what will be a camp showdown. Both players also flash that 3-4 versatility as blitzers and edge pass rushers.

Except that Brooks hasn't done it since Virginia and Jeanty did it in the pros, where he had 13 sacks as a defensive end in his last two years in Canada. He hasn't been asked to do much of that here (he has no NFL sacks), but FitzGerald has a rep of getting his backers to the quarterback.

With the emphasis on versatility and getting to the QB in this scheme, these are two guys that will be hard to keep off the club.

 

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Brandon Johnson (6-5, 245, Third Year, 9 NFL Games with four tackles)
Maybe the Bengals shouldn't have lost their most versatile backer in Landon Johnson in free agency, but maybe the most pleasant surprise at the position in the spring workouts is a free-agent named Johnson.

Brandon Johnson is currently backing up Rivers at WILL and the Type A FitzGerald, who knows intensity when he sees it, likes what is burning inside him.

"It's important to him," FitzGerald says. "He can move around and he's a bright guy. I'm looking forward to seeing more of him when the pads come out."

What Johnson doesn't have is much NFL game experience.

 

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Dhani Jones (6-1, 240, Ninth Season, 109 NFL Games with 665 tackles)
About a year ago, New Orleans cut Jones and he didn't get back with a team until mid-September when he rescued the Bengals from that ridiculous spate of injuries at backer.

Now he's got a new three-year deal and is probably an odds-on favorite to be the defensive captain as the signal caller of the new defense.

He's got a market on all the intangibles (smart, tough, leader), but the middle is the position he's played the least in the NFL and the questions are not only can he hold up for 16 games, but can he be as effective in there as he was last year on the outside?

"I think he can," FitzGerald says. "We think he's a great fit for this scheme. He's such a quick learner and he's a tremendous guy for our young players to watch."

 

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Jim Maxwell (6-4, 240, Fifth Season, 36 NFL Games with 14 tackles)
Maxwell, who joined the club last November and made three special teams tackles while forcing a fumble in his three games, finds himself on his fourth team. As a tip to his experience he was the only backer to play two spots in the spring when FitzGerald moved him from WILL to the middle to fill in for the injured Corey Mays. At this position, his 36 NFL games seem like 136 and the club likes how he showed his experience this spring.
 

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Corey Mays (6-1, 245, Third Year, 20 NFL Games with 2 tackles)
The coaches like his brains and the fact he finished second on the club with 15 special teams tackles even though he didn't arrive off waivers from the Patriots until Oct. 2. A bright, dependable player out of Notre Dame, the Bengals think he's a good enough fit backing up Jones in the middle that they haven't pursued any proven veterans.

He got a tough break when he suffered a muscle strain and missed about 95 percent of the spring camps, but he should be ready for training camp.

 

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Keith Rivers (6-2, 241, Rookie)
Otherwise known as "The Real McCoy." Probably doesn't have the blinding speed of Brian Simmons or the punishing physical signature of Takeo Spikes.

But he can do enough of everything so well that he left little doubt he's the next Bengals star when he came into the camps and promptly showed why he was the best linebacker in the draft.

The only question is what number will he be wearing when he does it. It's looking more and more like it's going to be No. 58 and not USC's (or Brooks') No. 55.

It will be a popular Pro Shop jersey. Already impressing the populace with his character and the coaches with his natural leadership, the Bengals made the transition that much easier by keeping him at his college position of WILL and allowing him to run around.

"He's a playmaker," FitzGerald says. "Not only that, he's tremendous in the classroom and a quick learner."

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