Backer for all seasons?

Posted: 6:50 a.m.

MOBILE, Ala. - Mike Zimmer, the new Bengals defensive coordinator, and Keith Rivers, the latest in a line of royalty at USC linebacker, have never met. But they had a lot in common Tuesday at the Senior Bowl.

Only on the job a week, Zimmer is not only getting a feel for the college talent but also for the players he has inherited as the Bengals try to decide on a 4-3 or 3-4. In his second workout with the North, the 6-2, 237-pound Rivers worked on the strong side and in the middle after playing most of his college career on the weak side.

"I can be any kind of linebacker you want," Rivers said after practice and Zimmer is thinking the same thing as he looks at potential players.

"Most guys can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3," Zimmer said. "You're looking for a little bit of a different body type. It's not that much different. But if you don't have the right outside or inside linebackers, it's not worth it to change from a 4-3 to a 3-4."

When Zimmer oversaw the Cowboys' conversion from the speedy, penetrating 4-3 to the more physical 3-4 defense a couple of years ago, the decision wasn't made until after the April draft, when Dallas picked defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears in the first round and Chris Canty in the fourth round.

There doesn't seem to be that type of player looming in the draft that would cause the Bengals to make the move, like the selection of Manny Lawson in the 2006 first round would have done. And while Rivers is looking like a guy the Bengals may have a shot at or around the 47th pick in the second round, the decision is going to hinge on the collective group when the dust clears after the Bengals make their projected 11-12 picks.

The task is complicated by the fact that Zimmer doesn't know the potential status of three of his linebackers, middle men Odell Thurman and Ahmad Brooks, and strong-side backer David Pollack.

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Zimmer

"Really, there isn't much film on any of them," Zimmer said. "Nothing from last year on Pollack and Thurman and only about one game and two other plays from Brooks."

In the meantime, Zimmer broke up his review of last year's Bengals defense with this week's work on the college players. On Tuesday, he outlined in general what he seeks in each position group:

"In the back end, you're looking for guys that play man-to-man and can cover, are aggressive and don't give up throws; especially the corners," said Zimmer, a secondary coach before becoming a coordinator. "A lot of guys can play zone. The special ones play man-to-man. If your corners are good, you've got a chance to be good because you can overload guys. You don't have to worry about that one area. If you have to cover up for corners, now you're taking a guy out of another part of the defense.

"Up front it's a combination of size and strength and being able to convert the pass rush.

"I like size at linebacker, but you'd like to have all three (traits) with speed and instincts. With the 4-3 you can be a little smaller, but they've all got to be smart. They've got to make a lot of checks, know the different coverages. Things happen so fast for them with run fits and pass drops. You look to see how long it takes them to get to the ball."

It may or may not be revealing that Zimmer spent the first practices looking at defensive linemen before moving to the secondary. Then he planned to focus on the backers and Rivers is going to be easy to find this week.

He's wearing USC's familiar No. 55 of Junior Seau, Willie McGinest and Chris Claiborne. He has McGinest's cell phone number and has talked to him this season more than any other as he goes through the senior experiences.

Lofa Tatupu, Seattle's Pro Bowl middle backer, stopped by the locker room when the Trojans played in Washington, and Rivers recalled when Tatupu got on him early in his career.

"It was during a drill my freshman year and I could have given a better look," Rivers said after Tuesday's practice. "He said, 'You can't do that. That 5-5 means too much.' He always lets me know. 'You have to keep it going if you have that 5-5.' "

Rivers laughed when asked if Brooks would have to give up 55 if the Bengals drafted him.

"I'm just a rookie," he said. "Seen but not heard."

Rivers certainly has those so-called intangibles.

"He's a beast," said USC teammate Josh Booty, one of the North quarterbacks. "He's always around the ball. He's always hustling, he's always running. He's proven it to everybody. He plays hurt. He never backs off."

Rivers is the son of a retired military man who grew up in a small town just outside Orlando, Fla. One of the reasons he decided to return to Los Angeles for his senior year was to complete his major of public policy development.

"You can go into the real estate field or the public sector and work on urban development," said Rivers, who got interested in the work after living in L.A. "After seeing how the city works, it's kind of cool trying to plan it out, and help the community as far as developing low-income homes."

As Rivers was enveloped by that mongrel horde of media and scouts, he called his decision to come back for another year "an opportunity to grow and mature as a player and person. You can beat being a kid. It's a lot of stuff for a 20-year-old."

Now at the ripe old age of 21, Rivers knows exactly what he has to do to impress people here. He's one of the few elite players in this game, but even though he says his nicked ankle is about 75 to 80 percent he says he wants to be here because the best are here.

"Improve in the phone booth," he said. "In the tight area. Be able to get off blocks a little bit better."

Do you think the kid reads? Here's the scouting report from Scout.com:

"Does a great job of sifting through traffic but needs to learn to anchor better when he's forced to take on blocks in the phone booth. Not an established playmaker in the passing game yet. Good range in coverage but lacks ideal ball skills. Needs to improve his pass-rush moves. He has great burst through the line but struggles to get off blocks once reached on the blitz."

The report's strengths focus on his ability to go sideline to sideline and to read and react. That would seem to fit more of a 4-3 backer, but he thinks he can play on the weak side in the inside of a 3-4. But the report also says he has the ability to put on more weight and 3-4 backers have to be bigger than those in a 4-3.

"Turn on the tube and I look at guys like (Derrick) Brooks and (Lance) Briggs that play my same position," Rivers said. "I like their energy. I don't know them, but I can learn what type of guys they are by the way they play on the field."

Zimmer doesn't have a linebackers coach yet, a process the Bengals hope to complete this week. In fact, he'll probably need two if the Bengals go to a 3-4, but he/they will be fully in place by the time they see these guys again at next month's scouting combine.

"Right now," said Zimmer, not focused on scheme at the moment. "it's pretty simple. You're just trying to find guys that can play."

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