8-18-03, 5:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ You can pour pre-season stats into that wonderful glass of half-empty and half-full, but the fact is the Bengals' offense is ranked second and the defense is ranked fifth in the NFL heading into Saturday's third pre-season game at 7:30 against Tennessee at Paul Brown Stadium.
After their third year together in the same system, that makes some sense on the offensive side of the ball, where the pass game is No. 1 in a NFL where mostly backups have played so far.
But on defense, new coordinator Leslie Frazier's task has been much more daunting as he melds his philosophy with that of head coach Marvin Lewis into a new scheme with seven new starters. In eight quarters, his people rank in the top four of eight different categories of defense in the AFC.
"Tell me that in January and I'll be a happy man," Frazier said Tuesday. "Yes, a number is a number, but a season is just so long."
Yet what makes Frazier happy in August is that his first unit has faced two of the league's rising young quarterbacks the Jets' Chad Pennington and the Lions' Joey Harrington and has held them to a combined 8-for-19 passing and no touchdown passes.
So it's a bit ironic that another challenge comes Saturday against the Titans in the form of Tennessee's Steve McNair, the quarterback for his old teammate on the Chicago Bears' Albert Einstein defense of the early 1980s. Frazier and Titans head coach Jeff Fisher were both rookie cornerbacks in 1981, and became part of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's enduring legacy.
It's that brew of brains and brawn that Frazier wants to bring to his defense in Cincinnati.
"Look up and down that defense," Frazier said of his old teammates. "Mike Singletary, Gary Fencik, Dave Duerson. "They just weren't teammates, they were friends off the field, which isn't always the case on a football team, particularly one that's very good because you've got good players who have agendas that sometimes supercedes the team agenda.
"But on that team there were guys that really wanted to be successful as a group and Jeff was one of those guys. Smart guys, and if you look at that defense today, most of them are successful in whatever they are doing."
McNair has been a large part of Fisher's success in Tennessee, a club that has been to two of the last four AFC title games. And he's just the kind of guy Frazier fears.
"This is a big challenge for us because Steve has that added dimension of being able to run the ball," Frazier said. "You can be out of position for just one second and he can break you down for a big play."
Ryan visited camp here last week and said, "You have to know Leslie was a smart player because he was still playing cornerback even though he ran a 4.8 40," and now he gets a chance to match Xs and Os with his old teammate Fisher. They got to be friends because Fisher's best friend was Frazier's roommate, Jay Hilgenberg.
"Jeff was the kind of guy who would always keep you loose," Frazier said. "We both returned punts and one day he started turning around and catching them behind his back without looking. That was Jeff. You couldn't top that."
Both Frazier and Fisher have carried on Ryan's work. Frazier has brought a hard-nosed aggressiveness that stresses quarterback pressure from a scheme that dictates to the offense with 11 versatile players against the run and pass.
The 21st century Bengals appear to be responding to the Bears' old-time philosophy of individual sacrifice for the greater good. Defensive end Justin Smith has talked about how players are staying in their run gaps nowadays, instead of wandering outside their lanes like last year in trying to come up with big, heroic plays.
"We've got some smart guys and that's what it's all about," said cornerback Tory James, who played on a Raider defense good enough to go to the Super Bowl last season. "It's doing your job and trusting and relying on the other guy knowing that he's going to be there for you."
Frazier has had the added burden of working under a former high-profile defensive coordinator in Lewis, whom clearly has his own ideas. Lewis said Tuesday that the relationship is strong and developing and that Frazier is already adjusting to the fact that Lewis has never believed that what is drawn up on the board is actually how it's going to work, and that there never can be confusion that forces players to go less than full speed. Frazier comes from a Philadelphia defense that also prefers speed over scheme.
"I'm a resource," Lewis said. "I didn't have that. I built (Baltimore's defense) from the ground up. . .I didn't have a sounding board, but it was trial-and-error. We don't have the opportunity for trial-and –error. We're not going to go through that."
Glen Steele, a six-year veteran defensive tackle, has seen the good times and the bad, and he knows a couple of things.
"It's a different scheme and that's all I want to say about it," Steele said. "But we've got some great athletes out there and we picked up some free-agents that have really helped us, guys who know what they're doing and that's a big part of it. Doing the assignments."
Frazier admitted it might take another class from the draft and free agency to get to where he wants to be. But, until then, he's cautiously optimistic that he has brought in a core of players (James, middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, defensive linemen John Thornton and Duane Clemons) who have the smarts and attitude of old Bears.
"The big thing is to keep the guys healthy and keep them practicing so they can keep getting the reps and learn the system," Frazier said.
A number is, after all, a number, even if it's preseason.
"I didn't even know they kept stats in the preseason," James said. "But that's a good one. That gives you some excitement. We just have to keep working at it."