Bengals cover past

11-08-01, 6:50 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

As the target on the target, Artrell Hawkins doesn't want to hear it anymore. The Bengals cornerbacks this and the Bengals cornerbacks that and they are the weakest link.

"I've heard that argument for four years and it's not a valid one at this point," said Hawkins this week. "Look at the TV. They haven't thrown a bomb on us yet. Not to pat ourselves on the back, but I think we're giving this team a chance to win."

But in the same breath, Hawkins realizes Sunday's game in Jacksonville is the corners biggest game of this season. This isn't a winless Detroit offense that has had to pass and ended up with big numbers.

This is wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, who are first and fifth, respectively in NFL catches since 1996. Smith, who has 71 catches and four 100-yard games against the Bengals. McCardell, who has six touchdowns and three 100-yard days against the Bengals. Smith, who is coming off back-to-back 100-yard days. McCardell, who has a quarter of his 33 catches on third down.

"This," Hawkins said, "will be a gauge of where we stand."

The corners stand pretty good at the moment. Even Smith has noticed on the tape down in Jacksonville that the Bengals' pass rush has given the cornerbacks the confidence that's been missing in years past.

The only touchdown pass longer than 20 yards against the Bengals this season is the 30-yarder Cleveland wide receiver Kevin Johnson caught on Robert Bean, just in the game for the injured Rodney Heath and nursing a sore knee himself.

Last year after seven games, the Bengals had allowed four scoring passes of at least 20 yards on the way to allowing 10 for the season. They've given up 100-yard days to only Johnson and New England's Troy Brown after last year, when they allowed eight 100-yarders. Which included two players on the same team twice.

And so far, this hasn't been one of those third-and-seven seasons where foes invariably grab that eight-yard pass. On 35 passes of third-and-at-least-seven, foes have converted for the first down just 10 times.

Plus, they've done it under extreme duress. They've lost Heath, the starting left cornerback, for the season with a torn hamstring. They survived the Lions without Bean and nickel back Tom Carter, thanks in part to the waiver wire pickup of rookie Bo Jennings

Reasons?

In not any particular order, the pass rush, Hawkins' revival, the steady development of 2000 draft picks Bean and Mark Roman, and head coach Dick LeBeau's off-season decision to add a second coach to the secondary when he hired Kevin Coyle to oversee the cornerbacks.

"We know what we're doing. Everyone has an idea of what they're doing," said free safety Darryl Williams. "Last year, a lot of times, guys didn't really know where they fit. All it takes is one guy to mess it up. Right now, we're playing with guys who know where they're supposed to be."

Carter has noticed.

"Guys are reading formations a little better and making a better break on the ball. I see a difference in that," he said.

The prime example is Hawkins, benched last year and thought lost to busthood after getting drafted in the second round in 1998. But a major reason he struggled is because he had trouble reading the dizzying volume of pro formations. Now, back as the starting right corner, he says he hears Coyle in his head every play, barking the read and the reaction.

"Kevin majors in the minor things," Hawkins said.

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"He has so much information that sometimes we'll say, 'Kevin, this is too much.' He gets us ready. He teaches us constantly. We're always meeting, talking about the little things and now that it's just five or six guys with one coach, there is more time for all that."

Roman, the second-round pick starting in place of Heath, says the individual attention has speeded his development and it's no knock on the secondary coach of the past four seasons, Ray Horton. With Horton now coaching the safeties, Roman sees the corners allowed to talk their own language before meeting with the safeties to get on the same page.

Hawkins has seen it work. Say he's on the back side of a slot formation and he starts slipping inside when he really has contain responsibilities on the outside.

"We'll practice it that day," Hawkins said. "We'll be able to do some individual drills among ourselves."

Coyle, a slight, fiery 45-year-old who brings an East Coast edge from his hometown of Staten Island, arrived after a 10-year stint as the defensive coordinator at Maryland, Syracuse and Fresno State.

Free safety Cory Hall, who played for him at Fresno, says it's the same old Coyle. A detail man. Hawkins got a kick out of the college gig Coyle used over the summer, in which he gave players individual tapes complete with the coach's voice-over. It's a reason, Hawkins thinks, he's got that Staten Island sound track in his head and that it's helped.

"I think you've got young guys who have already been through a maturation process," Coyle said. "It's a competitive group and, remember, when we came in over the summer, there were no clear-cut starters. They all think they can do the job."

Roman, for one, has heard the buzz that doubts he can play corner and that has fueled him.

"Because I missed so much of my first camp (a three-week holdout), I think people thought I couldn't learn," Roman said. "That's all in the past and it's all behind me. But look what I've had to learn. I'm playing corner, some safety, nickel, the slot. Last year, that took away from my (playing) time because I was learning so much."

There's a lot to learn this week against Smith, who likes to get up field, and McCardell, who likes to bang across the middle and inside. Coyle couldn't really use the tape of the Bengals' 17-14 win at Paul Brown Stadium back in December because the second coldest game in Cincinnati history made the field a skating rink and no receiver could run anything near a typical route.

But they've studied last year's first Jaguars' game, a 13-0 loss in Jacksonville in which McCardell went for 108 yards on 10 catches in a driving rain.

The Bengals don't mind the 10 catches if it only nets 100 yards. But they do want to prevent the big play, like the 21-yarder McCardell caught for a touchdown.

"What you have to watch with them is yards after the catch," Coyle said. "They do a lot of crossing routes, a lot of shallow drags and they do a good job of getting the ball to them on the move."

Coyle knows the Bengals have had problems covering the short stuff across the middle, where attempting to get through traffic in the middle forces defenders to separate from their men.

The longest plays this season for Smith (a 35-yarder) and McCardell (34)
haven't been vintage deep bombs breaking open a game.

"The corners are getting out of there," Hawkins said. "They're giving them the underneath stuff. And that's the way you have to play it because you can't let (Smith) get by you. I don't care if they haven't gone deep yet this year. I know they can. You have to get up on them and make sure of your tackle."

As Carter says, "You have to make that sure hit, because they like to run away from you."

Williams says they will get their yards: "Anybody who says you'll shut them down is crazy. You just can't give up the big play."

Which, for the most part, the Bengals haven't. And Hawkins thinks they can survive again with pressure on quarterback Mark Brunell.

"It's the best pass rush we've had since I've been here in four years and that means everything," Hawkins said. "You look at any secondary that hangs in games with big receivers and it starts up front. These guys have been great. There have been plays where guys are running down field open, but the quarterback didn't have time to look to see it."

But they know this isn't like anything they've seen this year.

"We have to step it up a notch," Hawkins said, "where we have to make game-deciding plays."

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