Bengals hope they have a smash

Jay Hayes

"The Odd Couple" has opened a few blocks down from the Aronoff this week at Paul Brown Stadium starring the newest Bengals defensive linemen. Devon Still and Brandon Thompson just started rooming together in their first full week on the job, so Still can't give you the lowdown yet on his new roomie.

"When people first meet they don't usually let their full personality come out," Still says. "I'll let you know about that in a couple of weeks."

But this much we do know:

Still is the sleek, sculpted 6-5ish Penn State defensive tackle with a Paleozoic wingspan and a placid 305-pound surface. At 6-2, 315 pounds, Thompson is the hydrant of a nose tackle from Clemson that plays with fire; no neck and all power with splashy weight-room workouts. They flashed some of their first-round measurables during last weekend's rookie minicamp and since Still went in the second round and Thompson in the third they'll always be connected at the hip pad, never mind a room key.

"The thing is," says defensive line coach Jay Hayes, "they're going to be learning from guys that go like hell. They'll be watching Domata (Peko) and Geno (Atkins) and Robert (Geathers), guys that go 100 percent every snap. I've already told them that we've got a strong room and the guys in here aren't going to accept anything less than your best."

One thing about Hayes's room is that a new veteran like Jamaal Anderson can sense that the line takes great pride in setting the tone for a defense that has finished in the top 10 two of the last three seasons. Not to mention the playoffs.

They did it last year with a relentless seven- and eight-man rotation and even though the D-line lost two key guys to free agency, the Odd Couple draft sent a message about the front. There's always an understudy in the wings.

"Sure, we have a Pro Bowler," Hayes says of Atkins, the 3 technique who led NFL tackles with eight sacks last season. "This is the way the draft fell. We had them ranked high on the board. The best players at that point, we felt. We always need good players."

The Bengals lost two good NFL players in Frostee Rucker and Jon Fanene, two versatile linemen that combined for 10 sacks last season. Still figures to play behind Atkins and Thompson is behind Peko, and on some paper they were first-round material while Fanene was a seventh-rounder and Rucker a third-rounder.

"Higher grades, but will they be as good or better NFL players?" Hayes asks rhetorically. "We'll find out."

This past weekend both impressed in their own way while also giving Hayes ammunition to challenge them.

Still showed quickness and a knack for rushing the passer and just his sheer size had people talking. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who stopped by to watch Friday, liked the looks of both and Thompson reminded him of a bigger, stronger version of Clinton McDonald, the former Bengals defensive tackle highly-regarded by teammates for his intensity and production.

"Devon's got a feel for the game and you could see it," Hayes says. "Brandon is exceptionally strong. He can probably lose 10 pounds and Devon's got to get stronger in the lower body."

Still feels quite at home even though his dad was such a Steelers fan that he dressed him in a tiny Steelers uni for his trip home from the hospital back in 1989.

"I became a fan of them when I was small. I was probably eight, nine, 10 years old," says Antonio Still, who coordinates deliveries for a shipping company in Wilmington, Del. "I think it was because my name was close to the Steelers. Still. Steelers. But I'm a Bengals fan now. I'm going to be wearing the stripes."

So Devon is an honorary Pittsburgh guy. His defensive coordinator and later head coach at Penn State, Tom Bradley, is also a Pittsburgh guy (Bishop McCort High) and is of the same generation and circle of Hayes (South Fayette) and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis (McDonald).

"It's a very good fit," says Bradley, who left Penn State back in January when he wasn't kept as head coach. "Knowing Marvin and how he does things and how his defenses play, I think Devon is going to be able to adjust quickly. I think he got hurt during the draft process because there was no (previous) head coach around to state his case."

Still, who also played some end in college, says he already feels comfortable with the surroundings.

"Just because it's the same scheme like we had at Penn State and Coach Jay is a little similar to Coach (Larry) Johnson," Still says. "He let me know he was a Pittsburgh guy. I understand what it means to work hard and put all my time into it."

But Hayes doesn't want him to get too comfortable. He understands Still is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, but he wants him to improve his down-to-down consistency. He knows some of it may be his personality, which he feels "is laid back," but that's not the nature of the Bengals rotation.

"He's a very talented guy and I want him to push himself past where he has gone," Hayes says. "I want him where he's not taking a blow on the field. Part of it was he didn't come out very much. He felt like he had to conserve his energy. We don't have that issue."

Indeed, the Bengals defensive line has the opposite issue. Their culture is the rotation. Hayes told Still if he's taking rests on the field, he'd pull him out of the game and wouldn't put him back in until he himself got tired.

"And I'm not going to get very tired just standing there," Hayes says.

He says both guys are bright enough to figure it out. Thompson, he says, has the luxury of watching Peko.

"One of the best in the game; one of the great motors," Hayes says. "Easily could have gone to the Pro Bowl. I've seen him just beat up Pro Bowlers with that motor and strength. (Thompson) plays hard; he just needs to get adjusted to the NFL. He's more of a run guy. We'll see how he fits."

Thompson spent the weekend literally fitting in.

"Hand positioning, feet placement. Maintaining your gap," Thompson says of his rookie camp. "I think my main asset is my knowledge of the game and being able to react to it."

As Whitworth says, Thompson looks like an NFL nose tackle is supposed to look. He also jacks around iron like they should.

How many pounds does he squat?

"About six," he says, and we're talking hundreds.

How many does he bench?

"About five."

How many times can he rep 225 pounds while on the bench?

"Between 36 and 40," he says.

But he's not one of these guys that goes in there because he loves it.

"I do it," he says, "because it makes me better."

The third-round selection just might make him better, too. The Bengals had second-round grades on Thompson, as did a lot of the draftnicks.

"I always play with a chip on my shoulder," he says. "Now I've got a bigger one."

While Hayes sees Still as "laid back," he calls Thompson "chatty," and he agrees.

"I'll talk out there," Thompson says. "I like to talk it up."

But Still isn't exactly a wallflower. He was a stand-up guy in the media while his last season was robbed by the Sandusky scandal. It finally hit him when he went to a slew of end-of-season awards dinners.

"The media asked everybody else about their draft prospects and what kind of season they had," Still says. "They just asked me about the controversy."

But Still manned up.

"He's very quiet. He's not very demonstrative. Sometimes you don't even know he's around," Bradley says. "He was a team captain and a leader. He understood what he had to do."

The curtain is officially up. The Odd Couple is moving into the trenches.

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