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Bengals mix and match on defense


William Jackson gets his first NFL snaps Sunday.

One of the many reasons the Bengals love red-shirt rookie cornerback William Jackson and believe he'll be an elite cover man is that for a first-rounder he doesn't mind playing with a chip on his shoulder. In fact, he has yet to take a snap and it sounds like he already has one when he makes it Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Ravens.

Told this week he had a good training camp after missing almost all of that and everything else as a rookie last year with a torn pectoral muscle, Jackson shrugged.

"We all know rookies don't start here," Jackson said. "I just have to face reality. They'll work me in. It's enough of a blessing to get in there and compete, though."

Not so fast. OK, head coach Marvin Lewis started at least one rookie in 12 straight openers in a streak that ended in 2014 with center Russell Bodine. He hasn't started one in the last two. And maybe, just maybe, fourth-year cornerback Darqueze Dennard, another first-rounder derailed by injury, is going to get his first NFL Opening Day start. Plus, Jackson technically isn't a rookie.

But defensive coordinator Paul Gunther is guaranteeing that whoever is active of his 23 players (and that could be everybody but injured starting safety Shawn Williams and newest Bengal Ringo), they're going to play.

Just look at what Lewis did in the pre-season games. With cornerback Adam Jones suspended, Dennard slid into the slot with Jackson playing outside when teams went multiple receivers early in games. The Ravens might not be so inclined to go multiple with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco easing into it with his back issues, but Jackson figures to play plenty in Guenther's vision of versatility.

'We could do a lot of different combinations, and it's really important for the first couple of games, because they're not used to playing as many snaps," Guenther said. "I anticipate using every guy that's dressed on defense, really."

Some of that is necessity. Starting safety George Iloka (knee) didn't play in any pre-season games and although he's been back to practice for about three weeks and says he has the fresh legs of a rookie, he's still getting into game shape.


Darqueze Dennard looms big on what is his first Opening Day after three years of injuries.

But mostly Guenther plans to play multiple guys because he can. The Bengals defense looks a lot different this year because you don't know where to look. Guenther is vowing to use different packages on virtually every snap to match the Ravens' offense to the fullest.

"Last year we had a lot of the same type of guys," Guenther said. "What I always like to do is, 'This guy can do this good or this guy can do that good,' and that way it allows you when you see a mismatch here I can, 'All right let's put him on that guy.'"

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He already had some versatility in the back end with Dennard playing corner and slot and Josh Shaw playing both corner spots along with safety.

But when they drafted third-rounder Jordan Willis, they also got a left end and a right end. Fourth-rounder Carl Lawson gives them a rush end as well as a linebacker. Plus, sixth-rounder Jordan Evans is so fast Guenther can put him in against the run or the pass at linebacker.  And that in turn frees up starting linebacker Vincent Rey to play more on special teams and …

You get the idea. Anybody could be anywhere. One move can lead to another one. The emergence of Lawson and Willis on the edge have allowed Guenther to move veteran ends Michael Johnson and Chris Smith into tackle on passing downs and it appears that both of their careers have been revived.

"Maybe a guy plays in nickel, maybe he plays in base, we mix and match them that way, much like we're going to do the corners and safeties," Guenther said.

He confirms he plans to play the very intriguing Evans in base (run situations) as he tries to ease the absence of the suspended Vontaze Burfict at WILL with both Rey and Evans.

"It's not too big for him. He's got good coverage skills," Guenther said of Evans. "I don't know why he wasn't invited to the combine, because to me when you watch him at Oklahoma his coverage skills were as good as anybody that's why we liked him.


Carl Lawson figures to be in a couple of different spots Sunday.

"He's another guy who has a good preseason. I told him a long time ago, when I was a linebacker coach here we started two undrafted linebackers in a playoff game and for half a season in Emmanuel (Lamur) and Vontaze as rookies. If you're good enough to play I don't care if you're a rookie or a 12th year guy if you can help us win you'll play."

Guenther believes Johnson's 6-7 frame and outside quickness are giving offensive interiors some problems and he did get some penetration in the preseason. While the Bengals offensive line has some questions, the Ravens have plenty, too. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Ronnie Stanley barely played in the preseason, left guard Alex Lewis is out for the year, and right tackle Austin Howard just got there.

 "I just think the guards aren't used to his length in there," Guenther said. "It's tough and you're trying to throw over top of him in the middle of the field and he's getting his hands in throwing lanes it makes it difficult."

The cerebral Johnson is waiting and seeing, but he says he enjoys the change.

"It's a learning process, a challenge. But challenges make you better," said Johnson, one of four Bengals who were here for the last home opener eight years ago. "I think (they'll rotate). But we'll see when the time comes. I just know everybody's going to be ready to answer the bell when called. It's going to be exciting."

Johnson thinks his height and leverage can help as he tries to become the re-incarnation of Wallace Gilberry.

"I think it can help," Johnson said. "I'm looking forward to it the more comfortable I get and just trying to make some plays within the scheme of the defense."

As for Jackson, he remembers watching last year's opener on the couch with his parents in Houston. He's never been in the building for an NFL opener and that's part of the process. They love how he covers he will play a bunch. They just want to make sure they don't rush him.

"He does a good job, but it's a little different than it is in college," Guenther said, "where you just have one guy the whole day and you line up to the boundary or you line up to the field, there's a lot more that goes into it at this level."

Dre Kirkpatrick, their most seasoned corner on Sunday, also likes what he sees. He knows it's also a process for young guy like Jackson.

"I'm definitely confident. They can both make plays and they know their assignments," Kirkpatrick said of Jackson and Dennard. "People don't know what to expect without seeing Shawn and Pac back there, but Darqueze has been around for (four) years. Willie is a young guy who I feel is maturing and adjusting well. At the end of the day there's a lot of room for improvement. The more he learns formations, the more he learns how to play in certain situations, the faster he's going to play."

A visual look at the 2017 Bengals roster.

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