Bengals re-tool defense

3-5-04, 4:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Head coach Marvin Lewis has talked about getting more involved in the Bengals' defense this season. On Thursday, he made sure its two newest starters via free agency had roots in the best defense he ever had.

Make that anyone ever had.

The Bengals introduced one of the safeties on that Ravens' 2000 defense that Lewis coordinated when Kim Herring vowed to return from the shattered left arm that wiped out his 2003 season. And Nate Webster, the college clone of Ray Lewis, the Ravens middle linebacker that fueled that Super Bowl title, vowed to bring that same passion and speed to the middle of the Bengals defense.

"My brother told me, 'I don't know who that guy is,'" Webster said of his demeanor on Sundays. "I'm another person on game day."

The moves now mean on game day that Kevin Hardy moves out of the middle to outside linebacker on the strong side, where he has spent the bulk of his career and is most comfortable. It also means that Herring returns to the Ravens' interchangeable style he likes, where each safety can play free or strong.

It also means the Bengals haven't stopped looking for safeties with both of their starters, Mark Roman and Rogers Beckett on visits this weekend to the Packers and Jets, respectively. But Marvin Lewis hinted he can only take one of them now that Herring has signed a five-year deal that figures to be in the $2 million average range.

And maybe none. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Friday that Dolphins safety Brock Marion has expressed interest in playing for Cincinnati. Another former Dolphin, cornerback Troy Vincent who became a Pro Bowler five times with the Eagles, began his visit Thursday and figures to start negotiating Friday as Cincinnati tries to beef up the 28th-rated defense in the NFL.

"We're raising our level of professionalism," Marvin Lewis said of his two additions. "They play fast and aggressive."

Hardy, one of the true professionals Lewis added last year, saluted the move. He admitted it was "bittersweet," after just one year in the middle.

"I embrace the move because anything that makes us a better team I'm all for," Hardy said. "But as a competitor, you're disappointed that it's one and done and you're out of there. But I also think it makes us a better defense now that we have a true middle linebacker. I've heard that the guy can run and that always helps any defense."

The knock on Webster is he's 5-11 or barely 6 feet depending on what you read. But the Bengals insist that hasn't harmed his production whenever he played for the Buccaneers because of injury.

"He's going to beat you to the spot. He'll get to the spot first," said Bengals linebackers coach Ricky Hunley of his value in the running game. "Was Sam Mills tall? Was Mike Singletary tall? This game is about tackling and this guy is a tackling machine. Small? He weighed in at 238 pounds."

He's probably the "smallest," middle linebacker the Bengals have had in several years, but Webster reminds you he led Tampa Bay in tackles this past year for much of the first half of the season when injuries dogged the Bucs' linebacking corps. He has made six career starts while also making a mark on special teams that Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons hopes he continues to make.

"I have a knack for the ball. Very aggressive," Webster said. "I think I can help the 10 guys around me come to play with a little more fire. Our goal is to be one of the best defenses in the league. I'm ready for the challenge."

Hardy is excited about the move opening up his ability and angles to blitz, which were limited last year in the middle. And while Lewis hates to label any positions (such as a free and strong safety), Lewis would only say Hardy is going outside. But it's assumed they'll stick with Brian Simmons on the weak side, although maybe they could change that around at times.

"When I went to the Pro Bowl, I switched around playing strong and weak," Hardy said. "You can make an argument I had my best years outside."

Lewis loves guys who have been on winners. Webster and Herring are the 10th and 11th guys Lewis has brought on with playoff experience and the third and fourth with Super Bowl rings. Webster cut his teeth around the kind of pros Lewis covets.

"I learned how to be a pro," Webster said of the Tampa Bay experience. "Being with guys like Derrick (Brooks), Sapp, Lynch, true veterans of the game. Just learn how to practice. It's time to go to work. Come to work. That's what I want to bring here. Never quit. Winners never quit attitude. Hard work pays off."

Herring, 28, started for Lewis on that kind of defense in Baltimore and then went on to start for an underrated Rams' defense that lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl two years ago. Remember when some of the Bengals wondered during their 1-3 December how they could get better in big games? Here's a guy who has lived in plenty of them.

"Look at the last four Super Bowls," Herring said. "There were teams there that weren't supposed to be there. . .Why not the Cincinnati Bengals?"

Why not Kim Herring at either free or strong? After playing just strong the last three years for the Rams, one of the first things he told Lewis was he was happy he wouldn't have to play on just one side again.

"It means a great deal," Herring said. "They're both (safeties are) interchangeable. It makes it harder on the offense (to figure out) what we're doing. It makes it lot easier for players to understand how the defense is run, what the players are supposed to be doing in it, and it confuses the heck out of the offense. I've played strong safety. Free safety. Nickel corner. Corner. It doesn't matter. As long as you have the confidence and ability."

Herring admitted the relationship with Lewis drew him to Cincinnati and kept him at Paul Brown Stadium Thursday instead of taking another recruiting trip.

"I truly think it helps. I can trust him as a coach," Herring said. "I think the good thing about Marvin is he's going to tell you you did a job good or bad. He'll tell you the truth and that's all I can ask for in a coach, a teammate, a player, and a friend and that's what I consider Marvin. A friend. I think that always helps in the process when you can get that kind of truth out there."

Herring says last year's injury on the opening kickoff of the pre-season finale (he had reconstructive surgery after breaking the radial bone and shattering his wrist) has inspired him to prove he can come back. And even though he loves Lewis, he admits he plays at times with a chip on his shoulder because he felt someone should have drafted him out of Penn State before the 58th pick in the 1997 draft.

Lewis had high grades on Webster before the Bucs took him in the third round out of Miami of Florida in 2000. He says you couldn't tell the difference between Ray Lewis and Webster on tape in college, and he says in college the 6-1 Ray – now 245 pounds _ was the size Webster is now.

"Cincinnati liked me," said Webster, when asked why he liked Cincinnati. "There was an opening in the middle. I feel that I can play middle linebacker with some speed, some aggressiveness. We're a team on the rise. What they did last year. There's a lot of potential. . .I would like to help to get it to the next step."

Marvin Lewis said both players wanted to sign friendly salary cap deals that would help other players sign. With Webster's five-year, $11.3 million deal counting about $2 million this year and Herring's similar five-year deal maybe counting a little less, the Bengals figured to have lost more than $3 million from the $7.7 million pad ESPN.com said they had. With about $3 million needed to sign draft picks, the Bengals are probably at the point they have to cut players to sign others.

Lewis admitted the club is trying to fill several spots and is looking for a group of reasonably-priced players instead of one mega deal. Whether that is going to prevent them from signing a cornerback remains to be seen.

The Bengals have been in touch with the agent for cornerback Antoine Winfield during the curious negotiations in New York with the Jets, but a $10 million signing bonus can't be handled by a Bengals' team about to set loose the escalators of a No. 1 pick's contract.

"I think we felt like we had a few areas to improve upon," Lewis said. "The thing about these guys that make them good signings is they have an upside as far as playing. In the long run, that's good for the team. You can get a guy with a big number or let's try to get three or four if we can. But let's see. We're still working.'

With starting center Rich Braham set to visit the Giants Friday, the Bengals figure to start talking numbers with Giants center Chris Bober after he arrived Thursday night, according to Bober agent Robb Nelson. But Nelson said it's a good bet Bober won't sign anywhere until he visits Buffalo and the man who groomed him in New York, new Bills offensive line coach Jim McNally. And Bober goes to Kansas City before that.

The Bengals have also contacted the agents for Chargers center Bob Hallen and Eagles guard Bobbie Williams to set up visits.

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