Updated: 10-6-11, 7:15 a.m.
Bengals safety Reggie Nelson returns to the stadium where he received his NFL baptism Sunday, but it is another Jacksonville hot spot that holds one of the keys to his emergence as one of the leaders of the NFL's top-ranked defense.
The Hit Center styles itself as a high intensity workout gym that even broken down sportswriters like Pete Prisco attend. Prisco, one of the NFL gurus for CBSSports.com, watched Nelson come in every day and blow everyone away.
"There were a lot of NFL players there and Reggie was probably the hardest working one," Prisco said. "A lot of those guys would have something like a 10 o'clock appointment, but they wouldn't roll in until about 10:30. Reggie would show up 15 minutes early and would always put in a hard workout."
Prisco made a note of it all because the knock on Nelson had been that while he had marvelous first-round talent, which is where the Jags took him with the 21st pick in 2007, he didn't exactly commit to the playbook and missed a lot of tackles simply because he didn't recognize what was unfolding at the snap and invariably missed tackles because he took bad angles while developing an underachiever image.
But that's a view that gets disputed when discussing why the Jags shopped Nelson in the last days of the 2010 preseason. The Bengals took him for a fourth cornerback (David Jones) and conditional draft pick and in return have ended up with a guy that has become one of the top players on a defense that goes to his old stomping grounds with a No. 1 ranking for the first time in 28 years.
It is certainly not the Nelson secondary boss Kevin Coyle has coached.
"He's been a pleasure to coach. He's very focused. He takes a lot of pride in what he does," Coyle says. "He takes a great deal of personal pride in being a person you can count on to do different things right, like making checks, and I think it's translating into his play. I find him to be very coachable. You can see his confidence growing each week and the confidence of those around him. I think Reggie Nelson's best football is in front of him."
Which is saying something because his football right now has been superb. Nelson's 37 tackles (as charted by the coaches off game film) are three behind middle linebacker Rey Maualuga 's team-leading 40, he's already matched his career sack total coming into the season with one, and his play in the gaps is a big reason the Bengals are first in the league in allowing just 3.1 yards per rush.
There are guys that will tell you that the Jags story isn't all that complicated. Guys like Hadley Engelhard, Nelson's agent, and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
"First of all, he's playing well because he's a great player and he was a great player at the University of Florida; Reggie's a tremendous athlete," Engelhard says. "He had a tremendous rookie year where they had him fly around to the ball like he's doing for the Bengals. Then his second year he got hurt. Then in his third year they moved him around between corner and safety, and that's it. He's playing one spot and they've got him doing what he was doing when he was a rookie."
Lewis objected to a "How did you turn Reggie Nelson into a productive player?" question on Wednesday's conference call with the Jacksonville media.
"Those are my friends down there in Jacksonville from all the way through the organization. We felt like Reggie could help us as a player. We both were in a position, they were in need of a corner, we were in need of a safety," Lewis said. "We felt like we had a surplus of corners and we were able to make the trade with David Jones and Reggie Nelson. And I think both clubs benefited for what they were looking for. We felt good about Reggie coming out that year in the draft when he was drafted. Reggie is still a young player, he's still a work in progress and we coach his tail off every single day, and that's all we can do. The one thing that was said from the people in Jacksonville (was) that you probably want to put him in one spot and leave him there and we've tried to do that with him. I think it was a move that was good for both teams."
A sampling of player reaction to Nelson giving an impromptu interview after Wednesday's practice shows his popularity and his ensuing smile reflects how comfortable he is here and playing in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's system. He has to know both free and strong safeties, so he and Chris Crocker usually take turns blitzing, taking on the run at the line of scrimmage and covering receivers and tight ends.
"The defense is the way Zim wants to run it," Nelson said. "That's part of the game, flying around, running around and hitting people. Right now we're having of a lot of fun and we're playing good team football. (Crocker and Nelson) know each position. It depends on what formation they come out in and then we've got to execute it."
Nelson and former teammate Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars all-purpose running back, expect to be banging heads all day and MJD knows what to expect.
"He's just playing fast and there looks like there is no hesitation in his play," Jones-Drew said on Wednesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media. "He's doing great in open-field tackling; he's rushing the passer tremendously. That's the Reggie we knew when he was here. You guys got a great player coming from here. I'm happy for him. I'm glad he's found a place where he's comfortable and he's playing lights out again."
It seems to be another case of Zimmer and his staff taking talented players from other teams, isolating their strengths and maximizing it in their scheme, as he's done with Crocker and outside linebackers Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson and Brandon Johnson.
For the third straight week a Bengals defender plays a team that drafted him in the first round. Two weeks ago it was Lawson against the 49ers, last week it was cornerback Nate Clements against the Bills, and this week it is Nelson against the Jags. The Bengals get a couple of weeks off before it happens again when cornerback Kelly Jennings, also acquired in a trade, heads to Seattle at the end of October to play the franchise that took him with a first-round pick in 2006. Then the next week in Tennessee cornerback Adam Jones, currently on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), is expected to play against the Titans team that took him with the sixth pick in the 2005 draft.
But Nelson is very careful not to say anything about his old team or get into any comparisons.
"I wouldn't say a new life; change is always good," Nelson said. "And like I've said, I'm putting Jacksonville behind me. I'm all about the Bengals. It's just like any other game. We're practicing hard. Just because I'm going back to Jacksonville doesn't mean anything. I've still got a job to do. It's not going to be a family reunion. I'm going to be happy to see the guys, but at the end of the day we've got a job to do. We've just got to keep focusing on our team and our defense. That's just about it. It doesn't matter what we're ranked. We've got to keep playing. It's only Week 4."