Posted: 3:30 a.m.
After getting beat up on both sides of the ball to the tune of 1-5 in the AFC North last year, the Bengals threw a couple of haymakers on both sides of the ball Saturday in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft to get back into the division clinches with the selections of left tackle Andre Smith's power and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's pop.
While offensive line coach Paul Alexander celebrated Smith's selection by observing, "He can knock them back better than anybody in the draft," a draft get-together for the D-line at defensive tackle Domata Peko's home turned into a celebration when their texts to the draft room were answered with Maualuga.
"You look at Baltimore's linebackers and they've got Ray Lewis. Everyone knows Pittsburgh's linebackers. Cleveland's got their linebackers," Peko said. "Now we've got a big-name backer in the middle to go with Keith Rivers. He's the next Junior Seau. Our defense took a huge step."
The Bengals hope Smith becomes the next Willie Anderson, their four-time Pro Bowl right tackle released before the '08 season. He's from Alabama (Birmingham), wears No. 71, stayed in state to play college ball, and knows the game.
Faced with such strong intra division bull-rushers in Baltimore's Terrell Suggs and whoever Pittsburgh pulls out of the Heinz Field basement, the Bengals feel like they need tackles that are athletes strong enough to anchor.
"He's the kind of guy Paul likes," Anderson said Saturday night during his first spring with the Ravens. "A big guy that can road-grade in the running game and is athletic enough to pass protect."
Asked if Smith can play left tackle in the NFL, Anderson gave the same answer he probably gave himself when the Bengals took him with the 10th pick out of Auburn in 1996.
"He did it in one of the best divisions in college football," Anderson said.
Early returns were sparse but upbeat. After the Maualuga pick, a Pro Football Weekly blogger had the Bengals as early favorites for the best draft while CBSsports.com's Pete Prisco gave them a B-plus for Andre Smith and a B for Maualuga.
Prisco's reason for Maualuga dropping? He's a two-down linebacker.
The Bengals don't agree.
While both Smith and Maualuga look ticketed to start the Sept. 13 regular-season opener against Denver, they may not be at their college positions. Head coach Marvin Lewis indicated Smith would start but it looks like the club is going to wait to see how he practices at left and right before deciding to move left guard Andrew Whitworth to left tackle for '09.
And while Lewis said he won't mark down Maualuga as the starter at middle linebacker, the Bengals believe he can play all three spots for them and they could be looking, at times, at an alignment of middle linebacker Dhani Jones flanked by the former USC teammates, Maualuga and Keith Rivers, last year's No. 1 pick.
But Maualuga's intensity, hitting and demeanor are more important than where he plays. His relentless physical style is an answer to the hard-hitting Troy Polamalus that seem to populate the AFC North. While defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer provided edginess on the practice field last year, Maualuga gives the Bengals a personality on Sundays.
"He's a guy that loves to hit; loves to attack at the line of scrimmage," Zimmer said and linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald raved about his intangibles.
"The most important things to me, and at times they get overlooked in the overall, but when you're in the room with those guys teaching, chemistry is key," FitzGerald said. "You need the right group of guys. Rey is going to be great."
FitzGerald smiled when asked if Maualuga's presence would help Rivers, last year's first-round pick that missed the last 10 games with a broken jaw.
"What helps Keith the most is Tank," said FitzGerald of new defensive tackle Tank Johnson's ability to occupy blockers.
"I think the thing with Rey Maualuga is the fact that he wasn't what you would call a 'measurable guy' in terms of his testing scores, whether it's broad jump, his 40 time — things of that nature," FitzGerald said. "What he does though, is play ball. At times you want to put a clock on him and do things of that nature. But when I went to SC and had the opportunity to work him out along with their other guys, that was what it's all about for him — the football drills. And he was excellent at it. It's the way he plays football."
Zimmer sounds like he's got the playmaker this club has sought since Odell Thurman's rookie year.
"The thing that impressed me the most when I was watching was, for a big guy, they say he doesn't move that well, but every time I saw a running back go to the perimeter, he sucked them down," Zimmer said. "One of the interceptions he made is probably on his highlight film, and he ran it back into the end zone for a touchdown. Those were terrific plays. He has played with great players around him. He's played against great competition."
As Maualuga's name stayed on the board, Peko's draft day hangout got frenzied. Peko and Jonathan Fanene buried defensive line coach Jay Hayes in a blizzard of texts urging them to draft him as each team passed. When Hayes fired back something like, "You got your wish," the place erupted.
The other thing the two new guys do is heighten the football I.Q. of the roster. Alexander says that one of the traits Smith shares with Anderson is their knack for knowing the game. Alexander said two teams that put film on in their meetings with players at the NFL scouting combine said that Smith was the one tackle that came through "that knew what was going on the best."
"Why did you turn here? What is the (defender's) best pass rush? What does that stance tell you," Alexander recounted. "All those kind of things. Willie was the most brilliant football player I've ever been around."
Smith obviously isn't there yet but he's got the instincts.
"When you get him on the board and you start talking football, you can kind of tell that they've trained for it," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski of the usual meeting with a prospect. "But when I visited with this kid, right away when we started talking football, everything was like, 'Yeah, let's talk about football.' He was very, very impressive. As Marvin said, he lit up. There was a very natural aspect to it. It wasn't canned. It wasn't phony. You could tell that this kid loved to play football.
But Smith immediately brings more with his 330 pounds. (He survived his first Bengals weigh-in Thursday when Alexander made one last plane flight to visit and asked him to get on the scale. He was 337 and ready.)
"In this division, where you play some very physical defenses, the first thing that stands out is this guy can move people," Bratkowski said. "That's something, when you look at the film, you see it over and over again. That's a very positive trait to have in this division."
The presence of fellow Samoans in Peko and Fanene should make Maualuga's transition to the North even easier.
"We stick together. Fanene and I will take him under our wing," said Peko, who met Maualuga during the offseason when Peko and his wife were in Los Angeles. "I told him I was hoping we'd take him in the first round and we've talked to each other since. He's a good guy. And he's a beast. We're all going nuts here. Robert Geathers is here. Big (Jason) Shirley. It's great."
Zimmer looks forward to adding some more of that passion from Maualuga's big-time drive.
"I love the way the Polynesian players approach the game. They love football. I think we have some other guys here that will help steer him in the right direction," he said.
The direction, the Bengals hope, is into the belly of the AFC North beast.