2-17-03, 5:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
One thing the Marvin Lewis Bengals are going to be is fast.
Speed has rocketed to the top of the wish list as he prepares to hit Indianapolis Tuesday for his first NFL scouting combine as a head coach. The event starts Tuesday night with the interviewing of prospective kickers, punters, and offensive linemen, and ends Monday with the defensive backs working out in the RCA Dome.
In between, each position group goes through three days of interviews, medical exams, IQ tests, and workouts before NFL team officials and coaches as the Bengals' new brain trust huddles for the first time at the annual combine.
Lewis and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are committed to a pressure-oriented scheme that puts a premium on athleticism on the line and in the secondary. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, whose passing scheme is grounded in the ability to open up space vertically, is looking for a field-stretching wideout as well as quick, athletic linemen.
The Bengals are supposed to draft a quarterback with the first pick, but there are some players with special quickness at key positions that may dissuade them. On offense, it could be Michigan State wide receiver Charlie Rogers, and on defense it could be a bevy of tackles, or Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman.
"You can't get away from that. It's one of the reasons I was hired. To get away from it would be a problem," said Frazier, the former secondary coach for an aggressive, Lewis-like Eagles' defense. "So you have to find guys who can handle it and make it effective because it works. It's been proven that it works. . .It's hard to start changing now, so, we just have to try to get the right guys out there."
On offense, the Bengals are looking for some youth in the interior, as well as a receiver with game-breaking speed to go opposite speedster Chad Johnson.
"We've got two ways to fill our needs and that's through the draft and free agency," Bratkowski said. "Since we don't know what's going to happen in free agency, we have to look at everybody now in case we have to turn to the draft."
Frazier isn't closing the door on the people already here. He says there is talent ("I like a lot of things I see on tape. It's just a matter of if they can adapt to what we're trying to do and how they handle it mentally,"), but he's withholding judgment at least until the minicamp two weeks before the April 26-27 draft.
Yet everyone knows the Bengals were near the bottom of the NFL with 25 sacks and 30 touchdown passes allowed, and Lewis has already targeted the secondary for help.
"It's a system designed for pressure and when you're pressuring the quarterback, the ball is going to come out fast. That means you have to have people who can cover," Frazier said. "We'll work with the guys that are here and try to get the most out of them. If we need to get some help, we'll try to get some help. No question that this system relies on the ability to cover with your secondary."
Frazier will be smart about it. If the final roster doesn't yield as much coverage as you need, you back off. But Frazier, a cornerback on the Bears' famed in-your-face '85 defense, is clearly on the lookout for his kind of DB.
"You're always looking for a corner that can run and I think they have to hit," Frazier said. "Ideally, it's nice to have big corners. We had them in Philly (6-3 Bobby Taylor and 6-1 Troy Vincent) and I was thought of as a big corner. You have to be physical at the line of scrimmage."
The top two corners available (the 5-10, 181-pound Newman and the 5-11, 187-pound Marcus Trufant of Washington State) may not fit that bill. In the second round with the 33rd pick, they would also have to ask the same question of 5-10, 187-pound Eugene Wilson of Illinois.
Free safety is a key spot in the Bengals' new scheme, although after taking Lamont Thompson in the second round last year they probably wouldn't take another one until the second day _ if they do take another. Frazier isn't seeking a pure centerfielder: "He's got to be a smart guy that gets us lined up, but when you need him on the blitz, he has to be athletic enough to get there in time."
Since the emphasis is on pressure and everyone just saw how devastating a straight four-man pass rush is for Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, the Bengals are going to take a long look at the defensive tackles. Fast-rising Dewayne Robertson of Kentucky could join Georgia's Jonathan Sullivan in the mix with Miami's William Joseph and Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy.
On offense, there's no question that the 6-4 Rogers would have the biggest impact the most quickly for the Bengals. You could line him up this Opening Day while USC quarterback Carson Palmer probably wouldn't be ready to have the same impact until Opening Day, 2005.
New Bengals wide receivers coach Alex Wood saw what a tall, fast receiver can do the past four years, where he coached on offense in Minnesota with Vikings all-world receiver Randy Moss.
"Who knows if he can be another Randy Moss?" Wood said. "But he's a similar type of player in that he can run and he can run fast. His speed is what Moss did for us in Minnesota. You got a guy like that takes the defense down the field and now you can run the ball. (Rogers) has the same type of speed and he's a big target who can catch it. He's got range. But no one knew if Randy Moss was Randy Moss when he came out."
Bratkowski is fairly content with speed at tight end ("What we need there is blocking at the point of attack,"), but he would like to take a look at younger players inside (currently center is manned by 32-year-old Rich Braham and left guard Matt O'Dwyer turns 31 Sept. 1), but he also thinks they are solid players when healthy.
"It's fair to say that we're not looking for tackles, but we would like to add some youth to the mix," Bratkowski said. "Although we might be looking for a backup tackle."