Bengals would take their pick

Leon Hall

The Bengals have one interception in five games and his defensive backs have none. Yet Kevin Coyle, the meticulously-detailed Bengals secondary coach, is passing the word. There shall be no point of emphasis about picking off a couple Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-1530 ESPN) against not Peyton Manning.

No panic. No press.

In fact, when it comes to interceptions, "There's an over-emphasis to be quite honest with you," Coyle said after a practice this week, "because there are times guys might be trying to do that and not playing within the framework of the defense and we never want that to happen."

Plus, there is a sense at PBS that if the Bengals are playing defense well enough to be ranked No. 1, what me worry? And there is a sense the numbers are going to catch up soon enough because the track record says so.

Despite various droughts through the years, in Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's eight seasons the Bengals rung up the fifth-most interceptions in the NFL from 2003-2010.

With Coyle as his secondary coach since that '03 opener that cornerback Tory James, safety Mark Roman and Brian Simmons picked off Denver's Jake Plummer, the Bengals racked up 150 interceptions. They were only two behind the Bears and five behind the Patriots and Packers in that stretch. With 169, no one touched the touches of first-ballot Hall of Famer Ed Reed's Ravens.

What's it all mean, stat breath?

The high was an NFL-best 31 in 2005, when the Bengals won the division. But if they played better defense (they were ranked 28th), the Bengals might have won a playoff game even without Carson Palmer. They had just 19 picks in 2009, but had the league's fourth-best defense and while they didn't win a playoff game with Palmer the Bengals swept the division.

"I don't dwell on it and put it in their heads," Coyle said. "They know, believe me. If you're a defensive back playing in the NFL, you'd like to make interceptions. It's one of those criteria you're judged on."

But judging what?

After five games, Patriots all-world defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has more interceptions than the Bengals with two and yet Cincinnati has the NFL's third-best pass defense. The Colts and Rams have combined for six times as many interceptions and have combined for no wins. The NFL's top two defenses, the Bengals and Steelers, each have just one interception.

So the coaches aren't leaping all over the bandwagon. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's style doesn't preach picks first.

"The last thing we want is a guy to gamble in coverage to get one; that's not how we play," safeties coach Paul Guenther said this week. "We play with good fundamentals and if we're going to get interceptions, we want to do it within the scheme and not have to create them going outside it."

Guenther pulls out a driver to make the analogy.

"You want pars," he said. "You go for the birdies and all of a sudden you're getting double bogeys."

But the coaches also know the players are thinking about it. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is talking about bets between the backers and DBs on who gets the first one. The DBs were ordering pushups for each drop in games, and safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson had to drop with their drops. But now the wagers are getting pricier.

"Don't remind me," said cornerback Leon Hall of the zeros. "We just have to catch the few we've had our chance to get our hands on. I don't know, I can't explain it. We have to keep
working and keep doing our drills we do every week."

Hall is the poster child of the belief that when interceptions come, they arrive in waves. During the '08 season the Bengals had just 12 picks for the Lewis low, Hall didn't have one until the next-to-last game of the year, when he had three.

"The way it usually works is when somebody gets one it kind of opens up the gates for everybody else. We're still waiting on that one," Hall said. "I think (right end) Michael Johnson has one and that's kind of unfortunate. For the DBs anyway. We'll keep working at it. Have to catch the ones we get our way and try to create some."

Hall has been sitting sixth on the Bengals all-time interceptions list with 18 for the past 15 games. But it's not like that has damaged his reputation as one of the NFLs best cover corners. During the drought he secured a five-year contract extension.

So what's it all mean?

"We've been playing good coverage for the most part," Coyle said. "If we can eliminate some big plays and make some big plays on our end, which is what you need to do to be great in the secondary, then we'll have a chance to continue to progress."

The formula is pretty simple. There is no formula.

"Generally it tends to come when you play good, tight coverage," Coyle said. "The balls get thrown in there and you've got a chance to make them. A tipped pass, sometimes it's an overthrow. There are a lot of things that contribute to an interception; it's just not a DB. Often times it's a multitude of things that occurred during the play."

Sunday is an intriguing matchup in this department. The Colts have thrown just one interception and with Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon coming to town, Zimmer says it's the best group of receivers the Bengals have played this season.

And you know the players are thinking about it.

"In the middle of the game you just think about making the plays that come your way; you have to catch the ones that come," Hall said. "Say I were to drop a ball this week, I'm definitely going to think about it. Hopefully that won't be the case."

But Coyle won't go out of his way this weekend to remind them. Just before every game he gives them a tip sheet and the reminders to get turnovers haven't changed since the preseason opener.  

"It's frustrating a little bit right now,' he said. " We have to keep playing good overall team defense and the turnovers will eventually come. When they do, hopefully it will help our entire team because we need to be able to set up the offense for field position."

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