5-9-04, 8:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
As Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson left Paul Brown Stadium Saturday night, secondary coach Kevin Coyle urged the rookie linebackers to take home the last two plates of cookies that had been served as desert at dinner.
They didn't take him up on it, but Miller ended up later in the night having a room-service order of two large helpings of calamari, a hamburger, and fries.
And, he still thought he weighed just 221 pounds on Sunday morning.
"Size doesn't matter so much," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "Sometimes, you can't hit what you can't see, and he's pretty elusive. We think he's going to be fine."
In fact, if first-round pick Chris Perry, the running back from Michigan, was the Offensive Player of Sunday's Just Completed Rookie Minicamp, then the 6-3 Miller, a third-rounder out of Arkansas, was the Defensive Player for combining his quickness with highly developed instincts.
Miller is the symbol of head coach Marvin Lewis' recipe for revamping this defense, and it has drastically altered the ingredients of the Bengals' roster. If Lewis is the new face of the Bengals, then the new Body By Marvin showed up at this minicamp in the persons of the 11 players they drafted two weeks ago.
Seven of them are defensive, and they drafted six straight from rounds two to four.
No more 240-250-pound linebackers that have trouble playing in space. No more in the box safeties that can't cover wide receivers. If you can't run, he'll run you off as the Bengals try to re-invigorate the defense that finished 28th in the NFL last season.
As Coyle said, "It's where the league is going. Safeties playing linebacker and cornerbacks playing safety."
And, the Bengals seemed satisfied Sunday that the guys they drafted are what they saw on paper.
There are guys like Miller, a guy who can play strong side and, maybe, middle linebacker. There are guys like the 225-pound Johnson, a weak-side player who may have been the fastest linebacker in the draft. There are guys like second-round pick Madieu Williams, a 190-pound safety from Maryland who switched from corner his junior year.
"Look at a guy like Madieu who runs a 4.4 (in the 40-yard dash)," said Florida cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, the club's other second-round pick. "He's just as fast as the corners and the linebackers are just as fast as the safeties. With that type of speed, you can play inverted defenses and inverted coverages."
Which is the idea. Versatility. Although the Bengals struggled against the run in the second half of the season (they allowed backs at least 121 yards in three of the last four games), it was matchups in the passing game against backs, tight ends, and third receivers that they are also trying to fix.
Ravens Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap threw down a 129-yard game down on them, Cardinals tight end Freddie Jones hurt them on a big third-down play in the Arizona loss, and Seattle tight end Itula Mili had his biggest play of the season on a 46-yard touchdown pass as the Bengals finished 24th against the pass.
Miller is an interesting guy because he can run down the field with backs and tight ends, and his football instincts had the coaches raving this weekend. Linebackers coach Ricky Hunley doesn't think his size is a problem.
"It's because he understands leverage and angles and he uses his hands, and he can move his feet and he can run," Hunley said. "He's playing down on blocks; he can attack and shed as well a seasoned pro. He keeps people off his body. He keeps a separation while he keeps his feet moving. When he gets his keys, he gets to the spot."
Miller has never been able to put on weight. He says even if he sits all day potato couching it with bags of chips and cookies, he LOSES weight. He jokes that he has some parasite or a tapeworm, and he actually has gotten his insides checked and there doesn't seem to be a problem.
"If you don't have to get a colonoscopy until you're 50, I'd advise you not to do it until you have to," said Miller with a wry smile. "I think once I get on the menu they're going to give me here, I think I'll be OK. I do better when it says a specific amount to eat. The thing is, you lose weight once the season starts, so I'll have to probably come in heavier."
Bengals strength and conditioning coaches Chip Morton and Ray Oliver can take care of that. Miller has the rest, the brains and the speed. He scored in the 30s on the scouting combine's intelligence test, an excellent grade, but he admitted he got a 3.0 grade point average even though he didn't care about grades his junior and senor years.
Williams, got a 2.6 at Maryland, but he's got his degree in family studies and he could end up going for a master's degree in football because he says he's been studying tape of NFL players since his freshman year of high school. He's not your typical Bengal safety of years past, because as Coyle said the day he got drafted, he has the body of a corner.
"My mentality depends on the defense that's called," said Williams, who intercepted two passes on Friday. "If I'm supposed to go one-on-one, then I'm thinking like a corner. If I'm dropping down in the running game, then I'm thinking like a safety to make a stop in the running game.
"I like playing both because it keeps you attuned to the game," said Williams, who played corner in the dime package his junior and senior seasons. "It keeps you on the field for more plays."
How old is Williams? A young 22, because he said his high school coach gave him an "old school tape," of Deon Figures the year he won the Thorpe trophy as the best college defensive back in the country in the pre-historic early 1990s.
"I watched the footwork and the technique and tried to mirror it," Williams said.
It's funny, but the guy that supposedly doesn't run well is the first defensive player they took in Ratliff. But Ratliff knows he showed his enormous ball skills and slick hands in his pro workouts, which trumped his straight away speed.
"It's all about angles, it's not about speed," Ratliff said, but he admitted he wanted to see how he would hold up Friday, the day the rookies got to work with the veteran receivers.
"That's why when Chad (Johnson) stepped out in the one-on-one drill for the first time, I jumped into line," Ratliff said. "I wanted to get it out of the way as early as possible. 'I'm not saying I won or anything like that. It was just knowing I could be on the same field with him. You always want to go against the best. You have to feel like you can run with those guys but it's more than that. I held my own."
Also Friday, veteran wideout Patrick Johnson reminded Ratliff just how important technique is when he got behind him and beat him for a long touchdown pass that had nothing to do with speed. The play happened at the line of scrimmage.
"He took an inside route on me and swam back outside," Ratliff said. "These are professionals out there. In college, guys would take one release and stay with it. He got the best release to get back in his route. He gave me a good move."
That's why there are minicamps. That's why there are rookie seasons. The Bengals' newest assistant coach, former Raiders defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, is probably going to be using a lot of these rookies because indications are he's going to be working with the third-down packages. He knows exactly what Lewis is doing because he tried to do some of these things in Oakland.
Bresnahan spent the draft looking at all the prospects from home, and he said Sunday the ones here didn't disappoint with their speed and athleticism.
(In the 2003 draft, the Raiders took a cornerback/safety with their first pick late in the first round in California's Nnamdi Asomugha.)
"You have to. You have to have that athleticism for the versatility. You've got linebackers covering Marshall Faulk," Bresnahan said. "Look at our Chris Perry. We'd love to flex him out in a matchup like that. Madieu is going to be a real interesting, fun kid to work with. These guys are all rangy, athletic kids. Landon, Larry Stevens (free-agent outside backer from Michigan). Miller. Size is overrated a little bit to a degree if you've got a scheme that takes advantage of the athleticism. You have to be able to run. This game gets bigger and faster every year. And when I say bigger and faster, I don't necessarily mean those 245-pound guys."