Posted: 4:40 p.m.
BrooksIt's not that Ahmad Brooks wouldn't talk Wednesday after practice. It's just that he couldn't because to be late nowadays would be as bad as blowing an assignment on the back side.
Which, it seems, Brooks isn't doing as much these days in what has been an encouraging spring. At least not as much as last year, when Marvin Lewis rode him like the horse that got nagged by Chad Johnson.
"He's getting the calls in. He couldn't do that last year and I don't hear Marvin yelling at him," says defensive tackle John Thornton, and linebackers coach Ricky Hunley says, "When you do what you're supposed to do, you don't get yelled at."
Two months ago they wondered if he would carry his more mature approach onto the field. With the Bengals on the field Thursday for the last time before training camp next month, maybe they should wonder if he can give them what Odell Thurman did at middle linebacker in 2005.
"Different types of guys," Hunley says. "They're like two boxers. One guy is going to jab and cut you and the other guy is going to knock you out."
At 259 pounds, Brooks is the heavyweight and the fact he's weighed in at that number is another reason Hunley thinks the kid is getting it. Two months ago he began the offseason at 272 pounds with strict orders to get down and he admits, "It's just a matter of knowing the good things to eat and then do it."
"I think it's just simply him taking some of the advice given to him and taking it to heart," Hunley says. "He wants to be a great player, he wants to be one of the leaders on this team, and he's doing the things you have to do to do that."
Greener than the greenest rookies because he didn't even know he was a Bengal until two weeks before training camp, thanks to the supplemental draft, Brooks had a hard time staying on the field despite his first-round talent.
His lack of attentiveness in the classroom irked the defensive coaches and his less than committed approach to special teams took him off position coach Darrin Simmons' depth chart. All that combined to bench him late last season, but that changed when Brooks sat down with defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan upon his return this past March in the wake of the release of veteran linebacker Brian Simmons.
"What I took to heart most is when Coach B told me that I was going to play and that I better get in shape and know what I'm doing because I wasn't coming off the field," Brooks says. "When you hear that, well, now you know they want you to play."
Thornton doesn't get to see Brooks once the ball is snapped. But he can hear him and what he's calling and so far, so good.
"They've got a good package for him. It caters to what he can do well," Thornton says. "He's pretty tough on the blitz. Carolina (a 17-14 win) still hasn't blocked him. He just went through the 'A' gap. I think he's going to have a good season. Marvin was pretty hard on him last year. Last year had to be tough on him because he was just playing on talent. Once you get into the season, you need more than that. That was probably his downfall. Now he knows the defense. He's got a good grasp of it."
Thurman, of course, was hellacious in 2005 with a direct hand in nine turnovers on five interceptions and four forced fumbles. The long-shot hope is that he can come back from his year-long suspension and eventually be teamed next to Brooks on the right side, but no one knows if he'll be reinstated, no one knows what the impact of last week's dropped charges in his hometown will have on his application to the NFL, and no one knows how good he'll be if he comes back.
What is clear is that the Bengals think Brooks can stand out like Thurman, but in a different way.
Thornton "Odell's a quick player with a knack for the ball," Thornton says. "I think Ahmad can physically hurt people if he does it the right way. He can really pound people. Odell just flew around. We've been watching some tapes and Odell made some great plays. But he's a smaller guy. Ahmad is huge."
That punishing battering ram in the middle a la Ray Lewis and Larry Foote is a great fit in a division traditionally won by defenses that either turn it over or turn down the run. Ed Hartwell, the former Ravens inside backer who had an astounding 191 tackles in the first year of the AFC North in 2002, says he wants to make it easier on Brooks.
Hartwell, 29, arrived just before the voluntary workouts started to line up next to Brooks on the right side, so he's been learning guys and playbooks on the run. But Hartwell has been here long enough to stress the little things to Brooks, such as drops and keys from the guards.
"We've talked here and we'll talk more as we get into the season," Hartwell says. "He's a pretty good athlete. 260 pounds and he runs pretty well. Laterally he's pretty good. He's going to be a good player in this league."
But he just turned 23.
"The biggest thing being a young player is you have to learn the small things," Hartwell says. "It's the same for everybody. The playbook you learned in college is a lot smaller. I'll definitely help him."
Hartwell is helping Brooks just by knowing his own stuff, and the fact he's also learning the middle.
"I get kind of confused sometimes and before the play I might ask him what he has to do," Brooks says. "Once he knows what to do, I know what I have to do, basically. It looks like he knows what he's doing already. He's doing what we're all doing and going upstairs to meet with the coaches."
That's something Brooks wasn't known for last year. But last year at this time, he wasn't even a gleam in the eye of the tiger.
"If he just does it the right way," Thornton says, "he can dominate a game."