5-8-02, 2:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Jeff Burris' crime in the world of NFL perception is that he isn't Duane Starks or Phillip Buchanon. They were the top cornerbacks in free agency and the draft, respectively, when the Bengals had a shot at them.
But at Paul Brown Stadium these days, Burris, a nine-year free agent obtained from the Colts, is the solid veteran corner they haven't had since . . .Well, consider when he makes his 100th NFL start on Sept. 8 against the Chargers, the four other projected cornerbacks on the Bengals' roster (Artrell Hawkins, Rodney Heath, Kevin Kaesviharn, Robert Bean) will have a combined 83 NFL starts.
Burris, who turns 30 next month, has impressed his new team in this week's workouts with his ability to perpetually be around the ball and his man. It appears he isn't in to giving receivers those mind-boggling cushions. For a franchise that hasn't had more than 53 combined NFL starts from their two cornerbacks in three of the last four Opening Days, it feels Burris' savvy competence is going to compensate for older legs.
Plus, things like this don't show up on film:
Saturday. The PBS practice fields. The first day of minicamp. Burris' first day as a Bengal.
Kaesviharn, who began the fall term last season teaching high school gym in South Dakota before finishing it with his first three NFL starts, casually mentioned how hard it is to
avoid that first false step in press coverage.
"When you're up on the line against the receiver and he takes off, and your foot shoots across the line (toward the receiver), you don't want to lose that much ground," Kaesviharn said. "(Burris) just told me to take that foot back a few inches (right before the snap) and the foot will be back to normal with the receiver. You can tell he's a guy that doesn't get rattled. He's learning the defense and he knows if he makes a mistake, he's just learning."
Burris may not be Starks or Buchanon, but things like this don't show up on highlight reels:
Saturday. One of the first '02 snaps for second-year wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He lines up against Burris, a player that has lined up in three playoff games.
"I don't care what the book says, but I only played in about five games last year," said Houshmandzadeh, who officially appeared in 12. "All the rest were only a couple of plays late in the game. He's got 99 starts and I've got (one). He suckered me on one play. He got me releasing inside when I had an outside breaking route.
"Who says Starks is any better?" Houshmandzadeh asked. "He played for Baltimore with so many players. I don't think our secondary is (going to be maligned) any more this year. Look at what our front seven does and I look at our four corners and I wonder who is going to start because they all can."
As a corner on a Colts' defense that gave up the most points in the AFC last season, Burris had his share of grilling. But in this fresh start, he hasn't been able to wipe the smile off his face since he started practicing Saturday.
"I was just sitting in the meeting room the other day with Rodney Heath and we were talking about our linebackers and line. We have some studs," Burris said. "Those two linebackers (Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons) are the best I've seen.
Asked if this is the best defense he's been on in some time during his four-year stints in Buffalo and Indianapolis, Burris didn't blink: "I would definitely say so. It makes you sit back and smile when you think of the players we do have. It's early right now, but we do have an opportunity to do something. The front seven is excellent, but we want to have the mindset that as a secondary, we can go into any game and dominate."
Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner thinks Burris can do for the cornerbacks what Darryl Williams did for the safeties the past two years and supply some ballast for an infant secondary. Since Ashley Ambrose left via free agency after the 1998 season, the only cornerback the Bengals have had with more than four years experience was waiver-wire pickup Tom Carter and he was in and out of the lineup.
With Hawkins at right corner and Burris on the left, they bring 147 starts into Sept. 8 opener. There were 44 starts in the 1998 opener and Ashley Ambrose had all 44 opposite the rookie Hawkins. They had 16 in 1999 with Hawkins and the rookie Charles Fisher; 116 in 2000 with 29 from Hawkins and 87 from Carter; and 53 last year with 35 from Hawkins and 18 from Heath.
"When you have experience you get confidence," Kaesviharn said. "That's why I think he's going to be a big pickup for this team."
Burris and the rest of the Bengals began their four weeks of voluntary workouts Tuesday. Hawkins and Darnay Scott, who can't practice because of health problems, weren't present. Bean also wasn't there and head coach Dick LeBeau said running back Corey Dillon had personal obligations.