Changes blitz defense

5-15-03, 4:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Even as Marvin Lewis breaks down the defensive and special teams side of the roster as the club finishes its first week of on-field coaching sessions Thursday, the new head coach continues to re-shape the Bengals in the image of his defensive scheme.

Looking for just the right mix of athleticism and brains, Lewis has literally turned the linebackers corps inside out in the name of perimeter speed, and re-shuffled the secondary via size and quickness while still sifting through free agency for ends who can give him a little bit of everything against the run and pass.

The defense is finding out first hand that when a new coach comes in, he not only brings a philosophy, but a core of guys he thinks can execute it, and now the holdovers have to respond to keep their jobs or spots on the roster. There could very well be seven players in new slots when comparing last year's Opening Day starting lineup to the one Lewis sends out on defense Sept. 7 against Jake Plummer's Broncos.

"We want to attack the offense,." Lewis said. "They're going to design a running play to attack a certain area, and we have to do a good job of getting into that area. We've got to be able to attack the offense by being able to get anywhere quickly on the field without leaving our feet."

Some generalities:

Kicker Neil Rackers, who has made 23 of his last 28 field-goal tries since Dec. 2, 2001, is looking at no training camp competition for the first time in his four seasons.

Lewis not only calls his defensive depth chart fluid, "but I would say the whole team is fluid." This is no attempt to read Lewis' mind on what he harbors as a depth chart, but this should be used only as a guide to the coming and goings and landings of a defense in transition. Any lists are purely alphabetical:

DEFENSIVE LINE: Projected starters: LE Carl Powell, DT John Thornton, DT Tony Williams, RE Justin Smith. Look out on the left: DE Duane Clemons. In the wings with nice rehab: DT Oliver Gibson. Holdovers: DE-DT Glen Steele; DEs Eric Ogbogu, Reinard Wilson; DTs Mario Monds, Ron Smith. Draft choices: Sixth-round DT Langston Moore, seventh-round DE Elton Patterson. College free agent: DE Ja'Waren Blair.

Lewis has brought in his type of guys (and you have to count the draft picks), and now it's up the old guard of Steele, Wilson, Williams, Gibson and Ogbogu to respond.

A lot of people thought Lewis was going to make an example of Wilson and make him one of his first cuts. Actually, Lewis may try to make him an example the other way in an attempt to get more out him; a symbol of a veteran roster that has been branded as underachieving.

"I think Reinard will battle them," Lewis said. "I know more about Reinard than anyone in this building, and we've got to get him to use his athletic ability. We've got to raise his level of play so that he's a big-time contributor."

Lewis isn't labeling any of his linemen as pass rushers, or run-stoppers, but they clearly need a force at left end to hold up against the rush. Powell and Wilson have been working there, but between the two of them, they have just 27 NFL starts, and none at left end. Wilson has 23 starts, all on the right side as an outside backer or end, and Powell started four games last year for Lewis at tackle in Washington.

The new guys (and that has to include the two draft picks) are pushing the old guard of Steele, Gibson, Wilson, and Monds. The 6-1, 300-pound Moore may have looked a bit square, but like Lewis said, "We draft guys to be factors," and, "he's an athletic guy who can move and stay on his feet.

"There's going to be a big push. That's what it's all about. That's why they call it 'Play for pay,'" Lewis said. "If the other guys can hold onto their jobs, we're that much better of a team." **

LINEBACKERS: Projected starters:LOLB Steve Foley, MLB Kevin Hardy, ROLB Brian Simmons.Moving about:* MB Canute Curtis, LOLB Adrian Ross, ROLB Armegis Spearman. *Other holdovers:LOLB Riall Johnson, MLB Dwayne Levels, ROLB Tito Rodriguez. *Seedy pickup: ROLBKhalid Abduallah in the fifth round. Colege free agent: ROLB Rodney Thomas.

If there's one position that shows what Lewis is trying to do on defense with what, it's this one. Which figures, since Lewis began his NFL career with the Steelers as a linebackers coach and built his defense in Baltimore around backers such as Boulware, Ray Lewis and Jamie Sharper.

One of the first things he did is move Simmons, one of the fastest players on the team, from the middle to the outside. That was after he signed sizeable Hardy (6-4, 260) to play the middle after a career he has played primarily on the outside. Curtis, who started 11 games in place of the injured Foley last season at left, moves inside. Ross and Spearman, who played the middle when Simmons was hurt in 2000, have moved to the left and right, respectively.

"Adrian and Foley are a little quicker than me and Kev," Curtis said. "That's the way he's playing them. He's got those guys breaking to the outside, and you have to have guys with speed out there. They kind of bait you to throw it out in the flat, and then they've got those fast linebackers flowing out there to kind of close up that gap and those are the guys that do it better than me and Kev.

"(Last year), I was cutting off the sideline and making them run back inside," Curtis said. "He doesn't want that. He wants speed on the outside. You can't question him. The guy's a great coach. You can see that. I like the middle, personally, you get a chance to make plays on both sides."

Lewis says simply, "it's more suited to him. We want to maximize their physical abilities by the position they play."

On the Steelers' famed "Blitzburgh," defense from a decade ago, Lewis oversaw the transition of Levon Kirkland, an outside backer in college, to the middle, and Chad Brown, a college outside backer, to the inside in a 3-4 defense.

"You've got to be able to move at linebacker,' Lewis said. "If you can't run at linebacker, the offense can somewhat dictate to you." Many teams have been known to be content with backers who can pretty much only plug the lanes, but Lewis wants more because he says, "There are no such things as 'Pluggers,' in the NFL. You have to run." **

SECONDARY: Projected starters:LCB Jeff Burris, RCB Artrell Hawkins/ Tory James, FS Mark Roman, SS Marquand Manuel.Serious corner bid:* Furth-round pick Dennis Weathersby. *Safety valve:* Kevn Kaesviharn. Hldovers: SS Jouan Armour, CB LaVar Glover, CB Bo Jennings, SS Stephon Kelly, CB Reggie Myles, CB Tierre Sams, FS Lamont Thompson. Colege free agents: CB Terrell Roberts, CB Maurice Tucker.

Lewis loves the competition at this spot. With Kaesviharn moving from cornerback to safety, he sees him pushing Roman and Thompson, two second-round picks the Bengals need to get something from. Another second-round pick, Hawkins, is a guy that Lewis likes and feels he's representative of a veteran group across the roster, "that has to step up to a different level. Our guys need to step up to a challenge and make us a better team."

Lewis likes Hawkins' speed in a battle royale at right corner. Lewis praised James after the Raider free-agent flashed in the first minicamp. Although Armour has been seen as a pure run stopper and the new defense calls on safeties to be more versatile in coverage, Lewis says he has looked good, as has Roman and Manuel. He thinks a youngster like Myles has possibilities, particularly as a special teamer. The college free agents, "look like they belong in a NFL camp." **

KICKERS: Starters:K Neil Rackers, P Nick Harris.In the mix:** P Travis Dorsch.

Lewis doubts he'll bring in another kicker to compete with Rackers. It's something the Bengals have done since Rackers was drafted in 2000, but it doesn't seem to be the way Lewis wants to do it. Lewis gives the early punting edge to Harris because he has been here the entire offseason while Dorsch finishes classes at Purdue and graduates this weekend.

"But Travis will be here and he'll be competing," Lewis said.

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