Changing the mix

10-11-01, 2:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

This one is going to be for the late Cleveland safety Eric Turner, who played for JoJuan Armour's favorite team.

And all the other people who helped Armour reach Sunday's game, when the Bengals strong safety makes his first NFL start against Turner's Browns.

"It takes a lot to make it to this level," said Armour after spending the bulk of Wednesday's practice working in Cory Hall's old spot. "I'll be thinking about everybody who helped me get here."

Armour is part of an intriguing mix Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau hopes helps pull the Bengals' run defense out of a two-game malaise. After watching the Steelers pound away for 274 yards on the ground, LeBeau on Wednesday:

_Moved Hall from strong safety to free safety, where he makes his first start in that spot since the last dozen games of his rookie season in 1999.

_Promoted Armour, a converted college linebacker whose pro career has wound through Oakland, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, and Barcelona before getting a start.

_Put veteran free safety Darryl Williams on alert despite a foot injury that two weeks ago ended his 82-game Bengals' streak and limited him last week.

_Replaced injured tackle Tony Williams with Bernard Whittington, giving Whittington his 80th NFL start and first since signing with the Bengals back in July.

_Indicated rookie tackle Mario Monds will make his NFL debut as a backup more than a month after the Bengals picked him off the waiver wire.

A rookie. A retread. A couple of well-traveled veterans. With defensive coordinator Mark Duffner opting to keep bringing rookie end Justin Smith off the bench to spell Reinard Wilson, the Bengals hope the mix is different enough to put some salt back in the defense.

"We're looking for guys to get physical and make some plays for us,"

LeBeau said.

The 5-11, 220-pound Armour, 25, is taking advantage of strong safety Chris Carter's benching and Darryl Williams' mid-foot injury to get his first start in his third NFL season out of Miami of Ohio. Williams figures to play in a rotation with Armour. Trainer Paul Sparling says Williams' injury is resolved, but Williams isn't sure if he can play an entire game.

Asked what he's expected to do, Armour said, "Knock some heads off. . .I'm grateful for the opportunity. I just have to back up the confidence they have in me. I'm not looking back after this."

Armour smiled at the storyline. The Browns were his favorite team growing up in Toledo because they were his father's favorite team. His Dad is a big Jim Brown fan. His son grew up on the stingy Browns defenses of Clay Matthews and Antonio Langham and Eric Turner. As it so happened, the Raiders drafted Armour in the seventh round in the 1999 NFL Draft and he got to play with one of his boyhood heroes in Turner before getting cut in the preseason. Not even a year later, Turner was dead of cancer.

"I got in Eric Turner's back pocket and I stayed in it," said Armour of his rookie training camp. "I followed him all around. Everywhere he went. He was a great guy. Very religious. He helped me out a lot, just letting me ask all kinds of questions."

The Bengals always liked Armour's speed and athleticism, but didn't have a position for him until they decided to switch him from outside linebacker to strong safety after last season. The coaches were petrified about putting Armour in a game at safety because he played with the reckless abandon of a linebacker that became a back-to-back MAC defensive player of the year by free-lancing all over the field.

But a stint at strong safety with the Dragons this past spring in NFL Europe smoothed out some of the rough edges.

"I wouldn't have had this chance if I didn't play in Europe," Armour said.

Actually, Hall and Armour have already teamed up. They did it in a pre-season game this August when Carter and Darryl Williams were hurt. Armour played well enough in his first extended action at safety that the Bengals cut Tremain Mack, their all-time kick returner.

Although Carter led the team with 13 tackles against Pittsburgh, Hall was forced to leave the line of scrimmage and come out of the middle to make several stops. Hall has been flying all over the field all season, but he admits he took an improper angle when he bounced off Steelers running back Jerome Bettis on Pittsburgh's second snap that resulted in a 48-yard run.

"If you notice, everything except the one I missed, everything else came from the middle of the field. (The idea) is to kind of keep JoJuan in the box and let me play the middle," Hall said. "It's almost like having two strong safeties. You can't be as aggressive at free. If you see something, you've got to make sure you really see it because you really are the last line of defense."

The Bengals haven't had any lines of defense the past two weeks, but Darryl Williams says it's not a complete breakdown.

"For the most part, they've been in position to make plays and the first two weeks we were making plays," Williams said. "Running around, having fun. Guys are not really having fun. Why I don t know. We don't have that.

"I just think we're not focused," Williams said. "Sometimes we have a great play and then have a couple of mental plays (where) we just relax. One person, and it turns into a big play. Not every play and not all the same time."

There have also been problems with alignments and people not getting lined up where they belong.

"Our run defense can be one of the best," Armour said. "But different people tend to fall apart at different times and that's when they hit us."

There will be another version of the veteran and the kid played out on the defensive line. With Tony Williams out, Bernard Whittington gets the start at tackle after playing much of the time at end for the Bengals since starting the last two years for the Colts.

Whittington, in his eighth season, is one of the guys the other team always seemed to have. When a starter goes down, you can turn to a guy who has 79 starts (he figures about 50 are at tackle) and has been to the playoffs a couple of times and a guy who says, "I'm not trying to show people what I can do. People know what I can do. I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help this team win."

Which is the mindset of the 6-3, 330-pound Monds, a NFL widebody who has yet to be active for a game since the Bengals picked him off the waiver wire from Washington. But before the Redskins cut him, he did play against the Browns in the preseason.

The Bengals like his build, which they feel is the prototype for a NFL run stuffer. The draftnicks wondered about his down-to-down intensity, but at least for now the Bengals need him on just a couple of downs.

"I've been trying to watch the guys I'm backing up and learning from them," said Monds, a University of Cincinnati product. "I hear it's going to be packed, so I'm pretty excited."

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