The Bengals secondary, already under fire after giving up Roddy White's huge 201-yard day in Atlanta, showed up for the first practice of the week Wednesday decimated.
Both starting cornerbacks and the third corner sat out. So did one of the starting safeties and the guy he has replaced for the last two games remained out. And this a day after third cornerback Adam Jones' season ended with a herniated neck disc.
"We have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle after practice, "which I can't divulge. ... Sometimes you don't know until the latter part of the week who is going to be up and running, so you have to take measures to prepare with the guys you've got and get ready to win."
Complicating matters is that the Bengals face one of the league's best receiver tandems in Miami's Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess, as well as a dangerous tight end in the Todd Heap-Heath Miller mold with Anthony Fasano, which makes the absence of cornerback Leon Hall more jarring.
First, it is believed that Hall, the AFC's co-leader with Titans safety Michael Griffin with four interceptions, has never missed a practice during the regular season and the ultimate gamer didn't miss an NFL practice until the first couple of workouts at this year's training camp. Plus, Hall is so effective in the slot, where Bess has his 15 AFC-leading third-down catches.
Hall played the whole way in Atlanta in what he admitted was one of his worst games since his rookie year, but sat out Wednesday with a hamstring issue. Second-year man Morgan Trent, relegated to spot duty behind Jones, can play the slot but he was out with a knee problem. Safety Chris Crocker can play the slot but as Coyle says about a safety making a move like that, "Sometimes you hope it doesn't come to that, but we've had guys do it."
The other starting cornerback, Johnathan Joseph (ankle) says he's "very close," even though he didn't work Wednesday and, as head coach Marvin Lewis would say, that's a good thing. But even before the injuries, the scrutiny has been on the secondary after six games. Last year at this time, the Bengals had allowed just two touchdown catches to wide receivers in the first six games. They've given up seven this year, and three last week to the Falcons.
"The plays we don't do well on, you can point out being undisciplined with technique, recognizing formations," Hall said before practice. "At the end of the day, it's third downs. Last year we got off, this year we're not getting off the field. It's a lot of different little things. It's something different every play. It's just discipline. We definitely have to do a better job (covering). There's being too many balls caught. Too many yards after the catch. Easier catches. That's what we definitely have to crack down on."
The stunning arrival of Jones, as well as his spectacular if somewhat inconsistent play from scrimmage, pushed Trent into the background. But it will be recalled that last year as a sixth-round pick out of Michigan he had to practice right away as a third corner with the injury to David Jones and ended up winning the job early in the season last year.
"We won a lot of games with him and he more than held his own," Coyle said.
Hall and Trent and their wives are inseparable off the field, as is most of the secondary, but they've got that Michigan bond where Trent couldn't help but look up Hall. They're similar players in the sense they're just as much heady as they are athletic.
"For the most part we're in the film room together studying the same things and I can say the same thing about me and J-Joe, just passing tips along, Hall said. "Everybody on this level has the ability, we're just trying to play smart. (Trent) has a lot of experience; we've got confidence in him. … He's one of those smart players, going back to last year and this year, who gets smarter and smarter each week. His technique has been tightening up. I've got complete faith in him that he'll do a fine job."
If he's healthy.
Jones' playmaking will be missed. He had the defense's lone touchdown of the season on last Sunday's 59-yard strip-and-score, and Hall was even more impressed seeing his athleticism up close.
"I'd seen him make plays for Dallas and Tennessee, so it wasn't real surprising," Hall said. "He's quicker than a lot of people in the NFL. Corners, receivers. Above and beyond all of us ... but I feel sad for him because he's not going to be able to be out there with us."
On Wednesday, Lewis said Jones should be able to return next season after he's expected to have surgery and Coyle would like to see it.
"We feel bad for Adam. We all wanted him to enjoy some success," he said. "He's still learning, still growing in our system. I don't believe he's reached the level of consistent performance we need for that position, or that he could have achieved with more reps, more opportunities."
Coyle is seeking consistency from everybody at this point. He pointed to Hall's bad day, which basically came down to two plays. He was late giving help to Jones on White's 43-yard touchdown catch on a ball Matt Ryan threw as far across the field as down it, and he was too soft on White's 46-yard catch-and-run on a shallow route over the middle running away from him.
"It's not like they were standing there and throwing 15- to 20-yard out cuts and catching them," Coyle said. "We didn't get on him tight enough. It can be magnified. If you go back and look at how many shots they tried to take on Leon Hall later in the game and everyone he played down the field, the fades, the go routes. And he's going against (White). Those were great plays. They get kind of get swept under the rug because of a couple of negatives. Sometimes when a guy like Leon plays so consistent, you say, 'Wow, what happened?' But to be great in the secondary you've got to play like you have to win every play. That's the mindset."
As Coyle says, you can play great for 55 snaps, lousy for three snaps, and lose, 21-17. Hall has been around the block and knows that Marshall is on a better team than he was last year when the Bengals held him to 27 yards on four catches. He calls him the best yards-after-catch receiver in the NFL.
"We did a pretty good job against him," Hall said. 'We did a lot of different things to him. We just switched it up; we rolled up to him, played man-to-man, a lot of different coverages."
Things are a lot different now than when the Bengals opened with Marshall's Broncos last season.
When the injury report comes out Friday, it may be a lot more different than that.