11-21-02, 7:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
No one knows what is wrong with the Bengals' defense, the unit that was supposed to be at the heart of another defunct playoff run.
All they know is it needs some fast major meatball surgery because the NFL's second-worst team at stopping the run is looking at a month of killer Sundays.
During their five games in December, they face four running backs on pace for at least 1,325-yard seasons (Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, Jacksonville's Fred Taylor, New Orleans' Deuce McAllister, Buffalo's Travis Henry) and the other one (Carolina's Lamar Smith) is looking at a 1,150-yard run.
And that doesn't even take into account one Jerome Bettis Sunday, a back who already nicked the Bengals for one of his 10 100-yard games against them last month.
"It makes me sick to even look at it. It's hard to watch on tape," said free safety Cory Hall of Bettis' 41-yard touchdown run in that 34-7 loss."
Hall, in a sit down Thursday with bengals.com audio, had a hard time putting his finger on the woes of a unit that has back every player from last year's No. 9 NFL ranking. He is a member of a very large club.
"When you have the same group of guys and same talent and teams have come in and run the ball on you like that," Hall said, "you're not used to it. You have to wonder what went wrong.
"We've been gashed before," Hall said. "But we've been able to come back and contain it and we haven't been able to do that this year."
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins observed, "I'm not afraid to say it. I don't know what we did from last year until now. Whether teams have figured out our scheme, or whether we're not making the plays that we need to make. I think it's a combination of both of them, but to put it on one thing, I can't."
But there are no dearth of theories. Too complex? Too much blitzing? Dave Lapham, the Bengals' radio analyst, thinks teams have hurt them at times by scheming one of their two best players out of the scrimmage box with more spread looks than they saw last year.
Players and coaches insist the scheme didn't get more complicated over the offseason, or that the Bengals are blitzing more than last year and leaving themselves open for more big plays.
"No, the scheme hasn't changed. It's very similar," said defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. "Our percentage of pressure is right about on the same percentages of last year."
Some possible reasons why they are allowing 138 yards per game on the ground compared to last season's 105 (86 in the last seven games) with virtually the same personnel:
Players are pressing to stem the tide and are making more mistakes in the process, i.e., their continuing struggle against reverses and trick plays. Such as the two reverse-like fakes Browns running back William Green ran last Sunday.
Duffner wants to make it even simpler than that.
"We need to be more consistent with the fundamentals and need to concentrate on them," Duffner said. "Getting the pad level low, getting to the ball, getting good fits. It's not hard to figure out. It's football."
But the Bengals have turned it into rocket science. Cleveland, the league's worst rushing team, ripped them for 140 yards. Hawkins and strong safety JoJuan Armour agree that the scheme isn't more complicated.
"We're making mistakes on the things we've been doing for years," Armour said, and Hawkins has watched Duffner pare down the playbook.
"It's a lot of the same stuff," Hawkins said. "At the beginning of the year we had more plays, but when we struggled early they cut down our ready list. Now we don't have as many plays, but it's still not where we want it to be. It's not too complicated, it's not for a lack of effort, or for a lack of talent."
Armour, the starter for the final 12 games last season, also figures into the mix as a difference between this season and last. Since he lost his job twice, in training camp and after the season's third game to Manuel, Armour has been worked back into games. They like his run-stopping abilities, but he worries them in pass coverage. Still, head coach Dick LeBeau indicated this week Armour should get his fair share of time.
"We've got some young players we're growing with at safety," Duffner said. Hawkins, who has lined up next to a revolving door of safety combos since minicamp, said, "There'a learning curve for young players who are learning a system as well as guys they've never played with before."
Lapham thinks teams have also gone after the soul of the defense in inside linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons.
"I think they're trying remove Spikes and/or Simmons out of the box by formation," Lapham said. "They're doing a good job running out of three- and four-receiver sets and getting (the defense) out in space and creating bigger running lanes that way. They're seeing more spread looks than they saw last year."
Other reasons Lapham sees: Not getting off blocks as well as they did last year, Spikes and Simmons played hurt early in the year, and guys simply aren't playing as well.
But the perpetually enthusiastic Duffner remains his upbeat self.
"We're working like heck to figure it out and we won't rest until we do," he said. "It's consistency."
He allowed only one smile and it was when asked how he would deal with Bettis Sunday: "Try to get 12, 13 guys on the field."
Hall has felt like 12, 13 guys hit him when the 260-pound Bettis took aim at him the first time.
"He's sizable, he's just wide, 250 260 pounds," Hall said. "He's just wide. An athlete, I know the first time I hit him, it was a sideline shot. Most times when a safety has a sideline shot, it's going to be a good hit, and I popped him. He fell, so it was like, 'Everybody talking about Jerome Bettis and that,' and I thought I'd try to make a name for myself and hit him straight up.
"I hit him straight up and Jerome probably never felt it," Hall said. "My helmet came up and he kept running. I think he was carrying Brian Simmons on his back, too. I was probably five yards back."
There is no secret what Hall has planned Sunday: "When you hit a guy like Jerome Bettis, you've got to hit him in his shins, his knees, not even his thighs."
For more of Hall's interview, please click