Defense returns intact

3-28-02, 10:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The working number for Reinard Wilson is 20.

As in the number of sacks he wants to produce with fellow defensive end Justin Smith this season for the NFL's ninth-rated defense that returns whole for 2002. Thanks to the three-year deal he reached with Cincinnati Thursday that ended the Bengals' pre-draft run in free agency.

"Twenty would be the perfect number for us," said Wilson, who had nine of the pair's 17.5 sacks last year. "With the safety blitzes and the linebackers we have, they're going to get 30. So with 20, that gives us (two) more than last year and we were already in the top five in sacks. Just keep improving."

The working number for the Bengals is about $4 million, which is what they spent under this year's salary cap for three free-agents. A pretty economical number considering that it kept intact player-for-player the Bengals' best defense in more than a decade. But a big enough number that it leaves the Bengals with only about $1 million to spend in free agency and takes them out of any reported trade for Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

A total of $3.5 million in bonuses secured starting cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins and Jeff Burris and their

leading sacker from last season in Wilson, a pass-rush specialist.

The happiest man in Cincinnati Thursday night may have been Bengals defensive coordinator Mark Duffner, who walked into his house from a recruiting trip to Hampton to discover he'll have the same group in that finished fourth in NFL sacks, set a club-record with 48 sacks, and broke the Bengals into the NFL's top ten for the first time in a dozen years. The thinking is the defense will be better simply because of no turnover.

"Most teams are letting their guys go," Duffner said. "It can only help that we know what we've got. These guys have grown up and matured in this defense and I think that says a lot for the organization. Artrell and Reinard were productive players in this defense last year and we wanted to keep all the components together. They bring the attitude we're going to be better than last year."

Wilson wants to do better than last year, as well as play more than just on passing downs. He enjoys playing with Smith on third down ("Justin showed a lot of good things last year. He's one of these guys that wants to be great."), but Wilson would also like to play with him more on run downs.

"I thought I did OK when I was playing first and second down in the first four games," said Wilson of the stretch he started in front of Smith at right end. "We were 2 and 2 and I made some plays. I'd like to play more. I'm sure Coach Duffner and Coach (Dick) LeBeau will figure out something. Duff has to be the hardest working coach in the league.

"That's one of the reasons I came back," Wilson said. "I think LeBeau has turned it around and the Bengals are on the upside. Last year we were better and we're getting closer to the playoffs."

Duffner thinks Wilson can be more than a pass rusher and doesn't rule out him and Smith being on the field in run downs at the same time because of plays like Wilson made in the 31-27 win at Detroit last year.

"It was one of the best plays we made on defense all year," Duffner said "It was a screen pass and Reinard ran it down from behind about 30 yards. It saved a touchdown."

Wilson admits he thought his career-high nine sacks were going to get him $4 million per year. But even the highest-paid free-agent ends got only about $3 million and they were the run stoppers. ESPN.com reported that Wilson ended up with about $1.5 million per year, but he does get $2 million this year with $1 million bonus and $1 million salary and that's what separated the Bengals from Wilson's suitors in Chicago and Indianapolis.

"It's the way it worked out. The run stoppers got more this year," Wilson said. "I talked to some other teams and they were pretty much in the same area as the Bengals. I've already got a place in Cincinnati and by the time I packed up and moved, it probably would have cost me money."

Wilson already has a spot for his boost in pay. He just bought 1,000 acres of timberland about three miles from BAR WW, his ranch in Lake City, Fla., that is named for his father (Bernard) and himself. He's also going to name the new place after his father: "The Charley Horse Plantation."

"That was his nickname when he played high school ball," Reinard said. "You know, you hit a guy hard enough and you give the guy a charley horse. I'm going to clear it out and make it into kind of a preserve with deer and stuff and people can pay to hunt."

At the moment, the game seems to be quarterbacks for a defense that has been in the hunt before.

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