Defense seeks same spark

Posted: 5:35 a.m.

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Lewis

It always starts with Baltimore, doesn't it?

Head coach Marvin Lewis is still trying to build something that just gets close to the record-setting defense he had in Baltimore, but after 73 games the Bengals are still ranked next to last, and in '07 they have already given up 79 more points than the '00 Ravens.

In the context of this season, the Bengals are still trying to recapture the best down-to-down intensity of the Lewis era the defense displayed in the 27-20 victory over the Ravens Opening Night at Paul Brown Stadium.

Since the night they forced six turnovers and stoned the Ravens on eight straight third-and-goals at the end of the game, the Bengals have just 10 turnovers, have given up the most points in the NFL, and have allowed six 100-yard rushers in the last seven games in grappling with a slew of injuries at linebacker.

"We brought the film out and showed guys what it looked like Week 1," said defensive end Bryan Robinson. "Guys were just running around and just having fun. You can see the difference. We did see some guys on the field that we don't have right now. But we were having fun. We're going to try and get back to that."

Defensive tackle John Thornton insists the unit had that same intensity the following two weeks in Cleveland and Seattle. Against the Browns, the defense held them to two field goals following turnovers before an 85-yard kick return started the parade. The next week in Seattle the defense didn't fold until the last minute.

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Thornton

"I don't think intensity has been a problem; I think it's been execution," said Thornton, who admits there is a difference on tape "between the Baltimore game and last week in Buffalo."

"We were having success," he said. "I think when a team is getting beaten down, it's hard to get very excited about that, but I don't think intensity has been a problem."

Defensive end Robert Geathers sees the intensity, but only in spurts.

"I don't think we've had that same intensity," he said. "Only inconsistently. Maybe from one series to another, or maybe for a quarter, but we haven't matched it for a full game yet. Maybe it's because of a lack of focus, a lack of concentration and it just doesn't get done consistently."

Geathers, the defense's best player, is the symbol of the defensive struggle. Lining up at left end, he looked like he was going straight to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii right after that game. In three quarters he did what it takes most guys a season to do by logging a stat in every category with eight tackles, a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble, and a pass defensed.

But since then, Geathers has no other plays on the sheet but tackles and one pass defensed. But, of course, he's also changed positions and for the last four games has been exclusively a linebacker.

"Imagine if they suddenly put you into photography in mid-career," Thornton said to a reporter. "You'd be different, too. Robert is still a good player. He's just doing different things."

Indeed, he is still the team's best force on defense. Bills offensive line coach Jim McNally, guru of gurus, paid Geathers the ultimate compliment last week when he expanded what some teams had already been doing and kept in a running back or tight end to help the tackle block Geathers on the pass rush, where he still lines up at end.

"That's happening more and more, but I'm not using it as an excuse," Geathers said. "I have to get better."

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Geathers

But Geathers admits he's hesitating now because he's still learning the spot, and isn't that like the rest of this defense that has had to adjust to what is behind them and in front of them in the form of the revolving door at linebacker? The Patriots linebackers are on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week while the Bengals backers are on the side of a milk carton.

On Sunday the Bengals won't have middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks' eight tackles, one sack, and forced fumble from Opening Night, or strong side linebacker Lemar Marshall's forced fumble from that Sept. 10 game. Both are gone to the black hole of injured reserve, joining David Pollack with a broken neck and Odell Thurman on suspension.

With Anthony Schlegel (back) not practicing, the Bengals may very well have their fourth starting middle linebacker of the season in Landon Johnson. As well as a guy, Geathers, who has never played linebacker against the Ravens, a linebacker, Dhani Jones, who wasn't on the team when this game was played, and another linebacker, Rashad Jeanty, who watched this game on the sidelines with a broken leg.

Now here come the Ravens' corps of backers led by future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Since Lewis' second season in Cincinnati when the Bengals began drafting defense, Ray Lewis has played 43 of the possible 58 games, Jarret Johnson has played in all 58, Terrell Suggs in 57 and Bart Scott in 53.

"You look at how many guys they've had in the same spot for so many years," Marvin Lewis said. "Except for the rookie draft pick from a year ago (nose tackle Haloti Ngata), they've had the same guys for four or five seasons. In the last five years, we've had nine guys (with Thornton and Justin Smith as the lone holdovers).

"It's the way it is. Sometimes you get it and it fortunately falls that way. Other times you don't."

Like Geathers, Marvin Lewis is hesitant to talk like that because it sounds like a cloud of excuses. Yet he can't but help look blissfully at Ray Lewis, the leader of Marvin's Super Bowl defense in 2000 that set a record for allowing just 165 points.

Ray has still patrolled the middle and led Baltimore to two division titles while Marvin has been in Cincinnati, a stretch the Bengals have had eight different middle linebackers start games.

"Yes," Lewis said. "It's like having eight different starting quarterbacks."

"(In Ray), you had a phenomenal leader right from the start," Marvin said. "It makes a big difference when you have one guy and everything revolves around the solar system."

Marvin Lewis admits the Bengals are a long way away from that stability.

"We're not going to be at that point this year because of attrition, injuries and turnover," he said. "I mean, I keep saying the same things."

Robinson shakes his head at the turnover in the middle just since he's been here in '05.

"It would be nice to have that guy for just one year like we did with Odell that year," Robinson said. "The continuity is tough. You talk to Schlegel and I'm sure he'll tell you he never dreamed he would end up starting so soon. I mean, he shows up (on Sept. 2) and we've got to tell him, 'We're throwing you into the fire.' "

No one wants to boil down years and years of defensive woes to one position. As Thornton said, "I don't think we're 2-6 because of the middle linebacker. There are so many other things besides the defense."

But what we do know is that if Adalius Thomas doesn't have the stats in New England that he did in Baltimore and yet has made the people around him better, then the injuries have forced Geathers to become a different player in a different spot.

Geathers took one for the club when he made the switch and he continues to be modest and accountable.

"I don't think Buffalo schemed just for me, I think that's what they do," Geathers said. "There are times I'm not running as fast because I'm still learning the position."

He also has to adjust to not getting as many reps at end, and therefore not having the same rhythm with that blocker or snap count. But linebackers coach Ricky Hunley sees something else.

"He's still playing more end than linebacker, but there is an adjustment. Yes, it's a work in progress," Hunley said. "But I'll tell you, a lot people found out who he was in that Baltimore game. Offenses are paying a lot more attention to him. That is the pregame discussion you get every week. The people on the other team come up to you and say, 'This guy can do everything.' "

Geathers still thinks he'll threaten his 10.5 sacks from last season that made him the club's first double-digit sacker in 14 years.

"Sacks come in bunches. Last year I got a lot early and then tailed off at the end," Geathers said. "This year if I finish like the way I started last year, I'm still going to get a lot. The sacks and plays will come. I just have to keep playing and hustling."

It always starts with Baltimore, doesn't it?

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