10-24-02, 6:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Somehow, what was supposed to be the Bengals' best defense in years is on pace to become their worst defense ever when it comes to points scored.
The working number is 483, 23 points more than the youth-filled unit allowed in 1999. That's less than a touchdown allowed by the 1980 New Orleans Saints, and their 487 still stands as the third most allowed of all-time.
But middle linebacker Brian Simmons and cornerback Artrell Hawkins, both second-year players on that '99 unit, vow they won't give up 460 with ten games left.
"We won't do that. We won't give up that many points," Hawkins said. "If talent was an issue, I couldn't make that statement with confidence that it wouldn't happen. It's not a talent thing. It's not guys' abilities. We're talking about miscommunication, guys misaligned. That's very correctable."
But how can that be? Every starter from last year's defense that finished ninth in the NFL is back and they added their most experienced cornerback in years via free agency in Jeff Burris.
The one glaring change has had an impact, which is the rotation of safeties that has ended in one rookie
(strong safety Marquand Manuel) starting and another (Lamont Thompson) playing regularly on passing downs. But that alone can't account for 181 points allowed in six games.
Simmons has no answers, but he has a prediction.
"That won happen," Simmons said. "Believe it or not, there are places we're doing better this year than we were at this point last year. We weren't doing much before the bye last year, but we really came on and that's what we have to do now."
At 0-6, the Bengals' defense is ranked 21st in total defense, 27th against the run , and 11th against the pass. Last year at 3-3, the Bengals were 21st, 23rd, and 13th, respectively. They've allowed six more first downs, 12 more total yards per game, and are giving up 13 more yards per game on the ground.
They are also allowing less rushing yards per carry (4.4 to 4.7) than last year at this time, have more interceptions (5-3), and are allowing the same number of passing yards (199) per game.
"We weren't the number nine defense in the first half of last season," said defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. "We had to work at it. It's not where you are in the first quarter of the game. It's where you are at the finish. No question we have to play better. We've spent this week on technique."
The big falloffs? After six games last year compared to this year, they have virtually half the sacks (13-7), have allowed passing plays of bigger than 50 yards when they went all last year without allowing one, and have allowed opposing passers to complete 63.4 percent compared to 59 percent last year.
Defenders of the defense note that 49 of the points allowed this season came off touchdown drives of 19 yards or less, an interception, and a kick return. Critics of the defense note that's still 132 points allowed in six games, 23 more than last year after six games, and they've allowed 15 touchdowns and just six field goals in the red zone.
Duffner doesn't want to hear about the offense's league-high 13 interceptions and the bad field position. He wants to get more than the one fumble they have this year. Last year after six games, they had recovered seven.
"We've got more interceptions, but we aren't near what we did with fumbles," Duffner said. "We've really stressed that this week. Coaches are working on guys digging it out of there. We've done that for two weeks, working on the fundamentals. Getting the right fit in the running game, working on the hands and hitting a target with the low pad level, breaking on the ball in coverage, getting timed up in the pass rush."
They know the bottom line that matters. Last year after six games, thy had allowed 109 points. This year, it's 181.
"Any player who wants to buy into the philosophy that we're going to keep on having a year that makes us the worst defense in franchise history should leave now," Hawkins said. "Remember, we're not talking about doing anything great, just not being the worst ever. With this talent, I just don't see that happening."