1-17-02, 6:50 p.m.
**As he begins his second year as Bengals defensive coordinator and sixth season on the staff, Mark Duffner sat down with Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com this week to talk about the club's best defensive effort since 1989.
In 2001, Duffner's defense allowed its fewest points (302) and posted its highest NFL ranking (ninth) in 12 years. The club also allowed its fewest yards per game (302), since 1983 and set a team record with 48 sacks. For the first time in team history, five players (ends Reinard Wilson and Justin Smith, middle linebacker Brian Simmons, right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes and tackle Tony Williams) had at least five sacks.
The club also generated 28 turnovers, two below the NFL average but seven more than last year.**
HOBSON: A lot of meaningful statistics came out of this season. Do you have a favorite that sums up what you guys did? **
DUFFNER:** We had a goal of 44 sacks to get us in the (NFL's) top 10 and we got a franchise record. It just wasn't one or two guys, but a number of guys across the board in all positions contributed to that. That was a plus and we finished fourth in the league in total sacks. Finishing in the top 10 overall was obviously big. And we finished fifth in yards per snap on first down.
HOBSON: You also have a streak of 10 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
DUFFNER: We finished 11th against the run, which is the highest in a long time (1994) around here. That's a worthy stat. **
HOBSON:** You had to be better getting off the field on third down. (Last year, the success rate was 57.3 percent. This year it was 61.8 percent.)
DUFFNER: We didn't quite get our goal there. I haven't done the full study yet, but I think we were improved in every category over last year. We were improved on third down at 62 percent, but our goal was 64 and we're going to continue to shoot for that. We had a crack at it.
HOBSON: It looked like you were right on it until the Jets (converted 57 percent on third down for a 43 percent success rate in the 15-14 Dec. 16 loss) hurt you with a lot of third-and-long passes. It seemed like you got hurt late in the season on third down.
DUFFNER: The Jets' game was the biggest dent in that, but we played pretty damn well defensively in that game. We wound up having a good percentage (68 percent the next week) against Baltimore and even against Pittsburgh (65 percent). **
HOBSON:Why the big turnaround?
DUFFNER:** It was a lot things. The coaching staff did a good job with the guys in terms of preparation week to week. They got them to play at the level they played at, which is a defense starting to earn its reputation about it and that was reflected in the players' effort. The addition of some guys, (linemen) Bernard Whittington and Tony Williams not only helped from a production standpoint, but also the example they gave.
The fact that a lot of the guys have been in the system for awhile was a big plus. What we got out of Oliver Gibson and Tony stemmed out to the rest of our defense and made us strong up the middle. (End) Vaughn Booker and (end) Justin Smith made some big plays and I could go through the whole team. **
HOBSON:*Do you expect Booker back? (He turns 34 next month). *
DUFFNER:** I'm a big proponent of Vaughn Booker. I hope he'll come back. I think he wants to come back. I've gotten to rely on him. He's really playing at that big-play level. He was a real plus on the Sundays that he played.
HOBSON: He missed only two games, but he gets criticized for missing a lot of practices.
DUFFNER: We knew that going in that his body has some aches and bruises. Sure, I'd like to see him be at practice every day, but I've come to trust and have confidence that on Sunday at 1 o'clock he would be productive in a big-play way. I'm anxious for that to continue.
HOBSON: What are the goals for next year? Fifty sacks?
DUFFNER: We would certainly shoot for that. We haven't actually defined the goals yet, but we always want to improve our third-down defense. I will say this right now. We've got to get more takeaways. We worked like hell on it and were better than a year ago, but we need more.
The teams that take the ball away are the teams that get into field position and are the teams that are winning. It's no mystery how that affects a game.
HOBSON: You wanted to get 20 interceptions and you got 12. Don't you want to get three turnovers a game? **
DUFFNER:** That's one goal we didn't hit with the interceptions and 35 turnovers would put us in the top 10. Three turnovers a game would be awesome. That would give you 48 (the Browns led the NFL with 42), but 2.5 would be good because that would put you at about 40.
HOBSON: It's all mental isn't it? How can you teach that in practice sessions? **
DUFFNER:We certainly harp on it. We're always talking about getting in position to strip the football. I'll keep doing that until I dive into the Ohio out there. We had some opportunities to have more interceptions and we didn't make the play, although we made some, too. You play 65 snaps for the privilege to play four or five snaps that are going to make a difference in that game. We have to make those plays.
HOBSON:Just off the top on two plays. In the win over Baltimore, Simmons picked off a pass in the end zone at the end of the first half that turned the tide of that game.
DUFFNER:We had nine snaps in the red zone on that drive before we came out with the ball. Awesome.
HOBSON:Then in New York, (safety) Chis Carter dropped an interception that would have sealed a game you lost by a point.
DUFFNER:Yeah, you can think of those, but there were also some interceptions that were made that sometimes you forget about that were key. Justin had one in the Pittsburgh game (in the fourth quarter) on a tipped ball that gave us field position and allowed us to win the game. It shows takeaways and forcing turnovers have to be a focus and we've got to get better at it.
HOBSON:One of the reasons for the success has been two coaches in the secondary, which you did here for the first time last year when you brought in Kevin Coyle to coach cornerbacks with the previous secondary coach, Ray Horton, taking the safeties. Now that Ray has resigned, have you made any decisions about that spot and if you bring in another guy ?
DUFFNER:* It will be up to Coach LeBeau and how he wants to organize that. I would certainly be in favor of a two-coach situation in the secondary. I thought Coach Horton and Coach Coyle did a good job with those guys. It was an improved situation.*
HOBSON:Would you go get a guy like Kevin? A guy you know? A college guy?
DUFFNER:** I've talked to Coach LeBeau about some candidates. He's got some things in mind.
HOBSON: Then it sounds like it's going to be two guys again because the day after the season Dick said he thought the two-man worked well. **
DUFFNER:** It's his call. I think it would depend on who the guy is in terms of whether you want Kevin to coach them alone and have the guy assist him, or how it would work out. Coach (Louie) Cioffi assisted Coach Horton in the secondary prior to last season and then we elected to divide it up with two positions. It's a common practice in the league how staffs are organized.
HOBSON: Most of the teams have two guys working back there. Any chance Louie would assist Kevin like he did Ray?
DUFFNER: This season he was the assistant linebackers coach helping me and he did a hell of a job. I would certainly be for him to stay at that position again, but how it fills out is up to Coach LeBeau.
HOBSON: College guy? NFL guy?
DUFFNER: All to be announced.
HOBSON: Everyone is talking about upgrading at cornerback in the draft with the first pick at No. 10.
DUFFNER: You talk that every year. Not that it's an inaccurate assessment at this point for us, but every year, soon to be 32 teams will talk about the need for a pass rusher and the need for a cornerback. For our defense, that's still the focus and perhaps getting a safety. But you could say a corner.
HOBSON: Does it look like you can get a corner at No. 10? **
DUFFNER:There's a heck of a good core of potential candidates at the cornerback position. There is probably some worthy players at the 10th spot as we look at it.
HOBSON:** The corners were supposed to be the weak link this year, but they held up pretty well.
DUFFNER: Outstanding when you look at all the injuries. You lose Rodney Heath, you lose Tom Carter, you lose Robert Bean for some of the season and you lose Mark Roman in the latter part of the year. We had really good play there from guys who came in, Kevin Kaesviharn in particular.
HOBSON: Is he the starter at left corner at minicamp? **
DUFFNER:The way he finished the year, Artrell (Hawkins) had his best season to date, yeah, they would line up that way.
HOBSON:You guys are headed to the Senior Bowl next week to look for college talent and you're known as one of the best scouts on this staff . What are the three or four main things you look for in a player?
DUFFNER:** The first thing is athleticism. How does he move? How fluid is he? What is his speed, change of direction, quickness? Those type of things. Then I want to look at how hard he competes. How effort-filled does he play? Is he an overachiever, an underachiever? The effort part of it is as important. How much pride does he have?
I also look at his interaction with teammates and the coaching staff. Does he talk to the coaches? I try to watch him in practice, get a feel for what he's like in meetings.
HOBSON: How many people do you talk to? Just coaches, or do you go to the trainers, the weight-room guy. . .?
DUFFNER: When you hone in on guys, you talk to as many people as you can. The people you just talked about certainly are stopping points for getting information. I'll even talk to secretaries. They're biased sometimes, but sometimes you get a different response. They see him in different situations.
HOBSON: How many people did you talk to about Justin Smith before you drafted him? **
DUFFNER:A number of them. Probably seven to eight, maybe more. They had a new coaching staff, but I talked to some of them and the staff he had. I talked to the trainer, the strength coach, the head coach and one of their defensive coaches. I talked to some of the coaches he played against and what they thought of him preparing for him. I talked to a couple of coaches on the Missouri staff when he was younger. He was one where I talked to some secretaries. There was a student manager that happened to be walking around that day and a work-study student, so we got a pretty good flow of information on him from people who knew him.
HOBSON:You got as much out of Justin as you could have hoped.
DUFFNER:He had a heck of a season. It's due in large part to his physical and natural skills, but he's got a very competitive attitude. He's a pretty mature one. He worked hard with Coach (Tim) Krumrie from the moment he got here. He's a very coachable guy and a very competitive guy and it's those attributes that allow him to be a heck of a player.
HOBSON:*How did he do against the run? *
DUFFNER:He got better and better. To the point he wound up being very active in terms of making tackles in the run game and he certainly was not a liability for us in the running game.
HOBSON:One of the bigger stats of the year has to be that only Takeo and Brian had more solo tackles than Smith.
DUFFNER:That's indicative of his activity and ability to make plays.
HOBSON:** Now that you are a coordinator, are you doing more or less scouting?
DUFFNER: Same. In terms of visits, I average from 33 to 38 schools during the scouting period. I'm doing more studying of positions on video. I always look at players, but now I have a clear opinion about players than just who I saw in workouts. I'm doing more film study.
HOBSON: This is also the time of year your name usually comes up for a head coaching job in college. (In 11 seasons as head coach at Holy Cross and Maryland, Duffner has an 80-40-1 record). With the kind of year the defense had, you have to figure there has been some interest in you. Anything in the fire?
DUFFNER: That's really the only question you wanted to ask, right? **
HOBSON:I saved it for near the last one in case you threw me out bodily.
DUFFNER:** I've had inquiries into a head coach position in college, but I didn't follow it up.
DUFFNER: It was one of those things I think they wanted to get a person in position quickly. It didn't materialize and I don't know if I would have had strong enough interest in it. It's always flattering to get an inquiry so that you can gauge their level of interest in you. **
HOBSON:** Would you like to stay in the NFL or go back to college?
DUFFNER: I enjoy what I'm doing right now. I've enjoyed the experience I've had with the Bengals and the players I've been lucky enough to have the privilege to coach. I enjoy that. I've had a fortunate career as a head coach for 11 years and a coordinator for 11 years. I've never sat back and said, "I've got to here, be there," in terms of my career. I've had some very good, rewarding experiences in college and professional.
HOBSON: So you're not ruling anything out. **
DUFFNER:I wouldn't rule out anything. At the same time, I'm not bucking for those positions. If they present themselves, fine. But I very much enjoy what I'm doing.
HOBSON:** You've always had a close relationship with Dick LeBeau since he hired you here as the linebackers coach in 1997.
DUFFNER: I've learned a lot from him. From evaluations, Xs and Os. There's a lot of areas where he's a strong influence on me. **
HOBSON:** Have you learned anything from him in the 29 games he's been the head coach?
DUFFNER: I learn from him all the time. I think he did a particularly excellent job keeping this team focused, getting this team playing hard through some tough times. He's done that before.
HOBSON: How frustrating was it for you to have your guys play so well and yet still struggle to win games? **
DUFFNER:** I've coached a fair amount of time and I've been around teams that have been balanced and teams where one side of the ball plays better than the other. You can't let it become frustration because then you're playing two opponents. Yourself and the team across the field.
HOBSON: You had to fight the players on that, didn't you? **
DUFFNER:** No, not really. I was pleased with that. I think the maturity of this team showed in that situation where there was no finger pointing. A lot of that credit has to go to the head coach who led the team. There wasn't a lot of that kind of division and dissension. The kind of team we want to be is a consistent winner and playoff participant and we've got to be that way. There has to be a We mentality.
It's important for our players to understand you have to weave offense and defense and special teams together, which I think they do. And that's a plus coming out of this year. We were able to show improvement, yet understand and go through some tough times. That goes into the recipe of winning and what it takes.