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Edge on corner

Johnathan Joseph

It's not as bad when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer first came to Cincinnati and jumped all over the athletically gifted Johnathan Joseph about needing him to tackle on the corner.

But Zimmer still gets in the occasional shot. Like after Thursday's practice when he glimpsed Joseph walking past him as Zimmer spoke to a couple of reporters. Without missing a beat, Zimmer raised his voice, "The corners have to tackle this week."

Joseph, returning to his native area for the first time since his final high school game, knows the terrain. The Panthers have the best running tandem in the NFL in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and a rookie quarterback in Jimmy Clausen making his first NFL start. All these guys went to college. They know what that means.

"Most people talk about the guys that are covering, but you need (corners) that can stop the run as well," Joseph said. "Look at  the Carolina Panthers this week, for example. Stewart and DeAngelo Williams can hit the corner at any given time. If you don't have perimeter run force, they can turn a 10-yard gain into a 50-yard gain."

If you're looking for divas, forget receivers. Look at the guys that cover them. Very few sell out on the run, especially after they log a few years in the league. For five years Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis went right past cajoling and straight into screaming and yelling and goading his corners into tackling. It didn't happen until the Bengals drafted Joseph and Leon Hall No. 1 in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and Zimmer arrived to demand it in 2008.

Since Zimmer brought his hard nose against the run, the wins have started to come. At first slowly. But in Cincinnati's last 26 games the Bengals have allowed 97.9 rushing yards per game at 3.85 per pop in a stretch they have gone 15-10-1. In the previous 26 games, counting the first eight games of the Zimmer era, they allowed an average of 130.8 yards per game on 4.23 per carry while going 7-19.

The corners have clearly heard the call. Joseph says if you look at his college tape, you see a guy that "has been tackling his whole life." But Zimmer didn't like the '07 tape and kept on him.

"He said things about the corners being physical," Joseph said. "Guys have bought into what he says. They understand exactly what he's saying. It's not like we're knocking people out left and right. (But) what's on tape is on the tape."

Not only are the Bengals the rarity with two top-flight corners that can cover and hit, but the guys behind them do it, too. Adam Jones may be best known as athletic and fast, a return man in the wings, but has anyone noticed how he's throwing his body around when he comes up to make a hit? His knees are skinned, he's got a patch on his shoulder, and he sat out the last two practices to rest said shoulder.

"That's just his nature. He won't  back down from anybody. He's always been aggressive," Joseph said. 'It's kind of rubbing off on him with Coach Zimmer being tough on him as well as me and Leon."

Sunday's 1 p.m. game in Charlotte (Cincinnati's Channel 12) is a perfect moment for the highly-regarded Bengals secondary to take over a game against a rookie quarterback like it did last week against a quarterback with three playoff wins in Joe Flacco.

"I don't really think we're going to change. We're going to do exactly what we do but we're not going to change just because it's a rookie quarterback," said safety Chris Crocker when asked if Zimmer would all-out blitz Clausen. "We're not going to be overly aggressive or underly aggressive. We're just going to do what we do. He is a rookie quarterback but he's still capable. He can make all of the throws so we're just going to do what we do."

There's not much to choose between the 5-9, 217-pound Williams and the 5-10, 235-pound Stewart. They're both tough, dangerous, and last season averaged more than five yards per carry. The Bengals compare Williams' back-door quickness to Baltimore's Ray Rice. SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga is talking about the zone plays the Panthers run just like they see every day from Cedric Benson and how he has to stay at home to watch the cutback. Stewart is tough and thick a la the Bengals' own Benson, but Crocker says it's like playing against two Bensons.

"They're as good as any two running backs that I've seen in my career on the same team," said Crocker, now in his eighth season. "When one goes out the other is going to come in and do the exact same thing. Both of them are very capable. One doesn't slack off when the other comes in.

"Both of them can do the same things. One is a little bit thicker and more stout, but both of them can make you miss in open space and they're just an excellent run team."

Hall, who came into the NFL already wearing the physical tag, gets to display his ample versatility when he goes into the slot against Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith. This is a week after Crocker showed his all-around self when he had to go into the slot after Joseph cramped up with 4:34 left.

Hall and Crocker kid each other about the secondary's most punishing position. He laughed when he heard Hall said the reason Crocker talks up Hall's ability in the slot is so he doesn't have to play it because the stopping and starting in there is so tough on the knees.

"Leon's throwing me under the bus?" Crocker asked with a laugh. "That's funny. Leon's a funny guy. Ask him how his knees feel the next time. I saw him in the training room the other day with two bags of ice. ... We joke all of the time because it is a different mindset when you're in there.

"Most of the time you're matched up against their best receiver and it's a lot of stop and go. That's where the ball is going most of the time. We joke a lot about it, that it's a lot like you're playing wide receiver. You're backpedaling but you're doing the same thing ... you have to be a smart guy who recognizes routes, down-and-distance. You have to be really savvy to play in there, and Leon has done a good job. I always mess with him. He's always trying to get me to go back in there but I'm an old guy."

Smith is 31, but he's still almost like playing another running back. If the DBs have to come up and wrap Williams and Stewart, they can't sleep on Smith. Crocker is old enough to remember when Smith actually was a running back.

"He really hasn't changed. He's still dangerous after the catch. Just getting the ball into his hands he can make things happen," Crocker said. "He was a running back in college so just get the ball to him and let him make moves in open space and he's very dangerous and very explosive. I think over the last seven or eight years he's had the most yards on those quick throws from the quarterback right at the line, so they just want to give him the ball.

"You know he's going to … complain about wanting every pass but we'll go into the game with our focus really on – and no disrespect to him – but we really have to stop the two running backs."

Joseph understands. No doubt he heard Zimmer's little dig on Thursday.

"Team defense needs 11 guys to tackle," Joseph said. "There's nobody over there telling us in a meeting, 'You just cover your guys and we'll have the other nine guys tackling.' It's all 11 guys running to the ball tackling."

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