11-28-03, 4:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' defense hopes it shows how far it has come Sunday since the 17-10 loss to the Steelers nine weeks ago. It's been a work in progress since defensive guru Marvin Lewis became head coach and joined forces with first-year coordinator Leslie Frazier in a project that included seven new starters.
Frazier has had to adjust to Lewis as much as to his players, but the former Super Bowl cornerback and coach of the Pro Bowl Eagles' secondary is confident it's coming together. He's looking for more turnovers and consistency. But this is also a defense that has surrendered only one fourth-quarter lead, which came in the 19-16 overtime loss in Buffalo.
We gave Frazier five questions this weeks as his unit prepares to stop their third straight Pro Bowl running back in Jerome Bettis. Despite giving up 46 points in their last two games, they controlled Priest Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson on the ground. Take away Holmes' 20-yarder and Tomlinson's 38-yarder, and they had just 99 yards on 30 carries.
Which is where the consistency comes in. **
GH:What is the one thing you're trying to improve on?
LF:Be consistently good. There are times in the course of some series in games that we look pretty good. We get some three-and-outs and three-and-outs, and then some times we haven't done a good job protecting some leads. We've made things a little closer than they had to be. So we have to get to the point where we learn when we're ahead on a team to put them away from a defensive standpoint.
GH:In this 5-1 stretch, what's been the best thing about this defense?
LF:** We've shown tremendous resolve. We haven't thrown in the towel. We haven't thrown
up our hands. We've kept with it. When we've had to come up with some big plays to get off the field later in some games, we've done that. I think that's a big thing. Our guys are finding a way. **
GH:Do you think guys are still trying to find their roles in the new scheme and still trying to get used to you, and Marvin, and the new players? Or is this an entirely different deal from the last time you played the Steelers?
LF:** I think we're just about beyond that. I see some things that tell me we've about turned the corner on that part of it. More consistent play by some positions. There are some guys who were making mistakes early in the year that they aren't making any more. Now it's just a matter of recognizing other people's scheme and what they're trying to do. I think guys are beginning to understand now much better than they did before. Now if we can put that to the other team's offense, we'll be quicker in the things that we're doing.
Our linebackers are steadily improving. Those are the guys who direct things in our front seven. They've really improved from early in the season to now. I think the line has been relatively steady, and the play of (cornerback James) Tory and (safety) Mark Roman and a couple guys in the secondary, now (cornerback Hawkins) Artrell having to step up with Jeff (Burris) being out. . .he's played well. When you see things like that this late in the year, we're seeing some improvement at the right time. The linebackers had the most change and that was where we had the most fluctuation early on with the most indecision. But now those guys have been better and in turn our defense is getting better.
No doubt we have a better understanding of it than the last time we played Pittsburgh in terms of "everybody else's role and what my role is as a player." We were still relatively early coming out of camp in the third game of the year. We were still making a ton of mistakes, and not sure of certain things. **
GH:How much is Lewis and how much is Frazier when it comes to scheme and are you more comfortable calling plays now?
LF:** It's a little bit of a mix, but it's what Marvin wants to do no matter what. He's the head coach and we're going to do the things he feels confident with in every situation. We do have some things that we did in Philly in there, but it's the things that Marvin feels comfortable with.
It's been an adjustment (for me), but it's been good. It's hard to do two things. He'll say one thing and I'll say a different thing because I have a different mindset and that's not good. It's better to bring it together and get the best of both worlds, but not try to get the both of both worlds. We'll do it in a direction he feels comfortable.
No question I feel more comfortable calling plays. I have a better handle on what we are as a defense than I did six weeks ago. I have a better feel of what we're good at and what we're not good at. I kind of now know what our best fronts are, what our best coverage is, who are best blitzers are, who we need to bring in a crucial situation. I'd rather not be speficic, but I do have a better handle on who we are and what we do best. I don't know if there's one word or phrase that typifies who we are. We're still a work in progress in certain areas. We're becoming a better defense and I think our guys have been aggressive and at times very opportunistic. **
GH:After getting three turnovers in the fourth quarter against Seattle, you've had two in the last four four games and none in the last two. How do you emphasize that?
LF:** You communicate it verbally, then work on it in practice, and continue to emphasize the importance of it. You hear it a thousand times. Turnovers come in bunches. All of a sudden you get two or three in consecutive weeks, then drop off at times. (As a coach) You talk about it. You talk about the importance of stripping the football, attacking the football, and then you do some drills in practice to work on it and put it in the guys' minds. To think about turnovers. Keep preaching it.