8-1-03, 4:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Sometimes it was Brian Simmons and Takeo Spikes, but mostly it was Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons. Whatever it was, it was always both when you talked Bengals linebackers and if you were Steve Theotherbacker Foley, well, it wasn't easy.
"It got very frustrating when you sit back and look at all the pub and all the hype and all the attention that the other guys are getting and knowing deep down inside, I'm just as good as these guys," Foley said this week. "I just need to be put in the right scheme and the right situation and I know I can make these plays."
Exit Spikes to free agency. Enter head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier preaching speed and quarterback pressure for the reconfigured linebacking corps, as well as the rest of the defense. Take Simmons' move to his natural position and the free-agent signing of former Pro Bowler Kevin Hardy. Throw in Foley's rehab from last year's season-ending shoulder surgery that cost him all 16 games, and. . .if he won't become a household name, maybe he'll at least be on a first-name basis with the public.
And, now with Spikes in Buffalo saying the Bills have the league's best linebacking corps, Hardy is here saying this is as good as any unit he helped take to two AFC title games in Jacksonville. Simmons is here saying the Bengals will be better there than last season, when Spikes played where Simmons is now on the right, weak outside, Canute Curtis filled in for Foley at strong, left outside, and Simmons played the middle.
"I told him to quit lying," said Simmons with a smile before Friday's intrasquad scrimmage of his phone call with Spikes. "Of course he's going to say
that. I think we'll be better than last year and not because Takeo's gone. It's all about progression. With me on the outside, Hardy in the middle and Foley coming back as a big, fast guy, we've got a pretty good corps there."
The 6-3, 255-pound Foley, who led the nation with 18.5 sacks in 1997 when he was at Northeast Louisiana, has always felt he could wreak havoc with the quarterback. But because of injuries, scheme, and circumstance, he has just 9.5 sacks in his five-year NFL career and hasn't had once since he dumped the Eagles' Donovan McNabb in the 2000 finale.
"It's not because Takeo's gone, it's because of the more aggressive scheme we're running," Foley said of his possible emergence. "It plays to my strength. Usually, I was just playing on the line, containing the run, keeping everything on the inside and I'd get a couple of blitzes here and there. Now it's just total aggression. I'm stacked off (the line), I can flow more in open spaces and make plays. In the past I was just over the tight end and containing. Now everything is just wide open. It's like I'm free to just roam and make plays and be in space to use my athleticism and show some people what I can do."
Nobody seemed to notice him until he missed the entire 2002 season with a dislocated right shoulder in the preseason and the Bengals' defense coincidentally fell from No. 9 in the NFL to No. 17. He also missed the last four games of 2001 with a lower back strain. And he missed a chunk of this offseason's work with hamstring and groin problems.
But he is here now and while there is some concern from the coaches he is behind a bit in timing and technique because of a year-and-a-half rust, Hardy, the former Jaguar and Cowboy now playing the middle, has noticed the skills. The scheme Frazier and Lewis has devised reminds Hardy in some ways of what Dom Capers built in Jacksonville.
"The good things I've seen out of Foley is when he puts his hand down, he's a pretty good rusher," Hardy said. "If he is rusty, I hope he gets it off because I think there's a lot of ways they're going to utilize Foley in this scheme and he'll be a big part of it. Part of (the scheme) reminds me of what Dom did. He had the outside linebackers really break it down and they were the guys who take away the check downs. Quick, outside guys who force the play inside."
Foley loves to put his hand on the ground and rush the passer. But he hasn't done much of that or blitzing. That figures to change now.
"Canute came in and did a good job for last year," Simmons said. "But Foley brings the defense an element of speed that we haven't had. I think this system is going to showcase his athleticism. He's going to be able to chase plays down. "
Frazier hopes it displays Foley's versatility because he's still going to be asked to stalk the tight end and make plays in the running game.
"He's a big, tall, physical guy, kind of rangy," Frazier said. "We want to allow him to use his rush skills, but also drop into pass coverage. He's a physical guy who can dominate a lot of tight ends."
Foley had concerns how the shoulder would hold up when he arrived at camp this week. But early on, in 11-on-11, he led with his shoulder to take on fullback Chris Edmonds as he filled a hole and he didn't feel a thing. A few snaps later, he used it to take on pulling right guard Matt O'Dwyer.
So far, so good.
"Once I had contact, I put it behind me because I realized it was fine," Foley said. "I've been pushing and forcing the shoulder, and just to know I don't feel a little tweak or anything is great. Now it's matter of being in the right place at the right time.'
Foley is Lewis' kind of player because he can run. He would rather have his backers fast than big, so he told Foley to drop about 10 pounds to 255 and Foley, a pretty svelte guy already, asked, "Coach, where's it going to come from?"
Foley found a way and now he's headed to a big weekend of scrutiny after missing the last 20 regular-season games. He doesn't what to get the injury-prone rap, and he shouldn't because he led the roster with 44 straight starts before he got hurt in December of 2001.
"I know the fans and coaches are looking to see if I've still got speed and strength," said Foley of Friday's scrimmage and Saturday's Mock Game. "It's just good to be back out there after watching for so long."
Hardy and Simmons didn't have much to say about Spikes' declaration. It's just another example of how things are different with new kinds of players and coaches. Hardy understands where Spikes is coming from as a relatively high-priced free agent himself. But he's not known for saying such things like the more outspoken Spikes.
"You're going to hear that probably in about five or six camps this year," Hardy said. "Everybody feels they have the best unit For a guy like Takeo to go to Buffalo and to sign a big deal, there's a lot expected of him. He has to go out on a limb and put out those high aspirations because that's what is expected of him."
Hardy signed about half the deal Spikes did, but he is getting $5 million this year and about $16 million for four years, so he knows there are high aspirations for him, too. He just prefers to low-profile it.
"For me, it's about going out and playing," Hardy said. "If I sat here and said we have the best linebacking unit, what does that really mean? If anybody says it, what does it mean? Because we've got to get it done on Sunday. So I don't care about things like that. My job is to play on Sunday and help us win football games."
After 20 games on the shelf, Foley would like to join him.