1-9-04, 6:55 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has been to the big game as a player and has a college field named after him as a coach. So it's going to take more than this major renovation facing him during the offseason to faze him.
"First and foremost is fixing the run defense. That has to be the first priority," said Frazier this week as he took a break from trying to figure out how his unit went from the top half of the NFL to four spots from the bottom in two short months.
"If you can't stop the run, you can't do anything and that really showed up the last month," he said. "Some of it is adjusting to scheme and our being able to convey how we want it. I think we've got the players here to make the scheme work, but we're also looking to upgrade personnel through the draft and free agency."
The highlights of Frazier's early off-season analysis:
Frazier, a cornerback on the Super Bowl Bears who went on to coach the Eagles' Pro Bowl secondary, knows what successful stretch runs are supposed to be. He's disappointed how his defense fell off mentally and physically during the second half of the season. Of the six 100-yard rushing days they allowed, half came in December. Of the seven 100-yard receiving days they allowed, five came in the last six games.
"The most discouraging thing is we were better early on. That should be reversed. We have to figure out if we did too much tweaking at the end," Frazier said. "Some of it is being a young defense with young players in a situation in December not accustomed to playing a meaningful game. I felt that way a little bit in the Cleveland game. I don't think we came out with the energy that we needed for whatever reason. Maybe it was the importance of the game."
Frazier knows that one of the criticisms is that his defensive line, which averages about 285 pounds, is too light. He doesn't buy it and doesn't think the answer is necessarily a 380-pound-Ted-Washington-Sam-Adams anchor. In fact, he's looking for more tackles like the 297-pound John Thornton.
"I don't think we're too small. Look at other teams in the league that aren't very big, like Tampa. It's what you get out of those guys. What you need is guys that are quick, athletic and really get off the ball," Frazier said. "We need a guy who plays hard every
down and people have to respect him and when they watch tape, they say, 'How do we block this guy?' We've got a guy in John who plays like that and that people are conscious of, but we have to develop a rotation so that when John is fatigued or banged up, you have some other people who are playing like John Thornton does."
Frazier is looking at moving linebacker Kevin Hardy from the middle to left outside linebacker, which could mean Adrian Ross switches from left to the middle. Ross, rehabbing from reconstructive knee surgery, has always said he likes playing the middle, and has made five starts there.
"Adrian played well for us before he got hurt (in the next-to-last game)," Frazier said. "The main thing is getting the best 11 guys on the field where they play best. The linebackers fitting with the line is obviously a big part of it against the run and we had two guys in Kevin and Brian (Simmons going from the middle to right outside) playing different positions for the first time. It's something we have to improve on.
"The big thing is that we're going to be better next year because of the experience we went through this season," Frazier said. "We had some success and we won games going through it and that can only help us."
Frazier isn't picking out one spot targeted for an upgrade. He admits some holes need to be filled in the secondary, but he thinks the same defensive backs are going to play better if the play of the front seven improves. He also thinks the loss of cornerback Jeff Burris for a month in midseason was a devastating blow to the communication flow in the secondary.
"We're going to be better back there if we stop the run and make offenses more predictable instead of letting them keep us off balance," said Frazier, who admitted injuries late in the year strapped his third-down package. "We need to get a good pass rush from our front four so we don't have to use guys from the back to get pressure on the quarterback. For awhile, we were playing with a jigsaw puzzle on passing downs just to get by."
Thornton (shoulder), and cornerback Artrell Hawkins (knee) were so banged up, they underwent minor surgery after the season. Burris lost his job to Hawkins by the time he came back. Strong safety Rogers Beckett had a nick at shoulder and a nack in the knee. Free safety Mark Roman had to play corner in the nickel and nickel safety Kevin Kaesviharn had to play cornerback in the regular defense.
Frazier can read the salary cap numbers and he knows he's probably not going to get a mega-million savior. But he knows they can improve with a few additions and a few tweaks in the scheme that can make the people he already has better. Take for instance right end Justin Smith after his career-low five sacks.
"He had a great year against the run. Anybody who didn't think he can play the run saw they were wrong this year. He was very productive in the running game," Frazier said. "Now we have to take him to the next level on the pass rush. There are some things we think we can do with some drills that Jay (defensive line coach Hayes) can do with him to work on his technique."
But Frazier's strategy at rehabbing the defense sounds almost as much mental as physical. The man who played for the '85 Bears isn't used to the thinking of the '02-14 Bengals.
"We were trying to get across to them later in the season that people aren't going to overlook us anymore. The Bengals weren't sneaking up on anybody like they used to," Frazier said. "The players in that locker room need certain leaders that have been through that process before who are able to communicate it to their teammates to be loose and to play the same way in December that they played in September. It can't be, 'Oh man, here we are.' You have to expect that in December. Only so much of that can come from a coach. It's far different from the guys in the locker room. Far different."
Frazier thought those leaders, Hardy and Burris as two, did their best, but were limited by a position change and injury.
"Those guys did the best they could do given their circumstances," Frazier said. "When you're trying to get comfortable doing what you're doing and concentrating on that, it's hard to see the big picture. Now, I'm not as comfortable so I can look around at the other guys and say, 'Come on. Relax. Just play.'"
Frazier, who has made it to the last three playoffs isn't happy he's sitting this one out.
"We're going to have to play better in December," Frazier said. "That's the goal."