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Hobson's Choice: 3-4 not easy as 1-2-3

Q: If all our dreams come true and Pollack and Thurman come back, wouldn't that guarantee a move to the 3-4? And if Pollack does not come back, doesn't it still stay 3-4 with Geathers at the right outside backer? Then we could take the best player on the board, who will probably be an offensive guy because Ellis and Gholston will be gone.
--Ed A., Huber Heights, OH

ED: Nothing is guaranteed except that you have to play your best players and if this is going to be a field of dreams, wouldn't that mean Pollack at right outside and Geathers left outside and Ahmad Brooks and Odell Thurman inside?

And even if Pollack doesn't come back and Thurman can't play after a two-year absence, there is Geathers, Rashad Jeanty and Eric Henderson as outside backers with the possibility of teaming Brooks with Dhani Jones inside if they don't re-sign Landon Johnson.

Either way, with ends Justin Smith and Bryan Robinson not expected back, they seem to have more backers than linemen.

And the beauty of playing a 3-4 is that in most drafts you can find those tweeners—college defensive ends too small in the pros but proportioned just right for an outside backer—in virtually every round. Meanwhile, those solid, two-way 4-3 ends are virtually extinct after the second round.

But you can't get carried away. If you go to a 3-4, you've got to make sure you're big and stout with the front three or you'll get mauled in the run game.

(See LeBeau, Dick: Bengals defensive coordinator, circa 1997 and 1998).

You've got to have six linemen of a certain, big, two-gap type that doesn't really fit the linemen in a one-gap 4-3, starting with a rugged- ox-strong-at-least-300-pound-can't-get-blown-out-of-there nose tackle. Domata Peko can probably do it, but he's going to need help and a guy like Jonathan Fanene could probably give it to him.

The DEs don't have to be pass rushers, but they have to be strong enough to stand up against 340-pound tackles like Willie Anderson and quick enough to fend off left tackles like Levi Jones and Joe Thomas. You'd like to think Frostee Rucker can do that. Robinson and Michael Myers could give you some snaps doing that. Would John Thornton be too small for a 3-4? Actually, with his ability to play the run and chase plays, Justin Smith would be a fine 3-4 end. But it's doubtful they'll franchise Smith again.

And not only do you have to take all that into consideration, you have to figure out what kind of 3-4 you're going to be. Do you do it like Pittsburgh and Baltimore and stay with it in all situations? Or do you go the New England or Cleveland route and jump in and out of it during the course of a series and/or game?

Just listening to new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, it sounds like he'll be flexible more than anything.

Q: What's the news on the Bengals re-signing Landon Johnson, Dhani Jones, Stacy Andrews and Jonathan Fanene? Johnson has been our leading tackler three of the last four years, so it seems like a no brainer. Dhani fit in well and brought a spark to a defense that desperately needed it when he showed up last year. Fanene seems like our best rushing interior D-lineman, as he consistently gets through blocks when he gets his chances. Stacy Andrews played admirable when Big Willie was out last year, and is great insurance at tackle. P.S.- any update on the Madieu Williams situation?
--Kevin M., Fairfield, OH

KEVIN: It looks like Dhani Jones is going to re-sign in late February, a date set by the CBA for certain veterans coming off a one-year deal. Fanene is a restricted free agent and they'd like Landon, Andrews and Williams back, but at what price?

It is pretty slow right now during Super Bowl week and it probably won't pick up next week, either. But then it will with the Feb. 20-25 scouting combine approaching and Feb. 29 free agency.

Agreed on Fanene. When he's healthy, he and Peko are their most active interior people. Look for them to make a one-year tender offer commensurate with his seventh-round draft pick.

He's back.

And, no question, Johnson is the kind of tough, reliable, decent human being you want and need on your team. He's also been the leading tackler the last two years on defenses that have finished 30th and 27th and if the Bengals are looking to put some money into difference-makers, how much do they then appropriate to Johnson?

But, if he doesn't break open games, he certainly breaks his butt with consistency. With so many question marks at linebacker (Can Pollack and Thurman still play? Can Brooks and Henderson play?), this may be the year that he has value.

They've talked to the agents for Jones, Johnson and Andrews, and you have to believe they are really going all out on Andrews. Even though it looks like Willie Anderson is going to be back as good as ever off his last two games, the Bengals don't want to lose a 26-year-old guy in Andrews that they've developed from scratch and provides great insurance.

But they can't make him like our insurance policies and make him worth more dead than alive if they pay him like he's made the Pro Bowl, given what they've paid Anderson and Levi Jones. They couldn't reach an extension with Andrews last offseason even though he had just three NFL starts at guard to his credit, so how tough is it now that he's added 11 starts at tackle?

There's always the possibility they could take a tackle at No. 9 in the draft, too, if all the defensive ends and tackles are gone. Michigan's Jake Long doesn't figure to be the only top 10 offensive tackle.

Free safety Madieu Williams is an interesting case. We've already recited the list (ad nauseam) of safeties they've decided not to pay, starting with Darryl Williams in 1996 and ending with Kevin Kaesviharn in 2007. And this time they've got a guy in Marvin White they think is going to be pretty good.

But they love Williams' versatility, he's a solid guy, and they've done long-term deals with his new agent, Kenny Zuckerman.

But you can't expect them to tee off with any negotiations on the defensive side of the ball until they get a feel from Zimmer on what he thinks of the personnel. He may have no use for some guys, or he may covet guys that haven't been viewed so favorably here.

Stay tuned.

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