Hobson's Choice: Defense needs continuity

Q: I see this team going 8-8 again this year with a possibility of being 11-5 or 6-10. The biggest question obviously is the defense. Is it the defensive talent or defensive schematics that look the most troubling to you? In my opinion, we've got a lot of talented players so why isn't the result showing on the field?
--Marcus C., Dayton, OH

MARCUS: Glut of injuries (and you really have to put those on top of the list as the biggest reason the defense hasn't improved from '05), and the revolving door at middle linebacker.

The biggest gripe here is the old "we-weren't-on-the-same-page" explanation after they allowed a big play.

If that's because there were too many cooks in the kitchen, or the scheme is too complex, or because there is lack of continuity stemming from injuries, who knows? I would probably go for C, lack of continuity.

I'm not sure the gap in offensive-defensive salaries explains that.

Chuck Bresnahan, and the numbers don't lie, did a heck of a job in his final eight games as defensive coordinator last year despite a linebacker corps picked clean with injuries.

To a man, they said a lot of that had to do with simplicity and continuity. They didn't have a choice because with only Landon Johnson healthy they had just one linebacker who was with them in training camp. So it had to be 1-plus-1.

No, they didn't play very good offensive teams over the last half of the season, either, but if the defense played as competently in the first half as it did in the second half of the year, they wouldn't have gone 2-6 in the first eight games. And it makes you wonder how much of it was keeping it simple.

Scheme must be a problem because head coach Marvin Lewis has had three different defensive coordinators in six years. Throw in career-ending events for their top two picks in the '05 draft, linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman, and it's a little more than a bump in the road.

But I think the biggest reason why he hasn't been able to get the defense off the ground is the lack of a steady middle linebacker.

Dhani Jones is scheduled to become his sixth different Opening Day middle linebacker in six seasons and ninth different starter in what will be Lewis' 81st regular-season game as Bengals head coach.

Imagine having nine different starting quarterbacks on offense in the last six years. You don't have to. Just remember how awful the Bengals offense was in Paul Daugherty's Lost Decade from 1992 to 2002 in large part because they couldn't find/settle on a quarterback.

When Bresnahan left after this season, he pointed to the disparate salaries on offense and defense. This week's issue of Sports Illustrated underlined the message with a chart showing that the Bengals have the NFL's biggest gap between units with the offense getting about 63 percent of the money.

That would make the argument that they haven't spent enough on defense in free agency to find a gamebreaker.

Yet look at the last two offseasons. In '07 they dropped about $20 million on their pass-rushing ends to extend Robert Geathers and franchise Justin Smith and in '08 they replaced Smith with Antwan Odom with their biggest free-agent deal ever at virtually $6 million per.

That would seem to back your argument that talent is here but something is missing.

And the gap is going to close with the Odom signing , the extension of defensive tackle Domata Peko, and the last three draft with No. 1s on defense. But will the production gap?


Q: Any word on a possible Shaun Alexander or LeCharles Bentley signing and would that be a good move for Cincy at depth on O-line?
--Charlie, Philadelphia, PA

CHARLIE: Nothing wrong with more depth on the offensive line, particularly at center, but there has to be somebody out there healthier than Bentley.

As for Alexander, Lewis last month gave a definitive "no" to Clark Judge of CBSSportsline.com.

The guess is that could change, but there would have to be a major backfield injury involved to get them interested in Alexander.

With Rudi Johnson, the Bengals are already putting down a bet on a big-salaried running back coming back from injury and two straight seasons of averaging less than four yards per carry. Really, when you look at it, you've already got the same kind of guy.

Bengals fans seem to be more worried about center Eric Ghiaciuc than their team. And he'll have to be as good as the Bengals think and right away because in the seven games they play before the bye, they face the No. 2, No. 5, No. 8, No. 6 and No. 3 rush defenses from 2007.

But Bentley's knee has gone through surgery and infection since he last played in 2005, so there is a big question how much he could help.


Q: I was wondering if you could give me an update on the health of running back Kenny Irons.
--Jay S., Lexington, KY

JAY: If you don't think the Bengals give you anything at all about injuries during the season, look for even less in the offseason when, as Lewis says, he's not obligated to have an injury report.

Back in February we said the Irons question had all the whiff of PUP and nothing seems to have changed.

Going off the recent past of injured running backs (Chris Perry), if they don't practice in the spring, it doesn't look so good for them to be ready for training camp.

Throw in the fact that Irons had a knee reconstruction (the only thing, it seems, Perry hasn't had) and it just doesn't look like he's going to be ready for the start of the season. Who knows, maybe we'll show up in two weeks and he'll be out there, but it sure hasn't sounded that way.

If he's not ready, he would go on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and couldn't practice for the first six weeks of the regular season. The problem there is, to be eligible for PUP he can't even take one snap of practice in the preseason.

The next question probably is if quarterback Carson Palmer had an ACL injury in the last game of the season in January and came back to start the next Opening Day, how can Irons not be back for the opener after getting hurt in the first preseason game of the year?

Different knee. Different surgeon. Different position. It's not a cookie cutter deal. Different people react differently to surgery, rehab, and therapy.

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