Hobson's Choice: Defense needs young leaders

Q: Who do you see stepping up and being the leader on defense and offense? Also, I would love to see Chad Johnson stay with the team. When healthy and on his game he can make the secondary look silly on some teams. So what do you think boss?
--Richard B., Fairfield, OH

RICHARD: This is a young man's defense and you get the sense with No. 1 pick Keith Rivers joining second-year players like Leon Hall and Chinedum Ndukwe and a new starter in veteran Dhani Jones that their chemistry is undergoing a leadership change.

As for offense, no matter what league, team, and city, it is and always will be the quarterback.

Defensive tackle John Thornton was voted a team captain last year, so he obviously has his teammates' respect. And defensive end Robert Geathers has their admiration as the most athletically gifted player on the unit, so those are guys you can add in the mix.

But there is a generational thing going on, sped up by the loss of David Pollack and Odell Thurman, and they seem to have found some guys with substance that matches their draft status.

The defenders taken in the last three drafts, headed by Rivers, Hall, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, and reinforced by Ndukwe, Marvin White and Domato Peko have made this a much different defense than the one that led the NFL in turnovers and fueled the 2005 AFC North title. Thornton is the only starter who also started the Wild Card game.

On offense, you can say all you want about this guy and that guy, but the leader is Carson Palmer. As one of the NFL's best players at the most important position, that's it.

Coming out of USC five years ago, the knock on him was that he lacked passion and fire to be a leader, but he has methodically crushed that fantasy. We've seen him jump on everybody from Chad Johnson to T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the coaches to make his points. He never backs down from a question and, more importantly, he's here now, in May, spending time after practice throwing the ball to anyone with a pulse. He leads in the media, in the locker room and on the field and what more can you ask?

It looks like you'll get your wish on Chad. All signs they aren't going to trade him whether he's here or not.

Q: Am I crazy for being excited about the coming season? I like how the defense is shaping up in terms of personnel and coaching. I see the offense, with or without 85 and 84, ready to wake up and be a dissecting offense with the re-growth of Rudi, with Perry back in the mix, as well as Utecht. The schedule is tough, but I find it difficult to swallow the thought that we cannot beat Baltimore, Tennessee, the Giants and Browns to start the year. If not, two or three of them.
--Dave C., Cincinnati, OH

DAVE: You hit the two biggest concerns and one leads to the other. The defense has to be better to survive this schedule, their most punishing set of foes in one season since the old AFC Central died and took the Titans and Jaguars with them after 2001.

We've been talking about the numbers since the end of last season. Six of the teams they play finished in the top 10 rushing the ball in '07 and they play two of them twice in No. 3 Pittsburgh and No. 10 Cleveland.

The one thing I think fans can put their arms around is they did try to address their biggest deficiencies. Yeah, it would have been a hell of a lot better to have Shaun Rogers instead of Pat Sims at defensive tackle, but Sims figures to be an upgrade at a badly needed spot and they could have something special down the road with him.

They needed a pass rusher and an athletic, savvy linebacker and they got the end in free agency in Antwan Odom and the backer in the draft in Rivers. They also needed a change of direction on defense and Mike Zimmer has brought in a different tempo and style.

And clearly their offense had grown stale, particularly the running game. Marvin said so at the end of the year.

The addition of a tight end like Utecht gives them the ability to run and throw out of more double tight end sets and cuts down on their predictability. The early, good reviews of Rudi and Perry point to a return to the powerful and versatile running game of '05.

And, really, the only way the Bengals are truly going to be able to stop those smashmouth offenses is to keep them off the field with their own running game.

Now, will Odom be able to hang in there against the run? Will Rivers disappear because the tackles can't tie anybody up? What if Sims isn't ready on Day One? Will Zimmer's scheme become as confusing as all the rest? Will Utecht get lost in the effort to get the ball to Chad and T.J.? Will L'Affaire Chad melt down the locker room?

Who knows?

It's the offseason.

You can find anything to be hopeful about and anything to gripe about.

Q: Any chance the Bengals look to sign Mike Doss? I assume a drawback might be his lack of coverage skills as far as what Marvin wants in a safety.
--Seth, Columbus, OH

SETH: You've got it. This isn't the first time they've had a chance to get him, either. It's not like they've got all their answers at safety, but given what they've invested in Ndukwe and White and what they're paying Dexter Jackson, signing Doss doesn't make much sense.

Plus, they've got a similar guy in CFL refugee Kyries Hebert, who is the same age and is already in the system. With young special-teamers who can move like Herana-Daze Jones and John Busing, the roster battle is already on.

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