Hobson's Choice: Defense only goes as far as run

Geoff, I don't understand what all the fuss is about the Bengals not having signed any free agents yet. They have effectively kept our offense intact which is only going to get better as Carson Palmer gets more experience.

I realize that we have some problems with our defense, but the fact that Marvin Lewis and Chuck Bresnahan will be more on the same page should help a lot. Not to mention that Chuck is a more aggressive coach when it comes to defense. It might be that once he tweaks the scheme a little bit that we will show improvement. What do you think the chances are of us showing vast improvement with the personnel that we have?

Jeffrey, Dayton JEFFREY:
The relationship between Lewis and Bresnahan should make things run more smoothly and that should translate into faster play and not as many of those which-way-did-he-go gaffes at the heart of big plays. You shouldn't see any more 99-yard touchdowns.

So that should mean a couple of spots in the rankings. Say No. 19 to No. 17 But to take the next few steps to "solid," hinges on their ability to play the run.

This personnel over the past two years has yet to prove it can stop the run consistently, and that is what is going to make it or break it in 2005.

In Lewis' first year, the Bengals finished tied for 25th against the rush. In '04, they were 26th, and what is worrisome is they have some injuries at key spots in the running game.

Middle linebacker Nate Webster, acquired in free agency last year to stop the run, played in just three games before suffering a serious injury, tearing the patella tendon in his kneecap. His agent said at last month's scouting combine that he'll miss the spring camps but will be ready for training camp.

Landon Johnson played so well in Webster's place as a rookie you could conceivably leave him there if Webster isn't ready even though it was the first time he ever played the spot.

One of my favorite stats of last year is in he first six games, the Bengals allowed five 100-yard runners and an average of 154 yards on the ground. In the last 10 games with Johnson in the middle, the Bengals gave up four 100-yard games and an average of 114 rushing yards. He'll get bigger and better, and you've go t to love that second-down stuff of Ron Dayne in the last minutes of the victory over the Giants.

So maybe Johnson is an answer, but he's had some shoulder surgery and they're anxious to see what he looks like when he gets back. You'd feel better if they were a little healthier and a little more experienced there.

Plus, put me down as a big safety guy, a subject that drives Lewis slightly bonkers. Lewis doesn't like it when you call them strong safeties or free safeties, but, sorry, this is the AFC North and you better have a strong safety.

Yes, you can't let big guys get caught in mismatches. Agreed. And I like Kim Herring as a veteran force out there in situations. But stopping Jamal Lewis, Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley, and Lee Suggs has to rate as the way to control the division.

Obviously, a big presence at tackle to complement John Thornton would be nice, and they may already have it in a more seasoned rotation of Matthias Askew, Langston Moore, and a cast of thousands depending what the draft and training camp brings. That said, I just don't see any big-ticket, drop-dead answers in free agency, either.

Bresnahan makes them better. The experience of Johnson, Madieu Williams, and Robert Geathers makes them better. And, like linebacker Kevin Hardy says, the third year in the same system makes them better.

But, it's all going to come down to getting better and more consistent play up the middle against the run.

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