Hobson's Choice: Defensive changeup

Q: I am concerned about the defense, secondary and pass rush. In your opinion, have they improved and will there be changes this year in personnel?
** --William T., Dunmore, Pa.

WILLIAM:** You hate to talk about paper because the NFL has a habit of taking paper and putting it into a politician's shredder during the first month of the season.

But, yes. On paper, all those things are upgraded over last year. Some because of big presidential moves (Adams and Jackson), some because of personnel switches (Robert Geathers), and some because of more seasoned personnel (David Pollack).

Many things were lost when the Bengals ended the season with a three-game slide that ended so spectacularly in the fiery meltdown against Pittsburgh.

In the glare of defeat, it was easy to forget that on the way to winning 11 of their first 14 games, the defense led the NFL in generating a club-record 44 turnovers and that said defense surrendered five 100-yard rushers last season, down from nine in '04.

The 28 sacks were miserable, nine fewer than '04, but moving Geathers out of starting right end and using him as an edge rusher on passing downs is designed to boost.

In that role as a rookie, Geathers rung up 3.5 sacks in what amounted to the last nine games of the '04 season. After beefing up to 280 for last season's starting role, the Bengals used him at tackle on passing downs and that just didn't work. Now back down to 265, Geathers is back to his quicksilver self looking to wreak the same havoc he wreaked on the edge when he had an interception for a touchdown and deflected five passes as a rookie.

Plus, Pollack looks to be ready to break out after a frustrating rookie season. His transition to strong side backer got devoured by missing six weeks because of holdout and injury. But when he came off his knee injury, he logged 4.5 sacks in the last eight games of the season in becoming the first Bengals rookie to record a post-season sack.

The Bengals are getting really excited about what Pollack can give them in the pass rush now that he has some legs under him at linebacker. They love the way he studies the game, and all signs certainly point to him having more sacks.

You've been able to write in Justin Smith for anywhere from 6.5 to eight sacks a season. And he may get on the high side of that now since he's moving back to right end to make way for Bryan Robinson at left end. Smith likes the idea he'll be pass rushing from both sides.

It's just paper. So it's only worth what it's written on. Everyone knows the rush has been sorely lacking for years and is the major reason they haven't been able to climb out of the second division in defense. And the Bengals seem to prove they realize it, too, by making those third-down moves.

The free agent pickups of defensive tackle Sam Adams and safety Dexter Jackson are towering transactions. Adams gives them a huge, physical presence in a huge, physical division. It's the Bengals shooting back across the bow after the Ravens drafted Haloti Ngata and the Browns signed Ted Washington.

But the Bengals didn't get manhandled in the running game last season. Not like they did in '04, when they allowed a rusher at least 139 yards four times. Last year, no one hit that number until the season finale, when Larry Johnson went off for 201 in Kansas City in a game the Bengals didn't play their starters all that much.

Sure, they need help there and they got it in Adams. But where they really needed help was at safety, where physical play, sure tackling, and play diagnosing were sadly lacking. In Jackson, they get a proven tackler, a traffic cop whose beat was the NFL's top defense in Tampa Bay for a few seasons, and a Super Bowl MVP. For a defense that gave up 10 touchdowns of at least 20 yards in the final eight games, Jackson is a round peg in a round hole.

Throw in the Pro Bowl athleticism of free safety Madieu Williams that was missing for all but four games last season, and that's another reason they shouldn't allow as many big plays.

Now that he just has to worry about just playing safety instead of also playing nickel corner (Johnathan Joseph, Keiwan Ratliff and Rashad Bauman can work that out), Williams can perfect his blitz. One of the reasons Jackson came here is that he'll have more freedom to get to the quarterback. So the safeties, who accounted for just two sacks last season, should at least triple that this time around and that ought to help the pass rush.

Of course, it always looks so good on paper, doesn't it?

And the only paper that is going to matter is the one that prints the playoff tickets.

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