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Hobson's Choice: Front 7 overhaul?

Q: Where do we need help the most on defense? It's easy to say we are ranked 20-something in the pass so we need secondary help. They may not always be accurate though. The problem may be somewhere else. In your opinion, leaving statistics aside, what positions do we need to upgrade on defense? And who may we not see back next year?
--Matt W., S. Vienna, OH

MATT: Even though they may lose free safety Madieu Williams in free agency and strong safety Dexter Jackson turns 31 the first week of training camp, they should be fine with rookies Chinedum Ndukwe and Marvin White. Throw in cornerback Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, and the oldest of those four just turned 24 two weeks ago. So the future appears solid in the back end.

But with Justin Smith coming off the franchise tag and Bryan Robinson completing his 11th season and three-year deal, the Bengals could very well be looking for some defensive ends, obviously of the pass-rushing ilk. Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker are going to be here but they're not pure pass rushers.

And you should always be looking for a young, big run-stuffing and anchorable defensive tackle. Defensive tackle John Thornton is in the last year of a deal paying him nearly $4 million and always seems to be on a possible cut list, but he's steady and reliable.

Linebacker would seem to be a concern with David Pollack's broken neck a never-ending question, weaksider Landon Johnson is a free agent, and middle linebacker continues to be a thorn in the side.

They can't count on Odell Thurman and even though he's been in the league two years, Ahmad Brooks has finished just 12 games and it looked he might be OK but you just don't know.

Then there is always the 3-4 question. They may deem it's time to move to a three-man line base only if they think they've got enough linebackers. But only if Thurman came back, you would think.

Q: Is it just me, or is there a serious attitude problem with Chad, TJ, and Chris? Don't get me wrong, I think they are absolutely great players, but I was just sickened watching the San Fran game (and the last few games in general). Even worse than the way the team played, was the attitude of our top receivers. Every time they dropped a pass (and there were clearly plenty of drops) they were more interested in flopping around and whining to the refs for an interference flag than getting back out there for another play. If they spent as much time owning up to their mistake as they did whining, the team would be in a much better position. Owning all aspects of the game is a very common theme across all positions on teams that have historically done very well. Are we going to ever see anyone other than Carson and the O-line accept responsibility (and own not just the good parts of their game)? Who should be showing them what whiny children they have recently looked like and driving home that they need to accept responsibility? Also, why is this not getting across?
--Kyle, Storrs, CT

KYLE: I agree with T.J. on this. Everything is tied into the record. In '05, the pundits called it passion, grit and intensity. Now it's whiny, selfish and immature. Is it less than perfect? Yeah. Just like most places. Such as Denver's Brandon Marshall getting into it with his receivers coach on the sidelines last week.

Is it the national calamity the way it's been portrayed? No. There are people in the room saying that the reports of Johnson and Houshmandzadeh trying to take over the team have been terribly exaggerated.

In Cleveland, Bill Belichick was stubborn and unimaginative. In New England, he's a new age genius. Last year at this time, Randy Moss was a locker room werewolf eating his young and making Terrell Owens look presidential. This year Moss is Jerry Rice.

But Belichick didn't change. Moss didn't change. Neither have Chad and T.J. They were like this in '05 when they won the division, '06 when they were one win from the playoffs three times, and '07 when they pretended instead of contended. I mean, when has T.J. not had something to say to an official?

What gets by at 11-3 doesn't get by at 5-9.

Nick P. of Salt Lake City also weighed in on this and ripped the leadership of Chad and T.J., and their inability to take their teammates to the next level.

But that's exactly where they took them in '05. Maybe a 4.5-yard running back would make them all Ray Lewis. That mind-boggling plus turnover differential makes leaders of us all.

(By the way, does Ray Lewis take over the team, or does he exert leadership? If you're a Super Bowl MVP, it's leadership. If you're 5-9, it's a coup).

In conversations with T.J. and Carson on Wednesday, we talked about the reports that said his receivers are constantly yelling at Palmer and that teammates resent them trying to take over the team. Palmer shook his head and said, "They haven't yelled at me. I'd yell back at them," and someone who should know said at practice this week that all three were seen joking around the heater together.

During the Thursday media session Houshmandzadeh saw Johnson calling to Palmer about a gag as he walked by the receivers' lockers and he said, "Hey, we're supposed to be mad at you."

"Oh yeah," Palmer said. "You guys always yell at me."

Houshmandzadeh may have a closer relationship with Palmer (Vegas trips, dinners), but Chad and Palmer don't shy away from each other.

And yet another guy who is in the locker room every day said the reports are nowhere near accurate and another said that, if anything, Chad has been less edgy than '05.

Told that people didn't like the image on national TV Saturday night of Houshmandzadeh and Johnson by themselves on the bench instead of conferring with Palmer, T.J. fired back, "If you're not on the same page, then you confer with Carson. If he sees something you didn't see, then you confer with Carson. If he throws it one way and you run the other way, then you confer with Carson. We're on the same page. We're just not getting it done."

Everyone, including Chad and T.J., have admitted they fly off the handle too often and need to control their emotions. That's not new.

But that has more of an impact on the field than in the locker room. Both teammates and coaches would like to see it curtailed because it affects not only their best players on the field, but it can unnerve some of the other guys that look to them. Even though the outbursts pass like a summer storm. But you can't get back any of those snaps washed away in the emotion.

Again, this is something that Chad and T.J. have admitted before. But now, the losing comes after a national TV blowup between Palmer and Johnson back on Oct. 1 against the Pats, and so now they're-a-cancer-and-you-have-to-dump-them perception takes on a life of its own that has dwarfed reality a bit.

What Johnson has to do is relax and treat the fourth quarter like the second quarter because he needs to settle down and make some big plays. The drops late for TDs against Buffalo and the Niners and the fumble against Arizona in the red zone have done more to hurt than anything in the locker room and that comes only from a guy dying to succeed but needing to be more in control.

Which is a long way from being a locker-room cancer. The kid's got a big heart. Asked if it was like the Pickens and Dillon rage days, a seasoned locker room observer offered, "Not even close."

No, not perfect. And the short fuses have to be addressed (and Marvin Lewis talks about them all the time).

But not exactly anarchy, either.

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