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Hobson's Choice: IFs dictate defense

Q: I couldn't be much more optimistic and excited about the defense this year. The linebacking corps has the potential to be very athletic and dominating with the hopeful return of Odell and the addition of Hartwell. The defensive line is better than last year even with cutting Big Sam due to the impressive play of Peko. If Allen can get healthy we still have a big run-stuffing man in the middle. The secondary will play better due to more pressure on the quarterback and the addition of Leon Hall. Do you share my enthusiasm on this subject?
--Michael W., Winston-Salem, N.C.

MICHAEL: Sure, but it has to be tempered because there are just so many ifs when it comes to health, education, and welfare. Let's face it. We can rail about this defense all we want, but how many units in the NFL could have survived losing a first-round pick and second-round pick from the same draft and not have difficult issues?

No one thinks the No. 1 pick, David Pollack, is going to play this year and the jury is still out on his career. It looks like Thurman is going to get a shot to come back and I love the guy, but do you want to draw straws to write his name in ink?

If you thought Takeo Spikes was too expensive, then Hartwell is a good get because he gives the young backer corps seasoning and it sounds like he brings an edge that has been missing. IF he can play and run like he did before his body blew up (and that was in 2004).

Allen, all 350 pounds of him, looks agile and seems like you can throw him right in there on short yardage and goal line and he'll help as a fourth tackle. IF he can overcome his history of injuries.

Yeah, they seem more athletic up front IF Peko continues to play well and another injury riddled guy, Jonathan Fanene, stays healthy.

And, yeah, the backers should be better IF Ahmad Brooks can harness his ample athleticism with the intangibles.

But the biggest IFs are in the secondary, aren't they? They have to play better and they will IF Deltha O'Neal gets his act together, IF Madieu Williams regains his rookie year form, IF first-round pick Leon Hall is as advertised, and IF Dexter Jackson fits into the scheme easier.

The latter two are pretty good bets. Hall oozes with 10-year-pro vibes, and Jackson is simply going to be better because he is a nine-year pro moving into his second season in the system.

In fact, I wish they'd give him a longer leash. It was pretty obvious the coaches didn't like Jackson calling out guys after the San Diego meltdown and it looked like he stepped on some guys' toes. But isn't that what leadership is and isn't that what this defense needs?

You've got to figure that after being around these guys for a year that Dexter now knows when and how to push the buttons and when not to, and I just feels he's a big part of this thing.

You're right. They've got an interesting mix right now that looks like it can do some things. But, as Marvin Lewis would say, "We'll find out."

Q: With the release of Sam Adams and the addition of the new linebackers and d-linemen, what are your thoughts of Marvin Lewis leaning toward his much beloved 3-4 defense? Do you think these moves are an indication of his move in this direction? It sounds logical to me in light of the signing of Ed Hartwell, the emergence of Ahmad Brooks, and the hush-hush of the Odell Thurman situation. Add to that the possible return of David Pollack coupled with the rest of the linebackers, it sounds like a glut of LBs for a 4-3. What are your thoughts?
--Ken W., Cincinnati, OH

KEN: Two great myths are that Marvin loves the 3-4 and that the Bengals never use it. He made his name in Baltimore's 4-3, but he took concepts from Dick Lebeau's 3-4 when he worked for him in Pittsburgh and you can see them on passing downs when the Bengals do play some 3-4.

I don't think Lewis is a 4-3 guy or a 3-4 guy. He's a multiple guy who was supposedly drooling over drafting linebacker Manny Lawson in 2006 and ready to pull the trigger to a 3-4 if they got him. And that was after they had an inkling middle linebacker Odell Thurman was going to get a four-game suspension and before they drafted middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks.

But Lawson went to the Niners two picks before the Bengals and the move cooled. And it seems like it still is.

With Robert Geathers signed up long term with big money and a third-round pick invested in Frostee Rucker, the future looks to be tied up in those 4-3 ends.

Plus, in order to play a 3-4 you need a huge two-gapping nose tackle and with the departure of Sam, they don't have that guy, and he never fancied himself as a 3-4 guy anyway because of his one-gap moves.

Another key cog in the future is a tackle who plays in the opposite style of a nose tackle in Domata Peko, a penetrating and slashing guy. There are no Casey Hamptons on this roster.

And if Thurman does indeed come back, the thinking seems to be he can wreak massive havoc at Will backer on the outside with his speed and you'd dilute him if he went inside with Brooks in a 3-4.

And Pollack has pretty much said if he comes back it's going to be as an end and not a linebacker, and he's built like a 4-3 end, too.

But the big thing is that most defenses use some form of a 3-4 on passing downs in the bid to be multiple.

The Ravens are seen as a 3-4 team, but when someone asked general manager Ozzie Newsome about it at this past scouting combine, he said he didn't really know if it was a 3-4 or 4-3 because defensive coordinator Rex Ryan keeps mixing it up so effectively with different looks.

Q: Just curious. I haven't heard anything in awhile on the status of David Pollack. Got any news?
--Scott S., Greenville, OH

SCOTT: When I asked about Pollack's status Tuesday I was told by the public relations department that nothing had changed, but I'd be shocked if he played this year and that's a pure guess with a little bit of deduction.

When they give your locker to a new free agent (Ed Hartwell) and move yours a few stalls down with nothing in it ... well, just a guess.

No 24-year-old kid could have handled it better. He's still stepped up in the community despite his injury and the commitment to his faith and message to kids through his Empower Foundation strikes even a deeper resonance now.

It sounds like he'll keep trying to come back, but as a defensive end.

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