Hobson's Choice: In the middle of it all

Q: Okay, Geoff, here's what I don't get. We're starting Brian Simmons in the middle and Landon Johnson on the outside. Fine. What happens when Odell comes back in October? Assuming Marvin lets Odell play, does Brian move back to the outside? If so, doesn't that disrupt the chemistry the unit has spent a couple months building?

For my money, it seems strange we wouldn't put Landon at MLB, since he did well there in '04. Causes less of a change when Odell gets back.

So, is this short-term thinking on the part of the coaches, or does it say something else about Odell's future with the Cincinnati Bengals? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
**--John, #1 Bengals Fan in Lawrence KS

JOHN:** Actually, it's probably more long-term than anything else. At 228-230 pounds, Landon is built and runs like a Will backer and is probably more suited to play there down the road. Simmons' savvy and seasoning is something they haven't had in the middle since, well, Simmons was last there in 2002.

Think about it. When head coach Marvin Lewis' staff arrived in 2003 and moved Simmons to the outside, they replaced him with Kevin Hardy. Hardy was just the kind of pro this team needed off the Club Med season of 2002, but he had never played middle linebacker before.

And then when he moved over to strong side in 2004, they only had three games in the middle with Nate Webster before he went down for the season, and Webster was a guy starting for the first time in his career, anyway.

No question that Landon came in and was terrific in replacing Webster with a team-high 133 tackles. So quiet, so solid, so tough. Remember, he did that with a banged-up shoulder and ended up gutting it out from the preseason playing with his shoulder in a harness.

But it was a move made more out of necessity than anything else and they determined that if they could find a bigger, more prototypical middle backer they would get him so they could leave Johnson at his more natural outside spot and take the shoulder out of that pounding in the middle.

So they took Thurman when he fell to the second round of the 2005 draft because of his off-field problems and the rest is history, not to mention hysteria.

Let's be clear. Losing Thurman is a huge blow to this defense. Those five picks and four forced fumbles show how instinctive and explosive he is roaming in the middle of the field.

But there were also an inordinate amount of times the coaches wanted to strangle him because he also had a knack of making big mistakes, starting with Frisman Jackson's 68-yard touchdown catch in Cleveland in the opener, and a mis-timed third-down blitz against the Steelers that revived a key Pittsburgh touchdown drive early in the game with an offsides penalty.

The kid, of course, is going to get better, and if he can turn his life around, he should go to the Pro Bowl. The only point is that the Bengals shouldn't have those kind of mistakes in the first four games with Simmons in the middle. Of course, maybe they wouldn't have those mistakes either if Thurman had been eligible because he would have been a year wiser. But suffice to say they trade some playmaking for reliability in the first four games.

But, the thing is, Simmons has made his share of plays in his seven seasons here. Yeah, OK, I'm an unabashed Simmons guy and there are those of you who have made a cottage industry of ripping him.

But look it up. He's versatile and productive and he'll get people lined up.

The big question is, how do they play the preseason, since Thurman is eligible to participate before getting iced Sept. 4?

Maybe another reason putting Simmons in the middle is you can still give Thurman a good number of snaps during the preseason because Simmons has been through it all before and won't need a crash course. Like he said at minicamp last month after he returned to the middle, it's like riding a bike.

Thurman isn't a lock to return to the lineup for the Oct. 15 game in Tampa Bay, but the bye week will help. Who sits when he does come back is anyone's guess, but I think they would rotate it anyway. Simmons already plays the middle in some substitution packages.

But a future with Thurman and 260-pound rookie Ahmad Brooks is real interesting. Now you've got two inside backers for a 3-4.

Sure, like Thurman, Brooks has also had problems in college. But there's the same kind of rustling around Brooks now that was around Thurman at this time last year. The Bengals may have found something.

(The word at Virginia is if Brooks had been 220 pounds, he would have been the Cavs' best running back. At 240, their best tight end. As it was, they stuck him back there to return a kickoff once for the first time in his career and he popped a 50-yarder.)

Bryan Robinson and John Thornton can be D-ends, and Sam Adams, Domata Peko, and Shaun Smith are built like 3-4 nose tackles.

That's way down the road, but Thurman is still very much a Bengal if he can get straightened out.

Just for the heck of it, here's a list of Simmons' five biggest plays that ran with a story last season. He's made some things happen:

Dec. 4, 2005: The Bengals are locked in a surprising shootout with the Steelers at Heinz Field. It is 14-14 early in the second quarter and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have traded two touchdowns on four straight possessions. But Simmons stops the Steelers by leaping in the air and tipping a Ben Roethlisberger pass to himself at the Steelers 32 and returning it 16 yards. The Bengals score six plays later to get the upper hand in a 38-31 win that virtually gives them their first AFC North title.

Oct. 19, 2003: The 1-4 Bengals, off a bye week, are starting slowly at Paul Brown Stadium, and it has all the aroma of an ugly 1-5. The Ravens are up 7-0 and are about to take a 14-0 lead. Certain death with record-setting Jamal Lewis and the Baltimore running game. But Simmons grabs victory from the jaws of defeat, not to mention the ball from Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller for a fumble recovery at the Ravens 47. Moments later, Jon Kitna and Matt Schobel stun the Ravens with a 45-yard touchdown pass on third-and-a-million for a 7-7 tie midway through the first quarter. The Bengals go on to win, 34-26, and win six of their next seven to establish the Marvin Lewis era.

Sept. 19, 2004: PBS is all decked out for its first prime-time game in seven years in the Sunday night home opener, but the Carson Palmer era in Cincinnati has started shakily in his second NFL start. The Bengals trail the Dolphins at the half, 3-0, but Simmons steps in front of quarterback A.J. Feeley's sideline pass at midfield three minutes into the second half and takes it 50 yards for the only Bengals touchdown of the game. It allows Palmer to play his best football of the night in the final 1:53, when he bangs seven of eight passes for 53 yards to set up Shayne Graham's winning 39-yard field goal with two seconds left. And a quarterback is born.

Sept. 23, 2001: The Bengals are trying to go to 2-0 for the first time since 1995 and, yes, they are trying to do it against Lewis's defending Super Bowl champion Ravens at PBS. The Ravens, behind the torturous play of quarterback Elvis Grbac, are driving for more than 10 plays in what looks to be a deflating half-ending touchdown in a tight game. But a Grbac pass gets batted in the air once, twice, and Simmons leaps up to grab it in the end zone. Baltimore gets no points, and the Bengals go on to dominate the second half in a 21-10 victory that is one of the most impressive in memory.

Oct. 26, 2003: The 2-4 Bengals are protecting a 27-24 lead against Seattle in the last six minutes at PBS and Shaun Alexander and the Seahawks keep coming. Simmons intercepts a Matt Hasselbeck pass deflected by tackle Oliver Gibson at the Bengals 34. Then, with just under two minutes left and Seattle in field-goal range, Simmons deflects a Hasselbeck pass that is caught by cornerback Jeff Burris at the Bengals 24 to end it.

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