Hobson's Choice: Re-making of a defense

Q: With the development of Pollack and Thurman in the system for a season and Williams back from his shoulder injury and the additions of big Sam Adams and Jackson, do you think the Bengals are going to give the Steelers and the rest of the AFC a tough way to go this season? I have believed since Marvin got here that all we needed was his nasty kind of defense to go along with that high- octane offense in order for us to go all the way. **--Vic, Louisville, KY

VIC:**
The Bengals already gave the Steelers a tough way last year without Adams, Jackson, Williams, and an inexperienced Thurman and Pollack, so on paper it should be an even tougher go to get past Cincinnati this trip, pending, of course, the health of one C. Palmer. But the biggest thing this defense has going for it is that it's in the second year of Chuck Bresnahan's system.

Players are simply going to be more comfortable with the checks and calls and, hopefully, the philosophy. It looked, at times, like there was an inner battle going on for the heart and mind of the defense with all those three-man lines sprinkled liberally through a 4-3 base.

That seems to be getting hashed out even though Marvin Lewis won't tell us if he's playing a 3-4 or a 4-3, and he may not even know until they draft. But like Lewis said last month, you can't be both.

Even more important than all that (and let's face it, everything is a variation of a 3-4 and 4-3, anyway) is the developing persona of this unit. You're right. It's growing a chip.

They took a lot of heat last year, but they also came up with an identity as a heady, resourceful and resilient group that led the NFL in turnovers. People like to write the picks and fumbles off as luck, but its all part of Lewis' plan. Speed plus smarts plus force creates havoc and mistakes.

They finally have some swagger and chippiness in Thurman, and as he plays more and better (like he did in the last three games), Pollack is going to bring even more attitude to it. You really have to love Pollack's study habits, and that brings a certain presence. And of course Adams personified nasty with last week's damn near Bill Shakespeare (or Parcells) soliloquy about playing mean and looking for the edge even outside the agreed upon rules of the gridiron.

The addition of the 340-pound (?) Adams gives the Bengals-Steelers rivalry a completely different dimension. No longer can Pittsburgh just assume by divine right that it will run it down Cincinnati's throat because it can.

And Jackson gives them something they've never had in a key performer off a perennial top five defense that has won a ring.

It's the Bengals, quite naturally, that have the tough way until Palmer gets back. But Cleveland and Baltimore have closed the gap, everybody in the division has to play bits and parts of this tough schedule and if it gets to be a 9-7 demolition derby, who knows?

How about both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati coming into a winner-take-all Dec. 31 game at 8-7 and the loser going home and the victor taking the North?

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