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Hobson's Choice: Secondary in primary spot

Q: As of now, what part of the defense do you see to be the weakest and which would you consider to be the strongest? I think we all know that if the offensive line is able to protect Carson and block for the backs the offense will be clearly the best in the division, if not the entire league. That being said, we are just a decent defense away from sheer dominance. It seems to me that the weakest part of the defense is possibly the linebacker position (as of now) and the strongest part would have to be the line. We are very deep at DT and we have two Pro Bowl-caliber ends in Smith and Geathers. What are your thoughts?
--Michael W., Winston-Salem, N.C.

MICHAEL: With the addition of Leon Hall, the secondary has to be viewed as the defense's strength as home of the last two No. 1 picks and the man looking to reach his potential as the defense's top player in Madieu Williams.

Agreed that the backers are the group that has to come the farthest. There a lot of "Wills" and "Is" when you let your most experienced guy go in Brian Simmons' 121 games.

Will Ahmad Brooks marry his premier physical skills with maturity? Will Ed Hartwell come back from injuries? Is Rashad Jeanty a one-year wonder?

Also agreed that they are deeper and better at tackle because they are going to get more snaps out of one of their top young players in Domata Peko while adding the solid production of a 10-year guy in Michael Myers to go along with the consistency and professionalism of John Thornton.

And, yes, Smith and Geathers are good players and even though they're not viewed as elite pass rushers, they are certainly very solid 1-AA guys.

But from a sheer talent standpoint, the secondary is where they have their best athletes. You've got three first-round cornerbacks in Deltha O'Neal, Johnathan Joseph and Hall, as well as two second-rounders in Williams and cornerback Keiwan Ratliff.

You can gripe about O'Neal, but he's one season removed from the Pro Bowl, and you can groan about Ratliff, but no one on the team has better hands, and when they gave him most of O'Neal's snaps in the spring practices he responded with the most consistent play over an extended period in his career.

They think Williams can do some great things, and if he does come near the Pro Bowl heights once predicted for him he can take this defense to another level. He doesn't have to be Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu or Bob Sanders. But if he can just be the very consistent Madieu Williams of '06 with a few more big plays, that may be enough.

Q: How much of an impact will Leon Hall have on the secondary? I know he is supposed to be wonderfully talented and have an innate sense for the game, but I always must wonder how much a rookie will really affect his ball club. Can he bring our secondary from last in the league to somewhere around 20th or lower? Is that realistic?
--James B., Cincinnati, OH

JAMES: Of course not. He's Leon Hall, not Ponce de Leon. But he's part of a core of guys that make them faster and younger and, they hope, better.

If you're wondering how much of an impact a rookie can have, you only have to look at what Johnathan Joseph did last year. Like Hall, Joseph is a corner. Like Hall, he is a first-round pick. Like Hall probably will be, Joseph started out as the third corner on passing downs.

By midseason, Joseph was a valued starter injecting the secondary with speed and ball-hawking that translated into 19 pass breakups and during one stretch they allowed 26 points in 14 quarters with him as a starter.

Yes, in the last two games Joseph had a bad pass interference penalty in Jay Cutler's 99-yard drive in Denver and was part of a secondary that got lit for 280 yards by Ben Roethlisberger.

But he also nearly chased down Santonio Holmes in overtime even though he was coming from San Antonio, and he did more good things than bad.

Given that Hall got more college playing time and is technically sounder than Joseph, he should give the Bengals the same kind of help and will certainly give them a more physical presence on the corner in the running game.

But Hall can't take them to No. 20 by himself. He needs help from his fellow young turks, namely Joseph, Brooks, Peko, and third safety Marvin White.

How about an offense that converts key third downs, too?

In the three-game meltdown that ended the season, the offense stayed on the field just 33 percent (13-39) of the time. Throw in two huge special-team gaffes in the last two games, and it wasn't just the defense.

Q: What is the status of Adam Kieft? Is he going to be able to play this year, or are we going to have to move on and give another guy that roster spot? As always I appreciate your insight and candor.
--W. Dunn, Germantown, OH

W: Kieft, the Bengals' fifth-round pick in 2005, is looking at getting back on the field right around the second-year anniversary of his devastating knee injury.

Kieft, teammate of center Eric Ghiaciuc at Central Michigan, really impressed them as a man mountain that moved so well when they put him at left tackle. That's where he tore the ACL in his left knee (as well as everything else) in the Mock Game on Aug. 6 that ended the first week of training camp in 2005.

It's been a struggle. Last year was a wash, proving it's so much tougher for a big guy to come back from that type of injury. Plus, he suffered much more damage than the guy he was compared to in Carson Palmer.

Kieft was all set to come back this spring, but he suffered a stress fracture in his foot, which isn't all that uncommon for someone who has put in so much rehab. Kieft indicated a few weeks ago he thought he'd be ready for training camp, or at least early on.

The interesting thing will be to see how much of that mobility has stayed with him the last two years. Where he stands with them is anyone's guess and they obviously don't know until he practices. But if can move like he did at 6-7, 330 pounds (and no one has worked harder), he'll get a nice long look.

Q: Now that the anti-trust lawsuit has been thrown out, will the Bengals start on getting an indoor practice facility?
--Reggie B., Kingman, AZ

REGGIE: The lawsuit was one of the obstacles but it's still an idea somewhere on a board even though that issue has been resolved.

There is still the question of the tight spaces on the practice fields adjoining Paul Brown Stadium, as well as how often the Bengals would use it.

And, even if the go-ahead came today, it still wouldn't be ready in time to be used this upcoming December and January.

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