Safety George Iloka turned out to be a nice find in the fifth round.
There is heavy traffic at safety, but George Iloka has plenty going for him as the Bengals prepare to play the Jets at Paul Brown Stadium Saturday in a 7 p.m. preseason game.
First of all, Iloka started 16 games for the NFL's third-ranked defense at the safety opposite Reggie Nelson.
Secondly, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis admires his work and thinks he's a player on the rise in his third year and second as a starter.
Thirdly, stat machines like profootballfocus.com say Iloka not only didn't give up a touchdown last year, but he also had the league's ninth best passer rating of NFL safeties when quarterbacks threw into his area.
So maybe Iloka had just one interception in his first season (a flat-on-his-back-job-on-a-tip in the next to last game) and had the same number of passed defensed (six) as defensive end Carlos Dunlap. But that's not the full story when it comes to this training camp and Iloka's bid to keep his starting job.
"He didn't come up with many interceptions, if he had one at all. But maybe there's more opportunity there," Lewis said. "The thing is, the ball gets closed down the middle of the field, and that's good. If we're in the half or whatever coverage we're on, he executed the coverage and did a nice job. He played all year with a broken hand, and I think this coming year he's healthy now and should really make a big difference in everything he's doing."
That broken hand showed his intensity, emotion, and gumption, much of what had been on display during Wednesday's practice. It will be recalled that Iloka had a starring role in HBO's Hard Knocks last year when he punched the helmet of rookie linebacker Jordan Campbell after the two got entangled in a special teams drill. Iloka had the quote of camp with its "probably the most regretful thing I've ever done and I've done some dumb things. But this is the most regretful in terms of consequences," but he came back to start Opening Day.
On Wednesday he had some players grousing on offense with his two shots on rookie wide receiver Colin Lockett after two passes. On the second one, Lockett didn't take Iloka's hand and got up himself as the two exchanged words.
"The quarterback shouldn't throw it there. That's hard. That's football. I wouldn't take my hand either," Iloka said. "I was just practicing and stuff happens when you're practicing full speed. Obviously you want to keep the guys up. Those are your teammates. We're not playing the Bengals. We're playing the Steelers, we're playing the Browns, we're playing the Ravens and those other teams, so obviously I want to keep those guys up.
"But they're working on their craft like I'm working on my craft. Sometimes collisions happen, but today they just happened more than usual."
Iloka's not backing down in this scrum at his position. During the offseason they brought in Danieal Manning, a highly respected veteran of 91 NFL starts and two playoff teams, to spice the numbers game at a safety spot already loaded down with a niche player like Taylor Mays and a special teams ace like Shaun Williams.
Manning is starting to come on after recovering from last year's broken leg in Houston and learning a different system than what he has had with the Bears and Texans. The coaches compare his brains and versatility to Chris Crocker, but while Crocker was here because of how he backed up cornerback Leon Hall in the slot they see Manning as more of a conventional safety.
With No. 1 pick Darqueze Dennard here, they've got their slot backup to Hall and cornerback Terence Newman can do it in a pinch.
"It's getting to the rest of the nuances of the defense that (Manning has) had a chance to do," Lewis said. "He plays fast. I think that's what shows his experience. It allows him to go out there and play fast. He knows this is a very competitive situation, so he brings that to the table. I thought he really stepped up and played well when the lights came on."
Manning, who turned 32 last week, is an elder statesman and he politely deflects questions about competition. He's having a tough enough time with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
"I'm coming in here working and trying to get a job," Manning said. "At the same time I have to learn. If I'm not learning, there's no way I'll be able to compete on the level you need to compete. It's a constant. Trying to learn something every day. Especially going against Hue, who doesn't really give you certain keys on how they line up. You have to expand the playbook a little bit. It's been a challenge with the new system…But it's a great defense. You can see it. Every year it's top five or three."
The linchpin of it all at safety is Nelson and a steel-belted belief not to give up six points.
"If it's not my play to make," Iloka said, "I'm not going to leave my half of the field to make somebody else's play. That's how we do stuff. It looks nice. Have a lot of turnovers. But you check the stats and the secondary won't give up many yards, either. As a whole, we don't have many interceptions as other teams, but we're in the top five, top ten in terms of passing yards. So it's give-and-take. You want interceptions, you take risk."
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and his predecessor Mike Zimmer don't like risk. Guenther is more of a horse player when it comes to the blitz game, but neither of them like fooling around with the back end of the defense. It's where touchdowns should go to die and that's how Iloka was raised after being the last pick in the fifth round in 2012.
(By the way, two pretty good picks to finish the fifth round in the rubble of all the hype. While Mel Kiper Jr. was in a commercial break, Marvin Jones and Iloka arrived.)
"That's just how Zim was when he was here," Iloka said. "As young as I was in the secondary with older guys, I felt like I had a small leash. If I ever gave up a touchdown, I can't afford that. As I should. It's my first year starting. He just taught me to play top down and keep everything in front of me and make sure I get a tackle, break up passes, and you get your interceptions in due time. That's been my mentality."
But Iloka is a bright guy and he's looking for more turnovers. He's studying better angles, quicker steps. He just wants to do it the right way.
"Who doesn't want more picks?" Iloka asked. "I find a lot of picks are tips and overthrows. You just have to put yourself in that position to be there to make a play on the ball. A small percentage of interceptions are because he jumped the route. At least at the safety position. The corner position is different. The safety position, if you're out there gambling and jumping, you've probably given up just as many touchdowns. If you check the sheets, I don't give up touchdowns. I'll take it. But I want to make more play on the ball and that's what I'm working on."
And fourth of all, well, Lewis likes him.
"We're expecting,' he said, "George to continue to grow."