Jack of all trades

Nate Clements

Leon Hall and Nate Clements, the Bengals starting cornerbacks, aren't all that different.

Sure, one is Ohio State (Clements) and one is Michigan (Hall). And one is younger. (Hall was a Vista High School standout in suburban San Diego when Clements was taken with the draft's 21st pick in 2001.) And one has played in a Pro Bowl (Clements, 2004) while one has been to the playoffs twice (Hall, 2009 and '11).

But both are physical, smart, passionate and now that Clements is playing a good bit of safety, Hall knows what they've got.

"We can put him anywhere," Hall said this week, making sure Clements heard him at the next locker. "Maybe he's going to be the backer in our dime package. You never know, but I can promise you he'll know what to do when you put him in there."

Clements cackled. This safety business is starting to grow on him. During Thursday night's game against the Packers he noticed long-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson roaming at strong safety at the age of 35. And turning 33 the day before the Bengals play in Philadelphia this December, Clements is watching defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer trying to find the right matchups.

"It's exciting. I never know where I'm going to be," Clements said. "You're put in a position where you can do a little bit of everything. Moving around in different positions is fun. (Zimmer will) come up with something different. That's what keeps it exciting. Different schemes, different blitzes … ."

Hall is warming to it, too.

"I like the idea of him moving around because he knows the defense well," Hall said. "It's always comforting to have someone out there that knows what they're doing. It can help you. The guy's a jack of all trades."

Their styles are so similar that Hall may very well be talking about himself in the next few years. There are those at Paul Brown Stadium that believe Hall is so smart, physical and rangy that he'd be a Pro Bowl safety once he stops being a top corner. The Bengals don't think he's reached that point yet and while the three-headed corner of Hall and Terence Newman with Clements flopping back and forth hasn't had much exposure in the preseason, they think it can be effective.

Hue Jackson, the former head coach of the Raiders and an offensive guru that is presently Zimmer's alter ego as the club's assistant coach for the secondary and special teams, detests versatile defenses as an offensive mind.

"(The offense) has so many different personnel packages that things you thought were a matchup for you won't be a matchup for you anymore," Jackson said. "Anytime you have those kind of guys, safety to corner, corner to safety, the safety covering the No. 3 receiver, it gives your defense flexibility. Mike's done a great job of finding different ways to use our guys' talents."

Jackson thinks the injuries at cornerback may, in the end, help guys like safeties Reggie Nelson and Jeormy Miles sharpen their corner skills.

"You go to training camp and all of a sudden a guy goes down," Jackson said. "Zim's not opposed and Marvin (Lewis) is not opposed to stick this guy at corner or that guy at safety. I think all of our guys understand the different roles. As you start to cut the team down, everybody has to have a role to play, but get in the game and anything can happen and all the guys have to know all those different spots."

Clements knows the most spots and after 12 years he says the thing that has changed the most in the NFL are the rules and not so much the emphasis on passing. And, he says the tight ends are built more like wide receivers, so "you need packages that can cover them," he said.

The Bengals have had a notorious time against tight ends lately. They allowed Rob Gronkowski his first NFL touchdown in 2010, a season they gave up a 52-yarder to Jimmy Graham of New Orleans, a 45-yarder to New England's Aaron Hernandez in his first game, and a 39-yarder to Baltimore's Todd Heap. Then last year the Bengals allowed 100-yard games to Houston's Owen Daniels and San Francisco's Vernon Davis.

Of course, those guys put numbers up on everybody, all the more reason teams have to find an answer. So why not a corner masquerading as a safety if they have a wide receiver masquerading as a tight end?

"The tight end position has grown," Jackson said. "The (Rob) Gronkowskis. The Jimmy Grahams. Obviously the kid here, (Jermaine) Gresham. They're good blockers and they're also unbelievable receivers, so you need to cover those guys and they're hard to cover. You've got to make sure that you have guys that can cover those guys in space."

Clements, in the last year of his deal, has no plans to retire and would like to keep playing. He's not sure if playing safety extends his career, but he likes it.

"I know at 12 years it's sooner rather than later," he said. "When my time comes, I'll know."

But it's not yet. The revival is on.

"The wily senior citizen," said Hall, making sure Clements heard him.

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