Key is Ghee

Brandon Ghee

The Bengals defensive backs are tight.

So tight that they are always going into each other's lockers and leaving surprises. Which is why there is a picture of Brandon Ghee's newborn son Jace taped in Chris Crocker's locker that says, "You're next," in honor of the Crockers' blessed event.

And why there is a picture of the Bengals' best cover cornerback, Leon Hall, in full uniform in Ghee's locker.

Isn't that the way it always works? For the first time in his football life, Hall can no longer wear the uniform Sunday in Baltimore for another of these relentless AFC North showdowns (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), which is giving Ghee's revived career a shot. Hall's torn Achilles tendon has shelved him for the rest of the year and Ghee, a little-used second-year cornerback, has been promoted from the practice squad to take his place on the roster with all of six games of NFL experience and barely any from scrimmage.

Welcome to the AFC North race.

"It's great to be on a defense, we are a top 10 defense. I am going to step up and help the defense be No. 1 and go to the playoffs," Ghee said Monday. "I've got a lot of confidence. That is something I don't lack is confidence. I'll show it on the field."

Just how much Ghee is going to be on the field Sunday remains to be seen now that Kelly Jennings is replacing Hall opposite Nate Clements. Adam Jones, who hasn't played in a year, doesn't know if he can play this week with his pulled hamstring until he can go out to practice this week as the Bengals mull their third corner.

Crocker, the team's versatile starting safety, always seems to play at least a few snaps in the slot and the Bengals could choose to do what they did after Hall got hurt in Sunday's 24-17 loss to the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium and give him more snaps in there.

"There are certain games where that happens. He gives us a lot of versatility and plays well at the safety spot," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle. "That's a key area. Nate has played in the slot area. We're going to have to look at that closely and see where we adjust and we also have the good fortune of some safeties like Gibril (Wilson) and some younger players who haven't gotten a lot of opportunities and we'll see if there's a spot for them."

Coyle has never lost his best player like this, but he's been through this before. Just last season he had eight DBs go on injured reserve long before Jones (neck) missed the first six games of this season before pulling his hamstring. One of those guys was Ghee, lost for the season with a groin injury in the Buffalo game in that Week 10 massacre Coyle also lost Crocker for the season and cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Roy Williams for a couple of games.

In fact, Ghee says he's never been right physically since the Bengals took him in the third round in the 2010 draft out of Wake Forest until this past month. He tweaked his muscles early, suffered a concussion in a preseason game, and couldn't get on the field until the fifth game.

Then he said the lockout contributed to him injuring his hamstring in the first hours of this training camp and he couldn't get on the field this time until the preseason finale, an obligatory exercise before he got cut and then signed to the practice squad.

"It made me work harder, to be honest with you," Ghee said. "It's sad to say that getting cut may be one of the best things to happen to me. Because now I work five times harder in practice and just try to get on that field; now my opportunity is here to prove it."

What followed was a lot of heart-to-heart talks with his older brother, Patrick, a 27-year-old software engineer in Tampa, Fla. But then, they've spent their entire lives having heart-to-hearts. Patrick also played in the Wake Forest secondary (a school they liked because it had the three As of Atmosphere; Academics; Athletics) before heading into the NFL as a free agent. He played in preseason games with Seattle and Washington in 2007 and 2008, and served a stint on the Carolina practice squad.

"We talked about how many guys had been cut before they made it; like James Harrison," Ghee said of the Steelers Pro Bowl outside linebacker.

There's no question the 6-0, 194-pound Ghee has the physical tools. He's back down to 194 pounds after coming in a little heavier than normal at about 198 in an effort to bulk up and he thinks that may have contributed to why the hamstring injury lingered. He can run and don't question his ability to hit because he'll challenge anyone to go to YouTube and find his best college hits.

Plus, he's got brains. He got his degree from Wake ("No easy courses there," he says) in four years in communications and theology.

"I've seen his technique and competitiveness get better," Coyle said. "What we haven't seen is him doing it in a game. That's something he's going to have to prove when he gets out there. His coverage has been tighter. His understanding has been better than it's ever been."

Coyle has been excited about Ghee's play for a while now and the Bengals were wondering how long they could hide him on the practice squad.

"We were hoping to figure out a way to get him on," Coyle said. "There are only so many spots on the roster because there are a lot of young players you would like to have the opportunity to see. There was just no room. After the past couple of weeks in our meetings everyone has noticed that his play has started to step up. Now he'll have opportunities when the real bullets are flying."

Ghee admits that he had a ways to go to learn the game. He says the arrival of Clements this preseason along with Hall's continued mentoring has made him more NFL-ready.

"I always can cover; ain't no doubt about it," Ghee said. "I am going to be honest with you. I can cover, just a few technique issues and that is where I improved. Different schemes and stuff, technique things, but, yeah, I came a long ways. Just maturity and coming into your own. Every rookie is different. "

Coyle has often said he's blessed with two great pros in Hall and Clements and it's why he wants Hall to stick around as a kind of player-coach. Ghee has already used both.

"Of course I watch Leon and Nate, Nate helped me out a lot, too," Ghee said. "Coming in as a mature corner. He's been in the league, I don't know how many years? He's (31) years old. A long time. I'm just watching him and watch Leon work after practice and work before practice. Just watching them taught me a lot."

If Ghee is hoping to turn a negative into a positive, so is Coyle after the defense has lost arguably its most indispensable player.

"Green Bay last year, they had one of the highest numbers of guys on IR and they found a way to get guys in and make a play," Coyle said of the defending Super Bowl champs. "When you get guys hurt you find a way to get depth like with the linebacking corps. Dan Skuta being in and playing for a few weeks has made us better at linebacker and Brandon Johnson getting the snaps with Rey (Maualuga) out. You hope you don't lose games through that growth process but at the same time you can become stronger."

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