Lewis eyes second half

Posted: 8:50 p.m.

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Lewis

With his defense reeling and his team bleeding at 2-6 at the halfway point of a most disappointing NFL season, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis says his team has to become smarter and more mature, but not necessarily older.

"Older is not an answer because then you need luck, and right now I'm not benefiting from injury luck," Lewis said Tuesday in a sitdown with Bengals.com as his team embarks on the second half of the season.

"You've got to continue to draft smart guys. We had a good class with that last year," Lewis said. "You start adding those kinds of guys on top of each other then it makes a huge difference. If I can't count on you, when can I count on you? That makes a big difference."

During the 20-minute interview, Lewis isolated third-down woes as key to the poor record. He defended the club's drafting of defensive personnel and said the problems with a unit ranked next-to-last in the NFL stem from a lack of continuity.

Some of the positives? The consistent play of wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the emergence of right tackle Stacy Andrews, and Levi Jones' resurgence at left tackle.

Things that need improvement? The play of the safeties, triggering the big play on offense, and better play on punts.

Lewis also said that his tough two-hour practices aren't the reason the Bengals have lost 54 games through injury to starters and key regulars in all three phases, and that questions about adding a general manager are irrelevant when it comes to this point in the season.

Lewis' admiration of experienced players came through in Monday's news conference when he alluded to New England's bevy of veterans. On Tuesday he admitted the Bengals are missing some of that knowledge.

"That's a big perk because you understand football through and through, you understand how the big picture works, and how you fit in the schematic of things," he said.

Asked if the Bengals are lacking some of that, Lewis said, "I think we are. I think we have guys that don't quite understand it that way because they're young guys or they are new guys. Until they buy in and understand it all the time, it's hard."

Here is the transcript in full from Lewis' interview with Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com:

GH: What is the difference between this season and the previous four seasons when you contended until December or won the division? ML:
I think right now we haven't made enough plays. We've had some opportunities to make some decisive plays. We turned the football over in Cleveland and kept them in the football game. In Seattle we were unable to stop them at the end of the football game and so we lose those games. Against New England we did the same thing; we give up the explosive play and that makes the biggest difference.

So if you look at what ails us, we've had some opportunities where we haven't converted on third down offensively, we've allowed too many defensively, we've given up too many plays defensively - big plays - and we've either not defended the run at times or run the football as well as we need to offensively. They're kind of a mirror image; it's a team thing.

With the injuries we've had we struggled early on in special teams with new guys and new fits and where they belong. Particularly every day or every week there were new guys in new spots. For the first three or four weeks of the season we went through that. Now we've kind of settled in and gotten our sea legs underneath us a little bit that way and fit back to where we need to be. We've made a lot of progress in special teams. We've had the same guys with the same responsibilities for a while.

GH: You've got new guys on special teams, too, like the guys that got the penalties in the Buffalo game. ML:
That being said, those are all things they know well and you can't have those things in critical moments of the game. We're punting with the football backed up and we're punting into the wind. Those were things there that kind of worked out in their advantage that they ended up with the wind, and played a big part in that game in the fourth quarter. That was significant.

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GH: The third-down play on both sides of the ball have been the key. You've been without some key players. The complementary players on offense and the young corners on defense haven't seemed to work out. ML:**
It's made it so that we're not as efficient as we need to be, no question about it. Once you're into the season, you don't look at it like it's because of this, or because of that, or whatever. It's collectively as a group. What you've got to do is try to work the right players into the right time in the right spots and then lean on them to make the plays. And that's not quite happened. Offensively, we've had some of our guys that aren't young drop the football at inopportune times, which makes a huge difference in whether or not drives are sustained and running yardage continues, and all those kind of things. It kind of all rolls into one.

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GH: There's a stretch where the defense doesn't help you and the offense can't get back on the field. ML:**
It all has to play together. And then the field position thing makes a big difference. If you can put a couple of first downs together and even if you get stopped, then you're punting the football from the midfield area and now the other team's offense has a long field. That lessens the play-call sheet that gets severely reduced. You get more opportunities for takeaways and that sets you up for field position.

GH: Do people like Carson and Chad press at times? ML:
I think that's human nature to press and want to do things right and make the big plays. You've got to kind of guard against that and Chad has a drop where maybe he is running before he's caught it because he knows he has a chance to go out the back door and score a big touchdown there.

That play has an opportunity to go all the way. You've got to kind of let that happen. More than nine times out of 10, or 99 out of 100 he'll make that play right and effectively, and it will be a huge play for us. You've still got to rely and lean on your good players to win the games for you.

GH: What are the positives so far? ML:
We have to keep working and just do what we're doing and keep doing it better. You look at some the guys who are kind of emerging like Glenn Holt in the return game. We have a chance now for Antonio Chatman to get us going a little in the punt return game. Hopefully he'll continue to stay healthy, which will be big.

Defensively, there are some guys in different spots and we have to kind of rely on our guys up front, our experienced group up front - the defensive line - to lead us. We need our two safeties to do a better job and play better for us and become more effective players in the field whether it be down low or up high. We want to encourage them to become a bigger factor in these football games defensively and then tackle consistently.

Offensively we've got to figure out a way not only to keep running the ball effectively but make some big explosive plays. So those are things that are important as we go into the second half of this season and have an opportunity to run this table and finish where we want to finish and do those things right. It starts with the fundamental part of it.

GH: The older guys on the defensive line at the start of the season said that they've got to be the leaders. How have they done? ML:
I think we've done well in moments, but we've got to be consistent and it's got to be an all-the-time thing. You don't want to have that every-other-game inconsistency, but rather an every game consistency in what you're doing, both in making sure we are defeating and controlling the line of scrimmage up front and then winning in the pass rush game. Winning and being effective that way as in the three- and four-man rush game.

GH: It seemed Buffalo tried to take that away with chipping on Robert Geathers and Justin Smith. ML:
Well, they did some chipping and so forth, but then we should be better in pass coverage and make them check the football down and rally and make the tackles. We can't miss tackles in those situations. A couple of times we allowed plays to go on because we miss a tackle, we lose some leverage in coverage, an underneath guy makes a bigger play than he should.

GH: That's something - the inconsistency - that's dogged you for a while. ML:
You've got to have a discipline to play defense. Your eyes have to work right and they've got to be on your guy. If you're in man-to-man coverages, if you're in zone coverages, you've got to play to the proper depths and leverages and make sure you dictate where the ball is thrown in zone coverage.

GH: You talked about some of the positives. You have to put T.J Houshmandzadeh on that list. ML:
I think T.J. has really fought hard. He entered the season with a little bit of a sore knee and now since the bye when he's been able to practice he's seen his numbers go up, which has been a big positive of how important practice time on Wednesday and Thursday can be for a guy in being in sync with the quarterback. I'm hopeful that he can continue to overcome his soreness and keep doing the things he's been doing. He's been consistent. We've got to keep finding ways to get him the ball and we've got to keep blocking better at wide receiver so that our backs get some better chances at longer runs.

GH: It looked like the offensive line had everything straightened out and then had a difficult time with the Bills. ML:
We just didn't run the football effectively and we've got to do a better job of doing what we do; make sure we rely on the strengths of our guys.

GH: It would help to have Willie Anderson back. ML:
I think Willie would be a help but, again, Stacy Andrews has filled in and done a great job and has talent and ability of his own that are special.

GH: Stacy has been a bright spot, hasn't he? ML:
He's been what we expected him to be. I mean these guys you expect to go in and play well. The good thing on the other side is that Levi Jones seems to be getting stronger and better each week he plays, and that's been a positive.

GH: Any big disappointments? ML:
The execution of special teams by both the specialists and the coverage and the fact that we haven't gotten anything going in the punt return game has been disappointing to me because we have people that are a little more talented than that. And that means we have to do a better job schematically of getting these guys stopped and if we're the outside guys we've got to do a better job. Now, sometimes the punter plays a role in that in giving us a ball that you can get return yardage on, and we haven't had a whole lot of those, but still when we get opportunities we've got to do better on them.

GH: Do the young corners worry you? ML:
No, they don't worry me. I'm glad they're on our team. We might go through the growing pains with them this year; that may happen. In the big scheme of things, ultimately, we'll come out on top with those kinds of guys.

GH: You made a commitment to draft defense and that's a pretty solid decision because that's how the teams in your division have done it. But the drafts haven't panned out. ML:
It has panned out.

GH: Not well, though. ML:
It is what it is. You can't control guys that get injured. They're going to be fine, good players. Fortunately for the guys that we drafted over the four of five drafts we've had, those guys are playing for us if they're not injured. And that's a thing we can't control.

It's a violent game and you need violent people. When you can say that you're going to draft seven or eight guys in a year and you have five, six or seven of them playing productive football and of those 40 guys, 35 of them are still playing productively in the NFL, that's a pretty good job. That part of it I think I've been happy with.

GH: But you haven't really turned it around defensively. ML:
We haven't turned it around defensively, but there are two guys that are playing on defense that were playing here five years ago. That's the other part of it. Regardless of that, there are still just two guys so you're talking about nine different guys that have always been different through injury and so forth. There is no team in our division that has that many players that haven't played for three or four years together.

Unfortunately that's the situation we've been stuck with because of injury. The only way to do it is to keep putting guys on top of guys until you can settle in the same guys and they can stay healthy.

GH: So the lack of consistent lineups is the thing. ML:
That's part of it. Madieu (Williams) has played three years of football (lost one to injury). Johnathan (Joseph) is in his second year. The only guys that have played in the five years are John Thornton and Justin Smith. Everybody else has been here three years or less. Landon (Johnson) has been here four years, but played different spots because of injury each and every season. (Same could be said for strong-side linebacker Robert Geathers.)

I think that's a little bit of it. That doesn't help you, though. You just have to do it.

GH: How do you come down on all the buzz that you need a general manager? That 'Marvin wants a GM?' ML:
That's got nothing to do with how we play football. Do we run, tackle and do the things right that matter in a football game? That just gives people something else to talk about. Obviously people, when you don't win as many games as you want to and ought to, there has to be another reason. That really has nothing to do with it.

There was no GM in Baltimore until there was a Super Bowl title. That was the buzz in Baltimore before the Ravens won the Super Bowl. The fact that Ozzie (Newsome) wasn't the GM, so they couldn't win. But once they won the Super Bowl, Ozzie got the title. There's always going to be a reason. I can't worry about that right now. Nor is it my responsibility to deal with.

GH: Obviously it's a big part of what you do. ... You do have say in personnel. ML:
Again, that's got nothing to do with where we are right now in this season. It's really not a relevant question.

GH: This stuff will probably be talked about in the offseason. And it sounds like you're going to be around. Mike (Brown) came out and endorsed you. Nothing takes the sting off 2-6, but does that at least help? ML:
I didn't question that, so it doesn't affect me one way or the other.

GH: You're known as a hard driver who likes to practice hard. You guys have had a lot of injuries. Is the way you practice a factor in the number of injuries you've had? ML:
No, because our injuries are happening during games. It's not like guys are getting hurt in practice. Frostee Rucker broke a hand in practice. That's basically it. We continually trim practices as we go through the season. That doesn't change how we go about and do things. Practice didn't help Lemar Marshall tear his Achilles or Ahmad Brooks' groin. Those things happened in a game. It's a violent game and guys get injured.

GH: It's a shocking number this year. Do the groins and hamstrings and those types of injuries make you wonder? ML:
Those are injuries that guys running with the football, and those things happen. Defeating the block, playing off the block, those things can happen. There's nothing you can do about it. Guys pop Achilles all the time, unfortunately. Those can happen without anything.

GH: I know you feel like you need to get work. ML:
You have to work, otherwise you don't work together. You can't go out and play a physical game without doing the physical part of the work during the week and feel like you're going to be very good. You're not going to be in the right spots. Particularly with somewhat of a young team. We're a young group of guys, except on the defensive line and because of that we make sure we've got a pretty good blend (of youth and age) there to take some of the practice load.

GH: Do you think you're too young? ML:
It is what it is. You grow up and mature as you go, but you can end up too young through injury and we have. We're too young and too new. That's part of it.

GH: It sounded on Monday like you were lusting after those 30-year-old linebackers for the Patriots. ML:
There's a difference you can make when you go in on Wednesday and say this is your plan and this is why and they can absorb it and understand it and then when the game comes you can make adjustments with it. That's a big perk because you understand football through and through, you understand how the big picture works, and how you fit in the schematic of things.

That's a big part of it. As you grow you have to make sure you get football smart guys who take the weekly plan as a challenge to then go apply it to the opponent.

GH: Are you lacking a little bit there? ML:
I think we are. I think we have guys that don't quite understand it that way because they're young guys or they are new guys. Until they buy in and understand it all the time, it's hard. We've got to make sure we're paying attention to detail. 'If this guy moves, this is going to occur.'

GH: So when you're talking character, you're not just talking about guys that don't get in trouble off the field. ML:
You've got to continue to draft smart guys. We had a good class with that last year. We'll continue with that as time goes on in the future with another great class this year. You start adding those kinds of guys on top of each other then it makes a huge difference. If I can't count on you, when can I count on you? That makes a big difference.

GH: Do you have to get older in the future? ML:
No, I don't think you want to be older. I think you want to develop and mature. Older is not an answer because then you need luck, and right now I'm not benefiting from injury luck. I don't think you want an older football team, you want a mature football team, you want a smart, mature team that understands things.

GH: You talk about running the table in the second half. How do you do it? ML:
It comes down to those three Ts: tackling, third down and takeaways. If we do those three things right, we'll win (the last) eight games.

GH: The lack of tackling. I would imagine that's a hard thing to understand. ML:
We've just got to keep doing it. Keep doing it. Keep getting guys to the football and keep getting guys to the football. Guys who are willing are going to get the ball carrier on the ground, the receiver on the ground, the quarterback on the ground, whoever it is.

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