8-15-03, 4:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ For the life of him, Kevin Kaesviharn, who already has about three or four interceptions himself, couldn't remember the defense coming up with even one interception at last year's training camp.
As if to underscore the new scheme's emphasis on strangling the pass with more versatile safety play, there seems to be at least one pick a day here at Georgetown College for a defensive backfield that has been struggling for identity and interceptions since they came up with 24 in 1996.
In the ensuing six seasons, Bengals' defensive backs have scrounged for barely double that with a total of 52 interceptions. Last year, they allowed a franchise-high 30 touchdown passes, second worst in the NFL, while getting just two interceptions from their safeties.
But head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are trying to shake that dubious legacy with a defense that prefers to dictate its own personnel rather than reacting to the offense.
"I think you can already see that. Look at how many passes we've broken up," Kaesviharn said. "That was a big deal last year in camp. Now it's like an every day thing. That's the way it should be."
Kaesviharn, making the conversion from cornerback, is one of the central figures in the riveting roster battle at safety, where six veterans are leaping for a jump ball at
both starting spots and the four or five roster slots. After new Lions coach Steve Mariucci brings in his version of the West Coast Saturday night that spit out 42 passes last week against the Steelers, the Bengals feel they will have a much better idea where they stand with their safeties after they tangle for about a half with Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington.
"We'll have a better picture after this game because of what we'll see," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle. "We still have to find the guys that can do those things and we may make some changes in the rotation, which we're already doing on the practice field. And we have another game after this that's going to have some bearing on how it shakes out. And I'm talking about who is going to play, not just who is going to make team."
The picture is murky, but two things are pretty clear. They have different roles than last year as Lewis stresses the interchangeability of the two spots. And they figure to be replaced early and often Saturday as the Bengals try get a look at some of them playing with the first-team front seven.
Spicing matters is the NFL debut of Detroit rookie wide receiver Charlie Rogers, the second pick in the draft who sat out the 26-13 victory over Pittsburgh with an open dislocation of his left ring finger. Although the Lions are saying wideout Az Hakim is doubtful with a swollen knee, the Bengals expect him to make his first appearance of the season.
(Remember what Hakim did the last time he was here with the Rams in '99? He scored four touchdowns on three passes and a kick return.)
"Last year, it just seemed like no matter what defense it was, it was dedicated to stopping the run and the way it worked out, we weren't stout against the pass," Mark Roman said. "I was up (to the line of scrimmage) more last year. I'm in the box this year, too, only because the defense dictates it. This year, we call the defense based on what we want to do. I just look at our defense and everybody is where they should be."
All six have their strengths. Roman starts at free and Marquand Manuel at strong Saturday, just like they did last week against the Jets . The 195-pound Roman can hit as well as run with you down field. Manuel knows the playbook frontwards and backwards, and is simply better now in his second season.
They figure to be replaced fairly early in the game by Kaesviharn at free or Rogers Beckett at strong, or Lamont Thompson at free or JoJuan Armour at strong.
Kaesviharn has been the team's best ballhawk since they picked him up in a South Dakota gym class two years ago, and the 6-2, 205-pound Beckett brings 29 NFL starts to one of the defense's headiest positions. The second-year Thompson has shown flashes of the range that got him drafted in the second round, and they saluted Armour's toughness and run-stopping ability by making him the special teams captain last week.
Now they have to find which two do the most for a system that has put a premium on combining both tackling and coverage skills.
Lewis and Frazier are making no bones about what they're trying to do. They don't want to sub very often because they want to be the ones making the offense sub off of what they do. So they need the safeties to be both tacklers and cover guys, which is why Roman and Kaesviharn are so valued as transplanted cornerbacks.
"He wants speed back there," said the 6-1, 195-pound Kaesviharn. "He doesn't want the traditional Donovin Darius, 6-3, 240-pound safety. He wants a guy that can cover. You want to make a hit now and then, but the bottom line is just get the guy on the ground. No matter what the offense does, we'll (stick with the plan), so he's looking for all-down players. I think I do have an edge (from playing corner) and I hope they take it into consideration, but it's a tough competition."
After a slow start, Kaesviharn is becoming more comfortable in the middle of the field. He felt it showed against the Jets on two plays. He had the running back on a draw play, and when a line stunt freed tackle Tony Williams to make the hit, Kaesviharn came up to finish off the play. Then, on a blitz, Kaesviharn had to cover the tight end and since he anticipated the quarterback knew he had to get it rid of it quickly, he moved up closer to the line and forced an incomplete pass.
"I'm adjusting," Kaesviharn said. "Now it's time to come up with some big plays and turn this thing around."
That's what they had in mind when they skimmed the waiver wire for a guy like Beckett. This is no just-a-guy college free agent. He arrived with 29 career starts in his first three seasons, and started 10 last year before new Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer began his shuffling of the San Diego secondary by benching Beckett. The purge is almost done with safety Ryan McNeil getting cut a few days ago.
"The only DB left from when (head coach Mike) Riley was there is Tay Cody and they're trying to trade him," Beckett said. "At the end, they were playing passive, a lot of Cover 2 (zone), and that's not how I like to play. I like to be on my toes. I'm looking to be reliable and accountable. That's what you need back there."
Ironically, Beckett favorably compares this scheme to the one that former Chargers defensive coordinator Joe Pascale crafted during the time he took Beckett in the second round out of Marshall in the 2000 draft, a few years after Pascale left that 1996 Bengals' defense as linebackers coach. Pascale put Beckett at free, but Beckett remembers how hard-hitting Rodney Harrison became a Pro Bowler in that scheme at strong safety. He'd like to have the same impact on this defense.
"A guy like that can set the tone of your defense," Beckett said. "That's the position I want to establish here at that strong safety position. You come up and hit, they have to respect it. If they don't respect you, a lot of things can happen."
The Bengals are hoping Thompson can play with some more veteran presence after a tentative rookie season he tried to grasp the defense. Yes, the Bengals would like to see him hit, but they also want to see him play with the same confidence he used to become the Pac-10's all-time interception leader, and Coyle is seeing progress.
"Everyone has made progress mentally and we've seen some good things out of Lamont there," Coyle said. "In (Wednesday's practice), he had a couple of difficult checks to make and he was right on top of it. Those are the kinds of things we have to find out about Lamont in game situations. A year ago, he was kind of feeling his way with the scheme, but with the limited chances he's had, we've been pleased his progress. It comes down to getting those guys out there and getting those snaps."
The biggest snaps so far come on Saturday night.