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Makeup test

Posted: 6:45 a.m.

The Bengals are banking on one thing Sunday when they have that rematch with the most prolific offense in the history of the Cleveland Browns.

"We couldn't play much worse," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle of September's Mistake on the Lake. "That game is one that will stick with us for a long time. We can't get it back. But we can get back a little redemption. We've talked about it and the players feel the same way."

His players say they are better than that group that allowed five touchdown passes and 328 yards to someone named Derek Anderson. Plus a total of six pass plays of at least 20 yards in giving up 51 points. And 554 total yards to a team they had shut out just six games before.

The numbers suggest they are right. The Bengals may have other issues, but as they head into this game against a big-play offense, they have allowed just one pass of 20 yards in the last three games and they've actually climbed to a tie for third in the NFL by allowing only 35 plus-20-yard plays.

And their cornerbacks haven't been beaten deep for a long touchdown since the Steelers' Hines Ward got behind rookie Leon Hall back on Oct. 28 for a 21-yarder.

"By far," said Hall on Wednesday, when asked if the Cleveland game was the worst of his life. "And on special teams, too. We looked at that film earlier today."



No one had a good day in the secondary, but it was the young cornerbacks that got fried in the spotlight. Hall got beat twice for scores, one each by wide receivers Joe Jurevicius and Braylon Edwards, and Johnathan Joseph gave up that 25-yard touchdown to tight end Kellen Winslow with 1:06 left in the first half that ignited a disturbing trend and decided the game last week when the 49ers clicked on a 17-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left in the half.

In 11 of the 14 games, foes have scored points in the final 2:06 of the half. In seven games, those points have been touchdowns.

"We're better. We're more settled. We're communicating better," said free safety Madieu Williams, who also had some communication problems on a touchdown.

Coyle says it was a combination of dropped coverages and busted plays but he also thinks he's got a different pair of corners out there.

"No question that Johnathan is healthier than he was with his (stress fracture)," Coyle said. "We had hoped it was going to be healthier than it was at that point in the season. And Leon experienced everything in that game and has bounced back not to make the same mistakes twice."

Hall lost leverage on Jurevicius and let him get inside him in the red zone, a play he stopped a few weeks later against the Jets. Edwards shimmied and shook by him on a double move for a 34-yard touchdown, a play on which he stepped in front of Bills receiver Lee Evans last month for one of his team-high four interceptions.

And Coyle winced as Hall came rushing up in run support, and then hesitated before getting washed out in Browns running back Jamal Lewis' 66-yard touchdown run.

"That wasn't the sole reason, but it was a reason that went all the way," Coyle said. "But since then he's become the best run support corner we've had here in my (seven years). A very tough guy."

That's not to say Hall still isn't going through rookie ups and downs. On Saturday night, 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill nickel and dimed him on three straight first-down passes on the first scoring drive.

"I learned there to be more aggressive at the line of scrimmage," Hall said. "Especially on third down."

Joseph says "it's no secret" his foot is better than it was Sept. 16 and "we're playing together now. We're on the same page."

They have to be. It's the ultimate makeup test. Edwards has blossomed into a Pro Bowler and Winslow has receiver numbers (14 yards per catch) with a tight end's body.

"It's his athleticism," said Hall of Edwards's big-time 17 yards per catch. "He's a tremendous jumper and he's got great hands and he's tall."

With the 6-6 Anderson gunning it to targets 6-3 and taller, the Bengals have to be particularly diligent in the red zone when it comes to the passing game. Williams says the Bengals have to be aware of the mismatches.



"I think their coordinator does a good job of getting them the ball where they can do the most damage," he said. "They run motion with Winslow. They put him in the slot. They try to get the favorable matchup."

The Bengals have an advantage in that Williams is the guy they'd like to match up on Winslow because of his corner-like coverage skills, while most teams would dread that matchup. The Bengals also have seen their middle linebacker, Landon Johnson, run down the field with a receiving tight end like Todd Heap and last week's last-second touchdown to Niners tight end Vernon Davis had more to do with Johnson's angle than speed.

"I'd like to see him, but you don't know how the game is going to play out," Williams said.

Head coach Marvin Lewis hopes his guys have taken notes off that first game.



"They have some big guys at receiver and do a good job of catching the football," Lewis said. "They run a lot of double routes, vertical weaves, stutters, and things like that. We have to do a good job of playing top-down and playing smart and understanding the coverage, where your responsibility is, and where the help will come from.

"We dropped some coverage in the first game, and they had a lot of explosive plays, both in the passing and running games. It's difficult to overcome those plays when you don't make them earn it."

He too has taken note of the problems late in the half.

"It's always good to score before halftime, which for a couple years we were very good at. We're not as good at that right now," Lewis said. "We've given up far too many points going into the final drive before halftime. They've started with two minutes to go. They've started with three minutes to go. They've started with four minutes to go, and they've been all varying lengths and ways.

"That's got to be something that we look at during the offseason and figure out why. I don't think guys are relaxing, but maybe they're pressing, and just why are the plays occurring. Why are third downs being converted instead of stopped? Many of them have happened on third down, with conversions and scores, and that's big as well."

Joseph said it's huge "because whether you're the offense or defense, you get some kind of a lift when you come out for the second half."

It's one of those things that Coyle can't put a finger on.

"I do know that we emphasize it. We talk about it and we know we can't let it keep happening and we haven't executed it," he said.

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