Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is getting excited about his young safeties.
After watching Taylor Mays wreak physical havoc for the third straight game Thursday and Jeromy Miles run stride for stride with Packers Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings to knock away a fourth-down bomb, Lewis sees both of them having an impact opposite Reggie Nelson at the other safety.
The 6-4, 230-pound Mays gives the Bengals a linebacker-type and the 6-2, 210-pound Miles gives them some range as defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer looks to mix and match.
"No. 1, Taylor's physical presence back there. He's really become a confident player as far as what we're doing and helping other guys," Lewis said after Friday's walkthrough. "I think he wants to be good. Now he missed a tackle (Jennings on the sideline) … but he's been an excellent tackler and I hope that continues to be the way that it is.
"And I think Jeromy has the versatility. He's a great blitzer, he has a chance to come up and play nickel and do some things for us in special situations. When you're playing against tight ends that flex out and do those types of things, you have some flexibility with a Jeromy Miles."
Thursday's game marked a year to the day the 49ers dealt Mays to Cincinnati for a seventh-round pick next year, a shocking move by a San Francisco team that had drafted him in the second round out of USC in 2010. But the Niners had a new regime and thought he didn't display enough instincts.
But he's got a new life in Cincy, not to mention a starting job. Secondary coach Mark Carrier says Mays has responded to his challenge during the offseason to learn to play safety and be more than just an athlete.
"I think I still have a lot of potential to reach, but being here with these coaches has unlocked some of that. Playing with athleticism is the main thing," Mays said Friday. "I feel like I made a lot of strides coming from OTAs to minicamp. That was the most important thing knowing what I needed to do and how they wanted me to play defense. I feel good where I am right now but I have to keep pushing my game. I feel content right now but I just have to keep going."
For the third straight game, a Mays hit drove a player from the game. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga says Mays got him in the opener when they both converged for a tackle and Maualuga sprained his MCL. Last week Mays collided with Maualuga's rookie backup, Vontaze Burfict, when they made a tackle and give him a concussion.
On Thursday night Mays drilled Packers tight end Tom Crabtree the moment he caught a 22-yard pass over the middle with what looked to be a lethal, legal hit that was shoulder-to-shoulder even though Mays was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet blow on a defenseless receiver.
"I didn't take Rey out. He's saying I did but I'm not accepting that one," Mays said. "I should (have physical presence). I weigh almost 240 pounds. I should be. There are some plays where I could have been more physical still and if that's the best part of my game I need to show it all the time."
What Lewis is envisioning is a defense that fits personnel for all situations. It's why he's been using cornerback Nate Clements at safety. If Nelson is 1 and Mays and Miles are 2A and 2B, then Clements is 3.
"You want to have 16 or 17 guys who feel like they're starters on each side of the ball, then you're a much better football team," Lewis said. "And I think we're going to have that defensively."
LEWIS CLARIFIES: Mays was at the center of one of those controversial plays dogging the replacement officials. On Thursday night, Lewis questioned the penalty called on Mays's hit, saying "there is no such thing as a defenseless player unless he is hit in the head with your head; it was a misinterpretation of the rule" since Mays blasted Crabtree with his shoulder.
But on Friday Lewis, a member of the NFL Competition Committee, rebooted after he saw the tape.
"The one thing I neglected to say is you could have a defensive receiver if you were hit in the head by a shoulder or by a forearm. Like we say all the time, our officials are instructed to aggressively enforce the player safety rules, and that's what's going to happen," he said.
"We'll continually coach our guys to lower the strike zone, and I thought Taylor did a good job of that. Let's get a guy strapped to him a little tighter so it doesn't have to be that kind of play. Let's get that ball batted in the air so it's an interception for us."
With the replacement officials getting grilled daily, Lewis doesn't see the differences in the college and pro games as so wide that they can't translate it.
"I think they've worked really hard. They've had clinics during the week to really continue to reinforce the time they spend looking at the games and reviewing the games to get up to speed," Lewis said. "Now I can tell you from the terms of the competition committee, as we sit with the head of the NCAA officials and their rule-making body, our rules are starting to merge together pretty good. Our rules are getting closer to their rules and their rules are getting closer to our rules. They have the same concerns in college football that we do."