New look backers on display

5-17-04, 5:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Nate Webster removes his cap and gown and steps into the middle of the Bengals defense for the first time Tuesday.

"I'm anxious," said Webster Monday as the new middle linebacker waited for the first series of on-field coaching sessions to start this week. "The lifting and running are fun, but now I get to put on that Cincinnati Bengals' helmet. I spent five years in Tampa in school. I learned in a huddle from some great players. Hardy Nickerson. Derrick Brooks. Tomorrow? Tomorrow is like my first day on the job."

When it comes to the re-alignment of the Bengals' linebackers, the hopeful school of thought is they have become faster, more athletic, and more dangerous on the pass rush with Kevin Hardy vacating the middle for the strong side, Brian Simmons staying on the weak side, and Webster landing in the middle from free agency.

"He's reckless with his body and can throw it around sideline-to-sideline," said linebackers coach Ricky Hunley of Webster, but he hopes that is going to describe everyone else on a defense trying to climb from No. 26 in the league.

"The biggest thing about this year is the carryover from last year," Hunley said. "Last year, you had a new head coach, a new defense in which you were integrating two systems, and a lot of new faces. When it's like that, the instinct is to take care of what you're trying to learn individually. Now, there'll be a better feel for what everyone else is doing. Everybody is going to be more relaxed and more comfortable and adjust a lot easier to how we do things."

Since this defense is hybrid of what head coach Marvin Lewis did in Baltimore and what defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier did in Philadelphia four years under Jim Johnson, the numbers say the second year (and third and fourth) is supposed to be better.

In Lewis' first year, the Ravens were ranked 30th in defense. Then they went to No. 25 to No. 22 to No. 2. In Johnson's first year in Philadelphia, the Eagles were No. 24. Then they went tied for 10th to No. 7 to No.4.

The linebackers are a microcosm of what the Bengals have tried to do across the defense during the offseason. They have tweaked and adjusted personnel to make things faster, either through athleticism or experience or both. By moving Hardy back to his natural position, he won't have to think as much, and by acquiring Webster, the coaches won't have to think about what is going to happen in pass coverage.

"We ask a lot from our middle linebacker," Hunley said. "He can be covering a tight end or even a receiver running down a seam depending on the formation. And Nate can run with them.

"Moving Kevin puts him back in a position where he was most effective as an outside guy," Hunley said. "He's got some natural rush skills off the edge and he's a coach on the field. Nate really is perfect next to him and across from Brian."

Hardy, who had a career low 1.5 sacks last season, figures to see much more action as a pass rusher now. Simmons thinks that ought to help everybody else.

"Watching him last year, you can tell he's got a knack to rush the passer," Simmons said. "Just the way he uses his hands and gets himself into position. And the offensive line usually slides somebody to account for him. That's going to help everybody else. I'm happy for him because I think that's his spot."

Like Hunley, Simmons thinks much of last year's problems can be traced to adjusting to a new scheme.

"When guys can't go 100 percent because they're not sure where to go, or they're out of position," Simmons said, "they start pressing. They start trying to do more than what the defense calls for. With a year under out belt, that stuff should be better."

Simmons, who turns 29 next month, is getting ready to play next to his third different player in as many years after being velcroed to Takeo Spikes for the first five seasons of his career. Last year, he moved out of the middle to make room for Hardy to take Spikes' spot, and now he has to get used to Webster.

"He's probably a similar guy to Takeo, a speed guy," Simmons said. "That will take some time to get used to him, but from everyone I've talked to, they say the guy can make plays and is athletic. I think that's the one thing we were missing last year that we had in years past."

The 6-foot Webster bristles about the size question ("I'm 240 pounds) and likes to point to a lot of the great ones (Mike Singletary, Sam Mills) who weren't supposed to be tall enough.

"He's an excellent leverage player because he's already down there," Hunley said. "He hits on the rise."

He's also an early riser. He beats Hunley to the office to watch tape, some times as early as 5:30 a.m. And he is watching. After playing for guys like Lovie Smith and Monte Kiffin in Tampa, Webster says it's too early to compare what they did to what Frazier is doing here.

"It looks like they may do more games up front than we did, but football is football," Webster said. "You still have to score points and stop them from scoring points. You have to have your generals leading the way, and I'm going to be in the middle of it."

Tuesday is important to Webster. He has made starts in the NFL. He has made three tackles in a Super Bowl. But for the first time in May, a NFL team is putting him in the middle of its defense to start a season.

"The most important thing at these coaching sessions is to learn how to line up," Webster said. "The bottom line on defense is trust. That's it. You have to trust that the guy next to you, the guy behind you, the guy in front of you is going to do his job and you know where he's going to be."

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