With the Bengals staring at six of the NFL's top 13 passers in half of their games, pass defense is going to emerge as a dominant theme for 2010. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer started harping on it at the NFL scouting combine. WILL linebacker Keith Rivers has received the memo and is already putting in some overtime.
Rivers, the Bengals first-round pick in 2008, has played in 20 NFL games and has two interceptions and three passes defensed. Last year when he started 13 games, it was one and two, respectively.
Not enough, he says.
"I wasn't as productive as I would have liked to have been in the passing game," said Rivers, who wasn't exactly a mannequin in finishing second on the team with 101 tackles. "I want more interceptions. More (pass breakups). That's what I'm working on now."
As in Wednesday. After his workout, Rivers borrowed some tight ends and quarterback Jordan Palmer and went back on the field.
"Just some concepts. Just to get some read on some routes," Rivers said. "I want to work on being more aware so I can make the reads quicker. Get the body turned. Eyes on the quarterback. Get an earlier and better break on the ball."
Rivers' lone pick was one of the biggest plays of last year. Trailing the Chargers early in the fourth quarter in a 24-13 game that was swinging toward a blowout, Rivers was draped on San Diego superman Antonio Gates when the tight end dropped a pass. Rivers was there to seize from his arms at the San Diego 33 and two minutes later the Bengals had carved the lead to 24-21 on the way to a 24-24 tie that would eventually dissolve into a last-second loss.
"It would have been big if we had won," Rivers said. "I was on coverage and if he made the catch, I was going to tackle him. If he dropped it, I was going to make the pick. It's a play I'd like to make more."
MORE BACKER TALK: Rey Maualuga, the nation's top defensive player not very long ago as USC's middle linebacker, likes Zimmer's idea of using the spring for experimenting with the backers at various positions. In his first 15 NFL games last year, Maualuga drew good grades for his play at SAM, his first stint ever outside the middle.
"My mindset coming in here was to play the middle," he said. "But I knew playing SAM would be a challenge for me and it would make me do things I wasn't used to doing. Covering the tight end. Watching his hips so you know where he's going before he gets there. Blitzing off the edge, sinking your hips, trying to beat the tackle instead of just going up the A gap. Taking on blocks and spilling (the play to the defensive strength)."
The savvy and toughness of Dhani Jones has given the Bengals much-needed stability in the middle. Before Jones started for the second straight Opening Day last year, head coach Marvin Lewis had started six straight different MLBs that first weekend. Jones has also played many of his 148 NFL games outside. Maualuga counts the help of backup veteran SAM backer Rashad Jeanty as a major reason for easing his transition and he knows Jones would do the same for him if the Bengals tinker with him in the middle.
"That's what the OTAs are for. Experiment. Put guys in new places," Maualuga said. "Because you never know unless you try stuff. I'd love to go in the middle and do what I've been used to doing for the last couple of years and it would be great to learn from such a veteran and great guy like Jones. He knows the ins and outs."
Zimmer says it is too early for lineups and Maualuga agrees. There could no such thing as starters, just packages.
"With all the linebackers coming back, we have a lot of different combinations and they can use a lot of different packages," Maualuga said.
RAZOR EDGE: If there is one guy that can tell you about new Bengals wide receiver Matt Jones, it is backup center Jonathan Luigs.
Luigs, a Little Rock, Ark., product, was in the stands in 2002 when Jones, the University of Arkansas acrobatic quarterback, pulled off "The Miracle on Markham," when he launched a 31-yard touchdown pass to DeCori Birmingham with nine seconds left to give Arkansas a 21-20 win over LSU to put his club in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
"They said he was whistling on that drive and that's Matt," Luigs said. "Laid back. Cool. Calm. Collected. I think people just underestimated how much he was able to change the game. He touched the ball every play and when the pocket closed he took off and made people look stupid. Just running past DBs. He made something out of nothing. I don't want to call him a god, but he was the next best thing at Arkansas."
Luigs got to know Jones when he ended up going to Arkansas, but not all that much because he was in the frosh locker room while Jones completed his senior year as the SEC's most prolific rushing quarterback in history. Luigs got to know him better when he consulted Jones about his agent, Dave Butz, and Luigs decided to sign. Last year they went pheasant hunting, and Luigs and his wife have spent time with Jones and his wife of less than a month once they arrived in Cincinnati last month.
"Matt's just a country boy. He's just an easy-going guy, easy to get along with. I know he'll fit into the locker room,' said Luigs, who agrees with Jones that Jones has put his past behind him. "He's done a complete 180. I think he's turned it around."