Skip to main content

Relentless rotation

Jonathan Fanene

Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes, who in a league and a galaxy far, far away, once played with Reggie White, is a hard guy to impress.

With a bottomless rotation, Hayes watched his guys blow by the Browns offensive line in the fourth quarter with a relentless brew of energy and speed to seal the Bengals Opening Day victory in Cleveland when all eight of his guys ended up playing at least 20 snaps.

But Hayes is reserving judgment on the conditioning of his crew despite the fact the Browns got all of 62 yards in the fourth quarter, when the line was fresh enough to pressure quarterback Colt McCoy's preseason precision into 8-of-16 passing with an interception by one of those ubiquitous D-lineman, right end Michael Johnson.

"We'll find out what kind of shape they're in this week," Hayes said after Wednesday's practice. "We'll know."

That's because the Bengals play at Mile High in Denver, which should play right into the hands (and feet and arms) of a unit that splits the workload like cordwood.

What we do know is the Bengals have their most talented and deepest front line in decades. Solomon Wilcots, the club's former safety and CBS analyst, says it's the best since the days of Eddie Edwards and the mid-'80s.  

With the Bengals taking a breather before Mile High, it begs the chicken-and-the egg question. Is the D-line in great condition or are they in great condition because they're not playing as  many snaps?

"Probably a little bit of both," said Bengals strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton. "It's a good group where there are a lot of serious guys that are fit. And, overall, I like our plan and the way we've executed it so far."

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has pulled all the right strings in getting his team ready in this toughest of all balancing acts during a year teams had no offseason conditioning programs:

Get the team in shape, yet don't try to do it so quickly so it gets guys hurt.

That sound you hear is knocking on wood. While many teams are scrambling on injured reserve, the Bengals have only put two players there and one, linebacker Roddrick Muckelory, blew out his Achilles during the first 15 minutes of the first practice.

Exhibit A is Jon Fanene, one of the line's veterans with seven years in the game who showed up way behind in his conditioning when he held out for about a week. But after submerging himself in Morton's program that he styled just for him, he emerged in the opener as a beast.

Playing end in the base and moving inside at tackle on some pass-rush downs, Fanene wreaked havoc on his 25 snaps with six tackles, two of them for loss as he gave Cleveland Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas all he could handle.

"Jon's a very conscientious guy," Morton said. "When he came in his conditioning left something to be desired, but he's been extremely diligent in working his way back."

But with eight guys dressed and everybody contributing, Fanene only had to play 25 snaps. Usually Hayes gets only seven linemen to dress. Yet as defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer explained after Wednesday's practice, early in every season he wants to make sure players don't tire when the game is on the line and the Bengals load up on linemen and the rotation.

But nobody remembers it being this split up and productive. Tackle Pat Sims, who rotates with starters Domata Peko and Geno Atkins, played about 20 snaps and was a factor in gumming up the Browns on 3.2 yards per rush even though he just started practicing three weeks ago after rehabbing his knee.

"I'm still behind the others but I'm getting there," Sims said. "If you don't play that many snaps, you don't have to be in top form yet, but I'm close."

Yet the most intriguing thing of the day was the interchangeable combinations. For much of the second half, the backup ends, Fanene and Frostee Rucker, played in the base. That rested the starters so they could be fresh on pass rush downs, where Johnson would check back into right end and left end Robert Geathers would move inside with Geno Atkins to make room for Carlos Dunlap at left end.

Voila. With the Bengals leading by just three and the Browns at their 44 with just 2:47 left, the nickel package cashed. On third-and-eight Atkins tipped McCoy's pass as Dunlap caved in on him and the ball turned over on the next snap when McCoy had to get rid of it with Dunlap and Geathers converging on him.

Then on the last series Johnson finished off his display of frightening athleticism with his first NFL interception when McCoy had to hurry and the rain-slicked ball squirted out of his hand right to Johnson as Dunlap fell to the ground so he wouldn't knock the ball from him in a collision.

"It's a really good rotation and you hope it keeps going because you're able to keep that same high motor at the end of the game when you really need it," said Peko, who played all 47 of his snaps in base. "I think not having the OTAs and all that stuff have made us fresher. We're not as tired."

After viewing what the lockout wrought, Morton, now more than ever before, believes the best way for NFL players to keep in shape is to be at the club's facility and working with teammates. But he thinks the effect of cutting down training camp to only one practice per day has been seen.

"I think it's had an impact," Morton said. "These guys seem to be fresher than normal. Plus, I think a lot of the D-line is playing with a lot of energy because they want it. That may be the biggest reason. It is a high-effort group."

On Sunday, they kept coming. The 6-7 Johnson had the line of a safety with one pick and three passes defensed. Atkins kept pushing back into the pocket with five tackles and added that  tipped ball as well as a hit on the quarterback. Dunlap hit the quarterback twice as all eight linemen hit the stat sheet.

"I don't know much about (Fanene)," said new outside linebacker Thomas Howard. "But he's a very impressive guy who plays with excellent hands."

Fanene's good friend, Peko, isn't surprised.

"Fanene does what he always does when he gets on the field," Peko said. "He makes something happen and he's usually tearing somebody up."

After missing all but two games last year with a hamstring problem that has plagued him off and on ever since he arrived in the seventh round of the 2005 draft, Fanene looks ready for the kind of year he had when he broke out in 2009 with 6.5 sacks. In the end, when the bell rang, Fanene, even though he was eased in slowly, answered.

"It's a matter of playing on Sundays," Fanene said. "It's football. That's what I do. I play football. Play in the games."

And he's got plenty of company up front.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.