(Second of a two-part behind-the-scenes look at the Bengals coaching the DBs at this Saturday's Senior Bowl.)
MOBILE, Ala. - Just because it's the Senior Bowl, Under Armour style, doesn't mean school is out for summer.
Around Friday's visit to USA Children's and Women's Hospital and Coca Cola's Meet the Players event, as well as welcoming parents, relatives and friends, the North defensive backs finished a take-home quiz prepared by assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi.
"A scaled-back version of what we give the guys back home," Cioffi says of part of a game and week that has to be scaled back simply for the sheer enormity of getting 50 players together for four quarters in just five days.
There are some fill-in-the-blanks, but Cioffi likes to use diagrams on his quizzes. He'll draw up a formation and the players have to state their responsibilities and matchups. Or, he'll ask them to draw their own diagram to show how routes are covered in a particular defense.
And you know this one will be on it:
"Cardinal rule," says secondary coach Kevin Coyle. "Write it down. Know this. Do not let them push you into the end zone. You brace down before you get to the end zone."
He is standing in a conference room at the Mobile Convention Center in front of the projector plastering his web site on the screen. With a simple click Coyle takes his DBs into the cat-and-mouse game in the NFL red zone and shows them the technique they'll use in the next day's practice that has their first period from the 20-yard line and in.
"It's more like punt protection when you've been on the punt team in different places, where you're kind of kicking back," Coyle says. "You always have a plant foot; you always have a push foot. We're going to drill it a little bit, and then we're going to do some one-on-one. We want to see if you can pick it up quickly. How many of you have done it before? Some of you? Good. You'll have an advantage, but you'll be able to pick it up real fast. It's easy."
Slant? "Bam, hit off that back foot and cut it off."
Fade? Coyle wants the DBs to know they can't turn their back, or else the official won't see the receiver using his hands on the defender.
"I push, I start to run," he says. "If I'm on (top of the route), now I turn into him. Is he going to see it? Yeah, the official is going to see it. There's a big difference ... when the quarterback is throwing that fade, is he really worried about where you are? No. He's throwing to one spot. They practice that all day throwing to the one spot. All of a sudden when you're (on top) like that, we've seen good quarterbacks throw the ball out of the back of the end zone. They don't have that same sense of where the defender is, like in bump-and-run."
Kendric Burney, North Carolina's pesky 5-9, 181-pound cornerback, likes what he hears. The Tar Heels use the same technique and he's looking for every advantage to show the scouts he's big enough and fast enough.
But if it's the same technique, it's not the same caliber of athlete and so Coyle has brought his cornerbacks from Cincinnati to drive it home. Everyone from starters Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph to rookie Brandon Ghee is on the tape from a red-zone period in training camp.
"How far inside do you want us?" asks Stanford corner Richard Sherman.
"Right on his inside eye; maybe half of a foot inside him," Coyle says. "You can't be much more than that because of the fade."
Ghee appears on the screen cutting off a receiver by catching him with his body and pushing off with him.
"See what I mean? He's seeing the ball thrown. That's a rookie in training camp last year: Ghee," Coyle says. "Now, Leon is really disciplined. He's sitting there just waiting on him. But he's got that plant foot, and he's able to push and extend. Right now."
Then it is Joseph's turn, and he cuts underneath for an interception.
"Woow," a guy says.
"Johnathan's being patient. He's sitting right there at the goal line," Coyle says. "Boom. Now get on out of there. He sees the ball thrown. Now take it the other way."
Burney would love to do some intercepting himself down here and pick off the talk from last season, when he got caught up in North Carolina's program-wide problem with a six-game suspension for accepting improper agent-related benefits. He's been open about it whenever asked and it seems to be working because the media has been more interested in his habit of immediately dropping to the ground for 10 pushups when a potential pick slides off his hands.
But Burney holds on to one the next day in the red zone when he reads a slant inside as he sees Boise State receiver Titus Young shooting outside to the flat.
"I saw that and figured something was coming back inside," Burney says. "Stay inside leverage and you push off with the inside foot if they go inside. I broke on it. It's something that comes from tips and watching film."
Earlier, Burney came up with an interception in a seven-on-seven drill and dropped for another 10 when he nearly had another one. He hosts an impromptu media session on the field after practice and there are no agent questions.
"He had a big day, a good day. He got his hands on a lot of balls," Coyle says. "That's going to help him. He's showing some quickness and anticipation."
Coyle is impressed with everyone's overall red-zone performance because they responded well even though the drills were cut out when the teaching period and individual period went long. Plus, two injuries left him with just three corners (Burney, Sherman and Colorado's Jalil Brown), so they held up well. North Carolina safety Da'Norris Searcy is their swingman, but at one point Coyle puts four safeties on the field in one of the offense's one-minute drills.
"First, because the corners were gassed," he says. "And second, if any corner gets nicked in the game, you're going to have to move some people and this gets them a little familiar with it."
It has been a week of Football 101 in Coyle's improvised classroom. But Burney sees the lab portion of the course as challenging.
"A lot of this stuff is basic, but they're helping us with new stuff, too," Burney says. "Because they're teaching us about how the NFL does it, and it's a totally different game than college."
He'll start to see that different shade of red inside the 20 on Saturday.