8-27-02, 7:00 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Swingman Mark Roman has been working with the Bengals' first defense this week at free safety and head coach Dick LeBeau plans to start him in front of rookie Lamont Thompson in Thursday's pre-season finale against the Falcons at Paul Brown Stadium.
LeBeau said Roman, who has played cornerback the past two seasons, has a shot at starting Opening Day.
"They both do," said LeBeau after Tuesday's practice. "We'll play both of them in the game and see how they do. Mark has played well in camp and the games. He's got some
athleticism as a corner and he played safety in college. It's a good mix in today's football because if you're going against three receivers and you can't get that third corner out there, then you've got a safety that can cover him."
Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner stressed Tuesday the move isn't because of dissatisfaction with Thompson, their second-round pick from Washington State. Thompson, who had an interception in his second NFL game, admits he's going through a typical rookie adjustment.
"I'm frustrated because I haven't been able to play like I normally play," Thompson said. "I'm probably playing half-speed now because I'm still doing a lot of thinking. I didn't realize there was going to be this much to know, but I don't have any problem with it. I know it's going to come, I just have to get used to it and comfortable."
Duffner compared a rookie free safety in the Bengals scheme to the defensive equivalent of a freshman quarterback in college, or a NFL rookie quarterback. It takes time for the young heads to stop spinning in the playbooks.
"Lamont has been impressive to us," Duffner said. "It's like any young guy, it's going to take time for him to get comfortable out there. We like the way he's been aggressive and played special teams. We think he's got a fine future and we also like the other rookie safety. Marquand Manuel."
The 5-11, 190-pound Roman started 30 games at free safety in his first three seasons at LSU before switching to cornerback as a senior. During his career in Baton Rouge, Roman scored three touchdowns on interceptions of 50-plus yards and he had 10 interceptions in his career. But the Bengals have really liked the way he has tackled in the last two games.
"He made some hits in the open field and took down some big backs," Duffner said. "He looked good back there and we're kind of excited about him because he's got some good experience and versatility."
After taking Roman in the second round in 2000, there has been some concern internally that he might be a tweener: Too slow to be a corner and too small to be a safety. But after the way he has hit people in games, some feel he is a better tackler than Thompson. Others think Thompson will tackle better once he's more sure of the scheme and they point to his good work on special teams.
Roman, who started eight games last season at cornerback when Rodney Heath got hurt, thinks his last start at free safety came against Arkansas in 1999.
"The good thing about safety is that I didn't have to learn everything all over again," Roman said. "It's an advantage being able to play both. There are situations in our defense that help me know what to do at safety because I know what the cornerback is doing."
Roman moved over from cornerback to free safety in the May camps after 10 starts at cornerback in two seasons. He has played both spots this camp and gives the Bengals the roster option of going with one less defensive back and one more running back. Roman can be the fifth corner and fifth safety, and the Bengals could only keep nine defensive backs instead of the traditional 10. Although you can get a good internal debate going on whether it's wise to keep just four pure corners in this era of dizzying multi-receiver sets.
The computer might not spit out Roman's dimensions when it comes to a pro corner or safety. But the man did play productively in 37 games in the SEC, with a resume that also included five forced fumbles and 253 tackles to go along with the 10 interceptions.
"I'm not scared," Roman said. "I don't look at what position I'm playing or who is ahead or whatever else. I just want to play and contribute and help the team win."