8-8-02, 5:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
BUFFALO, N.Y. _ It was ten years ago in Three Rivers Stadium against Herschel Walker's Eagles, but for Darren Perry it may as well be as fresh as Friday night.
In fact, it will be Friday night for Perry. Because as the safeties coach for the Bengals here at Ralph Wilson Stadium, he's watching another rookie free safety make his debut against a high-powered foe when second-round pick Lamont Thompson lines up with the first defense against Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
Thompson's debut can be seen on Channel 12 in Cincinnati, Channel 2 in Dayton, Ohio, and Channel 10 in Columbus, Ohio, at 7:30 p.m.
"It will be like they played an entire game in the first couple of plays because the adrenaline will be going," Perry said. "I try to tell the safeties that they are the guys that have to keep everything under control. They have to keep a cool head. If they don't, things will get out of whack in a hurry. I talk to them about the pace of the game. The scrimmage was fast for them, Friday night will be even faster, and the regular season will be faster than all of them."
It just so happens that Thompson shares the same alma mater with Bledsoe. He's heard plenty of stories about him from his coach at Washington State, not to mention reams of highlight tape.
"I never met him, but I saw him play a lot. My coach thinks the world of him," Thompson said. "But I'm not going to get wrapped up in all the hype. It's a dream come true, but I've got a job to do. I'm trying to make him look bad and shake his hand at the end of game. I just want to be accountable."
Perry, picked in the last round, wore No. 9 from his Penn State days against Philadelphia that night and
didn't get in until the second quarter, when he tackled Walker on the goal line He knew he had to make some plays if he wanted a number that would stick. Thompson already has the chic number in 24, which just so happens to match his Pac 10 all-time interception record, and he gets the start in his first game.
But the philosophy is the same.
"We're trying to make it simple so we can see them make plays," Perry said. "We're trying to cut it back and just give them some basic calls. Buffalo probably isn't going to do anything exotic, either, so this is a good chance to watch them just play instead of them trying to think and play."
Perry has been trying to get the quiet Thompson to talk more on the field and while Thompson is chattering more, he knows he has to do it even more. He also knows communication is the key to Friday night.
"Being in the right spot and being aware and getting comfortable with my teammates," Thompson said.
The Bengals drafted Thompson to intercept the ball and he admits he's a bit surprised that he hasn't grabbed at least one in two weeks of practices. But he has been listening to how Perry got his 33 career interceptions.
"I know I'm going to have more opportunities to make plays on the ball," Thompson said. "When they do come, they always come in bunches. I'm just being patient and learning as much as possible with all the coaches and my teammates. I don't go looking for it, or just going out there and saying, 'Dang, I need to get an interception.' All I can do is run to the ball and see what happens. They'll come, trust me.'
Perry has posted in his camp office a list of last season's top 10 interceptors in the NFL. He points out that the co-leader with Tampa Bay cornerback Rhonde Barber's 10, Cleveland safety Anthony Henry, had three in a game.
"You're not going to get an interception in every game or two or three games," Perry said. "The year I had the third most interceptions, I had three against the Browns. But you do have to make the plays when you get them.
"I remember (Colts head coach) Tony Dungy saying if you catch every ball you get your hands on, you'll be among the league leaders. I know I could have had nine more that hit my hands," Perry said.
But this training camp hasn't exactly been an ideal place to pick off balls. There is no established quarterback able to fire away at will, knowing that the coaches aren't charting his every drop of sweat.
"We've got a quarterback competition and these guys are taking care of the ball and trying to get good work habits. They aren't just throwing it up for grabs," Perry said. "So the opportunities haven't really been there. What you don't want to do is press when you don't have any in awhile, go for it, and then give up a cheap one."
Ever since the Bengals drafted Thompson, he has been saying he can't explain his interceptions. A knack, a feel, whatever, Thompson has said he's been able to do it his entire life.
A combination of luck and anticipation. Which is how Perry got his first NFL pick. It didn't come in the pre-season opener, but in the regular season-opener against a Pro Bowler in Warren Moon.
"I actually wasn't in the spot where I really should have been, but my instincts just kind of took over," Perry said. "That play kind of got my career rolling."
Perry recalls how Moon was looking for wide receiver Haywood Jeffires on the back side on a slant pattern. Moon knew that the Steelers were in cover 3, but Perry shocked him by giving him a cover 3 look and then moving into a cover 2 area.
"It comes just by studying film and trying to make the right move," Perry said. "These guys will get the hang of it."
But Thompson won't fight it Friday night. He plans to bring a last-ditch mentality into his first night.
"I'm just going to play football," Thompson said. "And play it like it's my last."