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Safety in versatility


If you're looking for stats, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says the go-to guy is secondary coach Kevin Coyle.

"Ask Kevin. He knows every stat in the history of football," Zimmer says and here is one Coyle wants you to think about when it comes to safeties.

"Look at some of the best safeties in the league," Coyle says. "Bob Sanders. When was the last time he played 16 games? Troy Polamalu? Pro Bowl players that are elite. It's a position where the pounding, the banging, the position they have to put themselves in to force the run against the size of these backs, they take a pounding."

Sanders of the Colts has never played 16 games and just eight the past two years. Polamalu, the Steelers icon and Carson Palmer's college housemate, has played a full season once in the last four years and just five games last year.

The Bengals know all about it. They played with their backup safeties down the stretch and in the Wild Card loss to the Jets had one starter (Roy Williams) shelved and the other (Chris Crocker) hobbled.

They'd like to re-sign Williams, and Crocker is supposed to be fine after some upkeep on his ankle. But the Bengals also know they need some help in the rough-and-tumble AFC North and they should be able to get a good one out of this draft if they want to jump into the first four rounds.

But it's not as easy as it looks. The story of Tuesday's final workout of the NFL scouting combine tells us that when USC safety Taylor Mays ran a torrid 4.43-second 40-yard dash, an astounding time for a 231-pounder.

And he may have run himself out of a shot for the Bengals to draft him at No. 21 and race up the board, but they still have to take a long look at him because they are looking for a certain kind of safety.

Even though it is the little guys that take the pounding, Coyle says the first requirement for a safety has to be able to cover.

"You've got to be able to cover. If you can't cover, you have a hard time," Coyle says. "You have trouble unless you really tweak what you're doing. The more versatile they are, the better it is."

Here is a vintage Coyle stat: The Bengals finished the season leading the NFL in allowing the fewest runs of 20 yards or more with five and two of those were in the final game of the season.

"That's getting good play from your safeties," he says. "It's the safety's job to make sure they contain the ball, cup the ball in the run game. We've got to be more consistent, but looking at the big picture, that's pretty good."

So you have to do more than run. Not only do you have to cover, you have to be able to hit people. Mays can hit, but he also touched the ball four times in 2009 for one interception and three pass breakups.

Versatile enough?

"There's no question he helped himself today," says Bengals assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi. "No one thought he could move like that, and he's a big, athletic guy that played on a high level. But it's only one piece of the puzzle. You have to watch tape to not only find out if he can cover, but if they asked him to cover. You may never know."

It's nice to be able to hit and run, but the Bengals also needed someone to cover Jets tight end Dustin Keller. He tied the playoff game at seven on a 45-yard touchdown catch and delivered the crusher in the fourth quarter when two plays after running back Cedric Benson cut the Jets lead to 21-14 on a 47-yard touchdown run, Keller caught a 43-yarder that set up a field goal.

Chinedum Ndukwe, the Bengals' third safety that played in Williams' place all year, was one of those near Keller on the touchdown and couldn't get him to the ground after he did catch it. And no one looked to be covering Keller on the second one.

All of this isn't lost on Zimmer and Coyle. At the combine Zimmer said his team has to play the pass better and he's looking for more discipline from Ndukwe, a big safety himself at 6-2, 224 pounds that can get his hands on the ball.

"Discipline in his coverage," says Coyle when asked what Ndukwe has to improve. "Discipline in improving his footwork. Doing all the little things the right way all the time. He plays with great effort. He's a tough guy. He flies around. He's been productive. He's had real moments where he's made a lot of productive plays. You saw how effective we were not giving up big plays in the running game with (Ndukwe) in there."

The ideal prospect, of course, would be a guy that can play safety and cover well enough to play nickel cornerback. Crocker can do that and the Bengals have another guy that has a chance to make it as a backup safety that can do that, Keiwan Ratliff, the former Bengals cornerback that signed before the last regular-season game of the year.

At safety, it's all about versatility. That means the ability to hold up as well as to cover. It's why the first DB Zimmer looked at hard at the Senior Bowl without knowing anything about any of them was Virginia cornerback Chris Cook, a guy that goes 6-2, 203 pounds.

"You've got to have the girth," says Coyle, Zimmer's number cruncher. "But you've got to cover."

Which is why the NFL pretty much forgets what they saw this week at the combine and goes back to combine the tape.

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