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Safety net has big options for defense

Taylor Mays

Bengals secondary coach Mark Carrier knows he's going to get some phone calls after he says this about his safety group:

Biggest group he's ever seen. The smallest guy is the most experienced and the one the coaches know is going to start, Reggie Nelson at 5-11, 206 pounds. The 6-1 Carrier himself went to three Pro Bowls weighing 192 at the dawn of the 1990s.  

"It's funny. When I came into the league they were all like that," Carrier said. "But they weren't as athletic as this group. This group is really athletic. I saw some big safeties when I was playing. But they weren't ... and I'll get some calls from guys. 'Come on Mark, we were athletic.' But this group is very athletic. Trust me. No knock on (the older guys), but these guys are very athletic."

Nelson knows.

"Can you believe that?" Nelson asked about being the runt of the litter after Monday's voluntary practice. "Do you see the safeties back there? They're 6-3, 230. I pick on them all the time. Taylor Mays. George (Iloka). (Robert) Sands. They're very athletic. That's the great thing about it."

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is in.

"I like big, fast guys," Zimmer confirmed Monday. "That's always a good thing as opposed to little, bitty guys."

But as far as Zimmer is concerned after the first seven practices in the post-Chris Crocker era, it's going to take more than size and speed to secure the job opposite Nelson. Crocker, the starting safety the past four years, has been released and the Bengals know they have to fill his coach-on-the-field role in some way.

Nelson, who credits Crocker for teaching him so much, says he'll do more of it. But the kids are going to have to show they can think as well as hit.

"They have to be able to make decisions quickly by formations, formation checks, alignments, doing things correctly all the time," Zimmer said. "The one who gives me the most confidence for the other 10 guys that are on the field, that will be the guy who plays."

The 6-3, 230-pound Mays, whose nearly 600 snaps during his two seasons in the NFL are second to Nelson at the position, gets it.

"Consistency is what you need at safety," Mays said. "You make a mistake and it can be fatal to a game."

Mays is the guy that seems to be playing the most with Nelson's first group. But Zimmer also says the 6-4, 209-pound Sands's athleticism holds him in good stead, as does the special teams skills of 6-2, 210-pound Jeromy Miles. The rookie, fifth-rounder George Iloka of Boise State, would be seen as a giant on any other team. But at 6-4, 225 pounds, he fits right in because even though he's got strong safety size, he played the last three seasons at free safety and had two starts at corner.

Athleticism is the key because in this day and age of 5,000-yard passers and basketball rules, someone has to matchup with the 6-4 A.J. Greens of the world.

"Sands is a kid we drafted we liked athletically," Zimmer said of a guy that played just one game as a rookie last year and that on special teams. "You don't want to get rid of a guy you really like. Maybe Sands might be the guy this year."

Everyone knows Mays is a special athlete. The 49ers knew it when they took him in the second round in 2010 and they knew it when they traded him to the Bengals on the eve of the '11 season. Their new coaches made the call that they didn't want to deal with his transition, but Mays keeps impressing here with that athleticism. Last week word was he ran stride-for-stride with Green on Andy Dalton's 57-yard strike.

"In some areas; still got a ways to go," Zimmer said when asked about Mays's progress. "(He needs) consistency. Doing things right. Discipline. Accountability. Whoever lines up there, that is what I want: accountability. Day in and day out."

Mays says he understands and that's how he's prioritizing it.

"The first thing I'm thinking about is getting my assignments right and then playing technique sound," he said.

The word is that it was tough love for Mays on the Mike Singletary staff in San Francisco and when he was shipped out just two weeks into the lockout, it was a tough transition. But he'll get plenty of attention here. Carrier was one of Mays's heroes at their alma mater of USC and Zimmer first rose to prominence in the NFL as a superb secondary coach before his Dallas defenses yielded Pro Bowl safeties such as Darren Woodson and Roy Williams.

"When you know what to expect and how you're supposed to play things, that makes a world of difference," Mays said. "It's the little things that add up on a daily basis."

Carrier, named the best DB in the nation during his last season at USC, has promised he'll be hard on Mays just because of the bloodlines. He says Mays looks good and is improving like all the young safeties.

But …

"There's no question these guys are better athletes than me. I'll give that up in a second. Bigger, faster, stronger. But that doesn't mean they're better players than me," Carrier said. "The safety spot is unique. It's about seeing the game, anticipating things before they happen."

The Bengals may be young as well as big at safety, but they are also versatile and experienced in the secondary and it gives the creative Zimmer some plaster of Paris.

On Monday he was asked about moving some of his veteran corners to safety in various packages. He admits that Leon Hall, coming off a torn Achilles, and Nate Clements, sidelined for what looks to be until training camp with an abdominal pull, have the smarts and skill sets to pull it off and Jason Allen has played it before.

Plus, Zimmer believes Miles could play corner in a pinch, as has Nelson. And he's not ruling out any of the safeties helping out at corner for a snap or two if it fits a package.

"Actually, who's getting the best work are the safeties that have to go out there and play corner because they get to work on their coverage," Zimmer said as the defense has scrambled with Hall, Clements and Adam Jones missing time. "Every time they're out there at corner they're working on coverage, which is a good thing. They all do that. We make them do it now.

"Darren Woodson, that's how he used to get his one-on-ones all the time. When the scout team was out there, he'd go out there and play corner. That's why he became a good cover player. Actually, the big guys have been doing it. Miles, Sands and Iloka, and they're getting better covering because that's what they're doing every day."

But as for Nelson being joined by a vet corner instead of a young big safety, Zimmer looks at you like you're nuts. After all, he says, Hall and Clements haven't even been on the field yet this spring. It sounds like Terence Newman has been the team's best corner, and Zimmer says Newman is too small to make the move to safety.

Besides, Zimmer isn't going to start pushing any panic buttons.

This is how early it is:

He likes the looks of college free agent Emmanuel Lamur out of Kansas State at WILL linebacker and thinks he's got a chance to be a good player. But he doesn't know his last name yet.

And it was tough to judge much of the defense Monday because it looked like the day was devoted to getting the offense ready for that massive menu of 3-4 looks waiting on the schedule.

So Zimmer is doing what he's asking his young safeties to do.

And the media.

Be patient.

"You guys want us to make the team already and it's (only) June," Zimmer said.

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