Secondary of primary concern


Leon Hall

Veteran NFL cornerback Fred Bennett brought just enough clothes for practice on his Tuesday morning flight from South Carolina. So his wardrobe for Wednesday's Bengals charter to the Thanksgiving night game in New Jersey is a work in progress, as is the revamped, retooled, redesigned Cincinnati secondary.

Any resemblance to the secondary that took the field on the first day of training camp is purely coincidental as the mushroom cloud still hangs over Sunday's nuclear loss to the Bills.

The fallout fell in the fourth quarter. With new personnel unable to communicate, four DBs couldn't cover two receivers and the Bills' Steve Johnson waltzed through the middle untouched on the 32-yard touchdown pass that blew it open.

This is the kind of week it's been: In the middle of Sunday's carnage, Rico Murray, a practice squad player three weeks ago, was summoned from special teams to play cornerback. And he did it on an ankle he injured covering the first or second kickoff. He went the whole game, but the ankle is bad enough that he isn't practicing this week and may not play.

"There were bigger things going on in the game than me just nagging about it," Murray said before Tuesday's practice. "I didn't realize how bad it was until the next day."

Two cornerbacks and two safeties are on injured reserve. Three more cornerbacks, Murray's group, could be too banged up to play Thursday night against the Jets (8:20 p.m., NFL Network, Cincinnati's Channel 12), when Bennett could very well step out of his sweats into his 18th NFL start about 60 hours after he signed his contract.

One position getting cleaned out isn't a rarity in the NFL. In 2007 the Bengals went into a Monday night game against the Patriots with four healthy linebackers and had two by halftime. Kevin Coyle, in his 10th season as the Bengals secondary coach, remembers early in his tenure going into Pittsburgh with just eight DBs and two getting knocked out on the opening kickoff.

"That's back when Pittsburgh did  a lot of 'Flush' four receivers," said Coyle, "so we were on the sidelines teaching (safety) Reggie Myles some dime stuff if we needed him for three or four plays."

Jets head coach Rex Ryan, asked about injury position plagues during Tuesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media, says they've all been through it. He especially doesn't want to hear about the Bengals being hurt in the secondary.

"We lost a ton of our defensive backs (with the Ravens in 2007)," Ryan said. "We had our corners play four games the entire season. I remember playing Cincinnati. We held them to seven field goals in a game and they had like seven turnovers that their defense forced and we never had a corner that could run better than a 4.8 in the 40. And you're playing against Chad, (T.J.) Houshmandzadeh, and all that. Things like that happen when things are going bad."

But Coyle did have to admit that ushering two new regulars through a three-day practice week is pretty unique.

With safety Roy Williams recovering from a concussion, right cornerback Leon Hall is the only healthy secondary starter. Backup safeties Chinedum Ndukwe and George Iloka get the start against quarterback Mark Sanchez and his high-octane wide receivers. Tom Nelson, a second-year safety who played at defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's alma mater of Illinois State but comes from the school of Hard Knocks, is coming off his first NFL regular-season game at slot corner and who knows where he'll be Thursday?

That makes four healthy DBs. Jonathan Wade, a hardened Bengals veteran compared to Bennett since he actually got here Monday afternoon, is the fifth DB just two weeks after the Lions cut him. Bennett, the sixth, has been waiting since the Chargers cut him after the first month of the season.

DBs No. 7 and 8?

Wide receivers Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby were getting ready to play corner Sunday if hell kept breaking loose. When asked after Tuesday afternoon's practice if they worked with him, Coyle smiled and kept walking.

He did allow earlier in his stop with the media that, no, he wasn't crazy, but "I'm kind of excited about it to be honest with you. I think these guys are going to rise to the challenge and do some good things."

Nelson's rise from college free agent to NFL roster in the 2009 training camp had been well chronicled by Hard Knocks, the HBO series that starred the Bengals and then moved to the tabloid-juicy Jets this season. Ironically, Nelson's rookie season ended with a literal thud on the frozen turf of the old Meadowlands in last season's regular-season finale against the Jets.

Playing in a one-degree wind chill, Nelson banged his knee on the ground that was so hard that he damaged his posterior cruciate ligament. After being shelved for the spring and training camp, he didn't get back into a game until Oct. 24 in Atlanta.

"A lot of it was because of the field; there were ice patches," Nelson said before Tuesday's practice. "It's an injury that happens in car accidents when you hit your knee on the dashboard. That's how hard the field was. I've heard good things about the new field. It's supposed to be chilly, but not like that."

It will feel about 40 degrees warmer at kickoff with a light wind out of the south at about five miles per hour wafting through temperatures in the mid-40s. There is a 70 percent chance of rain, but no chance the Bengals are going to say where Tom Nelson is going to line up. They have high regard for him because he can play most any spot in the secondary (so why tell the Jets?), he's smart, and he has the invaluable knack of being able to execute in games without a lot of reps during the week.

Which is how he surfaced in the slot Sunday when safety Chris Crocker got hurt badly enough in the second quarter that he joined cornerbacks Alex Erickson and Morgan Trent on injured reserve. Tom Nelson hadn't played the nickel corner in a game since the Patriots preseason game his rookie year, but he held his own in about 17 snaps.

"I know the defense. I know what to do, the biggest thing is technique," Nelson said. "I had to get used to the mindset of being a corner, man-to-man stuff, instead of sitting back and seeing the whole field."

Given the state of the secondary, Nelson could be asked to do anything Thursday, except play right corner. Hall has that covered in what is a daunting exercise against two big-time receivers. Braylon Edwards is a big, fast deep threat and Santonio Holmes has killed more clocks than daylight savings. The man who caught a Super Bowl title in the dying seconds has carried the Jets the last two weeks with an overtime touchdown catch and the winning touchdown catch in the last 10 seconds.

"They can do the extreme," Coyle said. "They can line up and try to pound you, which is something they do as well as anybody in the league with two tight ends and two backs. Or they can use three wides and the tight end (Dustin Keller) can flex out like a fourth wide receiver and a guy like (running back LaDainian) Tomlinson is like a fifth receiver. They can spread you."

You don't have to be Knute Rockne to guess what the Jets will do after they saw Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick sift through the rubble for 316 yards last Sunday against the Bengals.

"They can count, too," is how Coyle sees it.

He's counting on two journeymen to ply their trade competently. Wade, a third-round pick of the Rams in 2007, is working on his third club. So is Bennett, picked a round later by the Texans in the same draft.

"I've been very impressed by the way these two young guys have come in here," Coyle said. "Those guys have been in the league and been around. It's a matter of them getting familiar with our terminology. It's not like we're throwing out concepts that they haven't been exposed to."

Hall says the ability to disguise defenses might be hurt, but he says it won't be that vanilla.

"Our safeties aren't Crocker or Roy out there, but they're comfortable with what we do," Hall said. "They can hold some disguises. It's just when you make a call, you need them to be on the same page."

Coyle said the coaches used Tuesday's practice to see how much the players can handle getting in and out of the huddle making calls and so far so good. As well as could be expected, he said.

"We're going to grind it tonight for awhile and tomorrow and we've got all day Thursday," Coyle said. "We'll try to milk every moment we can to get them ready and hopefully they'll be able to contribute."

The 6-1, 200-pound Bennett thought he could in San Diego after the Texans cut him at the end of the preseason. But the Chargers saw him as a special teams player and cut him after the first month. The Texans let him go when they didn't think he improved off a promising rookie year. But he brings what the doctor ordered: A total of 41 NFL games and 17 starts.

"Whatever they need me to do," said Bennett, just out of Tuesday's walkthrough where he met Coyle. "I'm going to go to the meeting room right now and learn it as quickly as possible. They called me Monday evening; I put a few sweats in a bag, and got here at 7 a.m. when I flew in from South Carolina."

Bennett played opposite starting left corner Johnathan Joseph (ankle) at South Carolina and it would be intriguing if he started in his place. He has more starts than Wade, who has six, but the 5-10, 195-pound Wade has more games with 55. A fleet wide receiver during a college track career at Tennessee, his conversion to cornerback has been bumpy. At time it's been spectacular with big-time speed. At other times it's been a struggle with breakdowns. The Bengals need something solid.

"Our defense, especially down a couple of corners, is pretty simple," Hall said. "You have to make some checks. The hardest thing out there for the corners is to play, which is good."

Hall is healthy, usually the team's steadiest guy on defense and a true all-around corner, but he hasn't been unscathed. Some think he's pressing to make a big play to help stop the losing streak. When he gave up Sunday's go-ahead touchdown on an 11-yard fade route to Steve Johnson, it looked like he was trying to help get other guys lined up.

But Hall, a stand-up guy, won't bite.

"I do that sometimes to myself," Hall said of pressing. "But I try to fight against that urge and just play within the defense."

Wade showed up at 6:30 in the morning Tuesday to get a head start on the day's activities. He and Bennett stayed with Coyle until another pressing matter popped up and Joseph stopped by to give them a lift.

"He's taking them shopping for clothes," Coyle said. "They've got to find something to wear on the plane."

In the Big Apple, Ryan knows the story.

"Don't get me started. Even in 2005, Adalius Thomas had to play safety and so did Deion Sanders for like 10 games. Things like that happen in the NFL," he said.

It's happening to the other guys Thursday night.

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