Secondary traffic

Posted: 6:30 a.m.

If the Bengals feel just a little bit better about their defense after the spring practices, a major reason is that the play of their emerging secondary gets better and better.

Three stone cold headlines unfolded for the defensive backs, leading with their tight coverage and aggressive play noted by everyone on the other side of the ball.

Plus, the biggest roster scrum of training camp is going to be at safety, where seasoned starters and top special teams players are being pushed for probably five spots that include the man who once signed the richest defensive contract in Canadian Football League history in Kyries Hebert and sixth-round pick Corey Lynch.

And while the Bengals may be deep at cornerback, they're not so deep that Alabama's Simeon Castille could have the best shot of the rookie free agents to make the team.

The up-tempo and in-your-face philosophy of new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been highlighted in the secondary, which has drawn praise for its newfound ability to get physical and reroute receivers.

But there is one trend that has stayed constant for the past five seasons with Kevin Coyle as secondary coach and Louie Cioffi as his assistant: The Bengals lead the NFL in generating turnovers since Marvin Lewis arrived as head coach even though they began last season with no DBs from that 2003 team.

With their on-field workouts complete for the spring, Bengals.com continues to break down each position as the clock ticks to under 40 days before the July 27 opening of training camp.

A LOOK AT THE BENGALS DEFENSIVE BACKS

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John Busing (6-2, 221, third season, 0 interceptions in 19 NFL Games)
Coyle calls him a "very valued" player for his work on special teams, where he had the third most tackles last season despite spending the first four games on the practice squad, as well as for his heady play from scrimmage.

As a linebacker at Miami University, he may not have the blue chip speed, but the Bengals love his brains and anticipation. And you can't beat his strength or work ethic. With 30 reps of 225 pounds, he is the strongest DB on the team.

 

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Simeon Castille (6-0, 195, Rookie)
The Bengals had draftable grades on Castille's work at Alabama, so they were quite pleased to sign him in free agency and they've been smiling ever since.

"He's faster than you think and he's an intelligent player," Coyle says. "He realizes he didn't get drafted because he doesn't have top end speed, but he's the kind of guy that gets in the right position."

The Bengals love what he did in Nick Saban's pro defense, where he played all over the place as a corner and safety in the nickel and dime packages. Coyle says he could eventually end up doing that here, but right now the Bengals want to see him play corner.

It's a spot that after the first four players, it is basically unknown for a team that usually keeps six cornerbacks coming out of camp. There is a chance here for a seasoned, versatile kid out of a big conference.

 

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Leon Hall (5-11, 199, second season, five interceptions in 16 NFL Games)
The Bengals drafted him in the first round last year for his track record as a technician supreme grounded in the fundamentals to go along with big-time experience. They haven't been disappointed.

After a tough early go last year getting beat on some deep balls, Hall continues to make his mark with heady, physical play as he adjusts to the bump-and-run game he rarely played at Michigan.

"He's as coachable a player as I've ever been around," Coyle says. "He's very intelligent. He learns from every rep he takes."

After getting sucked in on double moves early, Hall didn't get beat by one this spring, Coyle says, and, "believe me, they tried." Coyle notes the last practice, the only one in which both starting receivers practiced, and says, "They tried all day to get by him and he sat on everything."

 

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Kyries Hebert (6-3, 220, Rookie)
The Bengals just may have found something here. Hebert comes out of the CFL, where a few years ago he signed a five-year deal in the $1 million range, and at 27 he is showing he can still run.

How fast? Observers at practice have been known to emit a low whistle when talking about his ability to run despite his size. A special teams ace in Canada, Hebert figures to be physical enough when the pads come on. But the Bengals feel he is clearly more than an in-the-box safety, which is exactly what Lewis is looking for in his system of safeties that are supposed to be able to flop between free and strong.

 

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Dexter Jackson (6-0, 210, 10th season, 17 interceptions in 115 NFL Games)
A lot of people put him on the scrap heap after last season because of his age (31 the day training camp starts), salary (in the $2 million range), and the fact rookies Chinedum Ndukwe and Marvin White played so well in the last two games Jackson missed with injury.

But he came back this spring impressing the coaches immensely. Before he suffered a strained calf that took him out of several practices, the Bengals felt it was the quickest and most agile he's looked since he arrived here in 2006 as a free agent.

If he continues to play like that, he'll be tough to keep out of the starting lineup. And Coyle stresses that there is no set starting lineup at safety. And there is no free safety or strong safety position, so, yes, Ndukwe and Jackson could theoretically start in the same backfield.

The big question, of course, is if Jackson doesn't start will the big salary stay on the bench? You can never have enough depth and experience at safety, as the Bengals found out in the playoffs a few years ago.

 

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David
Jones
(6-0, 196, second season, 0 interceptions in seven NFL Games)
The Bengals like this guy a lot. So much that he is the third corner heading into his first training camp with the club. He took major strides this spring and showed what the team saw when it picked him off waivers from the Saints just before the season.

Even before the Saints practiced at Paul Brown Stadium before their preseason game last year, the Bengals knew about Jones and talked about him before New Orleans took him in the fifth round out of small school Wingate.

"You can see that he can be a very effective cover player in this league," Coyle says. "Good size, he runs fast, he's got quickness and he's very competitive. Plus, he's very good in the classroom."

The word has been passed that the play must be physical and that won't be determined until pads. But the Bengals have seen enough of Jones knocking receivers off their routes and playing off blocks that they think he can do it.

 

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Herana-Daze Jones (5-11, 205, third year, 0 interceptions in 25 NFL Games)
With Adams down all spring and Ethan Kilmer down for much of it, Jones really helped himself the past month by moving over and playing a lot of cornerback.

Throw in the fact that he led the team in special teams tackles for the second straight season despite missing the last seven games with a knee injury and the man called Indiana Jones (an IU product) is a very valued performer.

Maybe he's that swing guy the Bengals are seeking as either a fifth corner and fifth safety if they keep 10 DBs, or a sixth corner and fourth safety.

 

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Johnathan Joseph (5-11, 193, third year, four interceptions in 31 NFL Games)
Maybe the most impressive player in camp. J-Joe seems to have recaptured the MoJo he had at the end of his 2006 rookie season, when he validated his first-round selection.

Coyle has no doubt that the foot stress fracture Joseph suffered at the '07 mandatory minicamp cut into his development in his second year. If Hall came into the league technically sound as a four-year performer in the Big Ten, Joseph has had to smooth out the rough edges of a game exposed to barely a season of Division I ball.

"I don't think he was right until halfway through the season and even then the lack of work in training camp hurt him," Coyle says. "But now he's healthy and the guy just has tremendous athletic skills. I think now he's able to put technique into practice with his talent. He's had a great spring."

 

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Ethan Kilmer (6-0, 204, third year, one interception in 16 NFL Games)
The effort to cultivate Kilmer into a two-way player at cornerback and safety to go along with his special teams highlight tape has been slowed by a raft of injuries. A seventh-round pick out of Penn State as a special teams maven, Kilmer arrived with just three years of football experience and virtually none on defense.

After a promising rookie year in which he played primarily safety, the move to cornerback was wiped out when his entire second season was lost with a knee injury. And he didn't get back on the field until the last couple of weeks this year because of a muscle pull. His upside is tremendous, but he needs reps.

 

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Corey Lynch (6-0, 206, Rookie)
This is another guy that Coyle refuses to pigeon hole as a free or strong safety. At Appalachian State, Lynch had a reputation as a hitter but this spring Coyle has been impressed with Lynch's ballhawking skills and ability to show some range and great awareness in the passing game.

He'll have to hit somebody when the pads come on and he has a track record of doing it. Is there room? The Bengals have traditionally kept five safeties and even before drafting Lynch they had Ndukwe, White, Jackson, Jones, Busing and Hebert.

 

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Chinedum Ndukwe (6-2, 220, second season, three interceptions in 14 NFL Games)
He has established himself firmly in the mix to start, which right now looks to be a three-man derby for two spots that includes Jackson and White. After a rookie season he came out of Notre Dame in the seventh round, Ndukwe proved he not only belonged but that he could be the defensive version of 2001 seventh-rounder and future Pro Bowler T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Despite worries about his range, the guy's got enough speed and brains to always seem to be in the right place, as evidenced by the three turnovers he generated in his first two NFL starts.

 

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Deltha O'Neal (5-11, 194, ninth season, 31 interceptions in 116 NFL Games)
Like last season, he didn't show up until the voluntary sessions and he naturally didn't look as good as the other guys. But the Bengals are counting on him this season like they did last season, when he accepted his role as third corner and put together a pretty good season.

He's in the last season of his contract paying him about $2 million this season, but the club sees value in it even if David Jones beats him out as the third corner. You can never have enough corners. Plus, the Bengals need him to return punts.

Antonio Chatman is the leading candidate, but he's in a roster tractor pull at receiver. After him there are three guys that probably would rather do something else in O'Neal, Hall and Houshmandzadeh. Given his backup role, O'Neal is most likely the next guy.

But here's the thing: Even though O'Neal is 31 and in the last year of his deal, the Bengals still think he can do some very exciting things and that's why they like having him around.

"He still has some very unique athletic qualities that make him special," Coyle says. "He still has some top level skills."

 

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Marvin White (6-1, 199, second year, 0 interceptions in 15 NFL Games)
As advertised coming out as a fourth-round pick out of Texas Christian last year. He'll hit anyone and he has a better understanding of the playbook than people thought he was going to have when he was on the draft board.

White didn't look out of place in his three starts and he led the secondary with eight tackles in the finale. He's one of the young guns that gives the secondary an edge with a certain hunger and if the Bengals end up starting all the kids from the '06 and '07 drafts, he'll be the old man even though he doesn't turn 25 until Dec. 5.

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