Secondary turns tables

9-18-03, 6:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Every once in a while, you can see the video surface around the Bengals' locker room on laptops, or even on a TV.

It is the Chicago Bears' Super Bowl Rap from 1985, where cornerback Leslie Frazier supposedly puts on one of the worst dancing performances of all time. But the guy had personality, and 18 years later in the second game of his career as a defensive coordinator he asked his players to let their hair down last Sunday in Oakland.

"Before the game, Coach Frazier told us to go out and let our personality shine through," said cornerback Jeff Burris. "Go out and play the game the way it's meant to be played. Have fun and make plays and let our personality show."

They responded with the Bengals' best game in the secondary in recent memory in the 23-20 loss. It took NFL MVP Rich Gannon more than a quarter to complete a pass for yardage in the second half. Jerry Rice and Tim Brown didn't have a catch in the second half and combined for just 47 yards in the game. The Raiders' defending NFL pass champions barely got 100 yards passing, and at the end of the day the Bengals' defensive backs who allowed a franchise-high 30 touchdown passes last season were holding opposing quarterbacks to a NFL-best 34.9 passer rating after the season's first two games.

Personality?

"I liked that we were physical and didn't back down against Hall-of-Fame receivers and a Hall-of-Fame quarterback," Frazier said. "You know where I come from. You line up and play your game and it doesn't matter who is on the other side."

Personality?

The Bengals' secondary was always the guy in the back of the class with a calculator on his belt; afraid to raise his hand and show people what he knew because he thought everyone would laugh.

Personality?

The DBs were the Ugly Ducklings of the Bengals' struggles down through the years. Hasn't it always been if it was third-and-11, the opposing receiver always got 12?

"We're looking to run down the field with you," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle. "It's more aggressive and we have to get better at it. But I think our guys are responding."

If there is the most visible change in what new head coach Marvin Lewis has brought to this franchise, it's the tough-minded mentality a once shell-shocked secondary has adopted. Yes, the off-season foray into the AFC West to acquire Raider cornerback Tory James and Chargers strong safety Rogers Beckett has helped enormously.

But a simpler scheme and a walk down the Baltimore-Philadelphia corridor has helped transform a position that was thought to be one of this team's biggest weaknesses.

"I think what happened is that we had been so bad in the past, we were afraid to make mistakes," said free safety Kevin Kaesviharn. "We thought if we made a mistake, we were going to lose our job, and we didn't play with the aggressiveness that you have to play with back there. If you're going to be aggressive, you're going to get beat. But you're also going to make plays, so if you get beat, you get ready to make the next play."

, Which is exactly what they have to do this week against the Steelers. Rice and Brown might be going to Canton, but Pittsburgh receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress looked to be headed to Hawaii as the AFC's leading receivers.

How have times changed? The Steelers counter a Bengals' pass defense ranked second in the NFL with the NFL's second-ranked pass offense.

"No offense to Oakland because they beat us," Kaesviharn said, "but the Steelers are going to be more of a threat going down the field."

The Bengals look to be more prepared for it than ever before. From Pittsburgh, Ward noticed how James helped the Bengals diagnose the Raider crossing routes, but it is also a scheme thing. Last year, it always seemed like they were playing at about 75 percent speed because not only were they afraid of making mistakes, they were also unsure a lot of the time what exactly were their responsibilities.

Last year, the Bengals allowed 12 touchdown passes of at least 20 yards. One of them was a 64-yarder to Ward. This year, they are one of just three teams who haven't allowed a touchdown pass (Tampa Bay, Cleveland), and haven't allowed a wide receiver a catch longer than 18 yards. The longest reception is a 24-yarder by Raiders running back Charlie Garner.

"It's easier for a guy to trust a guy when you take a lot of the thought process out of it," said free safety Mark Roman. "Day in and day out, as you're doing your thing, you know that guy is going to be there when you need him to be there."

While quarterbacks racked up a 99.9 passer rating against the Bengals last season, how many times did you see the defensive backs look at each other with arms outstretched to the sides in confusion after a big pass?

Yes, James and Beckett have helped. But guys who have struggled here in the past, like Roman, Burris and nickel cornerback Artrell Hawkins have improved in the system.

Roman, who quietly slid over to the third corner when Hawkins got nicked for much of Sunday's first half, is suddenly showing up after a relatively quiet three seasons. Frazier thought he made a huge play in the second quarter on a third-down screen against Garner, one of the league's best screen runners. Roman seemingly came out of San Francisco Bay to cut down Garner and, as Frazier said, "sent a message we weren't backing down from anyone."

The coaches have sent a black-and-white message via Xs and Os. When in doubt, make a play.

"It's the cohesiveness as a group," Burris said. "It's the kind of scheme that makes you want to go out and have fun. You can go out and play with confidence because you basically know what you're doing. It feels good to get the black-and-white into it."

They made a personnel move before the game, starting the fourth-year Beckett at strong safety in place of the second-year Marquand Manuel. Beckett's experience playing the Raiders showed up, as well as some physical things as he makes a mockery of San Diego's perception that he wasn't always a willing hitter. That's all he's done here is hit people.

"He didn't play a perfect game, nobody played a perfect game," Hawkins said. "But he's a guy that goes out and makes something happen. He's got the long arms and good speed. Our safeties were all over the place making plays. That consistency with the corners and the safeties is something we haven't had around here in a long time."

If there is anyone who deserves a new day back there, it's Hawkins, the club's second-round pick in 1998 who basically had to learn on his own with little veteran leadership at the position when he arrived. He has more bad times than good, but he knew things were changing when Frazier arrived after his stint in Philadelphia as secondary coach. Plus, Hawkins had a sideline seat to watch what Lewis did with the Ravens' cornerbacks.

"Look at those guys Leslie coached in Philly," said Hawkins of a defensive backfield that sent three players to the Pro Bowl last year. "Those guys get right up in your face and that's how Marvin used (Chris) McAlister and (Duane) Starks in Baltimore. That's pretty much all it is. Attitude. And the attitude is being aggressive."

The lesson continues against the 6-5 Burress this Sunday.

"Against a taller receiver and guys that are physical like Plaxico, you have to know that you have to be aggressive to the football," Lewis said. "You have to know that if you don't, that he's going to push you, and he is. You've got to go take your shots and be aggressive to the ball, and be aggressive with your hands, then see what happens. If you're just waiting around, he's going to shove you, and he's going to catch the football, and it's going to be a touchdown.'

Kaesviharn has lost some of the battles with Burress. He's also won some.

"They're telling us not be afraid to match up your talent with their talent," Kaesviharn said. "You have to do that if you want to stop them from making plays on you."

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