Shakeup pins safetys

9-11-02, 10:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

All the obligatory signs of a first practice after a blowout were in place Wednesday when the Bengals gathered at Paul Brown Stadium.

As promised, everyone ran an extra gasser (for a total of two) after practice, even though it was their day to lift weights. The defensive game plan had been slimmed down to back-to-basic fundamentals. The brusque head coach, telling his players to speak with work instead of words, shuffled the lineup and reverted to the safety combo that started 10 of the final 12 games last year. The new/old free safety called for stability and order on defense.

The appropriate stat also figured to get wheeled out by the media after an opening loss: Since the 16-game schedule began in 1978, less than 10 percent of the NFL's 0-2 teams made the playoffs.

And when said head coach was told he sounded just as upset as he did after arguably the most devastating Opening Day loss in club history, Dick LeBeau didn't disagree.

"If you're not a little bit mad this week," he said, "you're in the wrong business."

The business of the Bengals this week is to stop the free trade on defense, so they bypassed their first-year free safeties in rookie Lamont Thompson and converted cornerback Mark Roman, who played the entire preseason and opener. They have switched veteran Cory Hall from strong to free safety this week in an effort to inject a complex position with experience in a move Hall thinks is

going to stand for the rest of the season. They also promoted JoJuan Armour from the bench to strong safety. It's the exact move they did the Wednesday after the Steelers rolled them for 275 yards on the ground in a 16-7 loss Oct. 7.

The Bengals have been trying to stay away from having two big safeties paired together like the 6-0, 210-pound Hall and the 5-11 220-pound Armour. Although the Bengals allowed the Bears 203 yards on the ground two weeks later, the combo helped them allow more than 100 yards rushing just three times in the last games. Ironically, the week they made the move, they held these Browns to the Bengals-best 40 yards rushing in '01 during a 24-14 victory Oct. 14.

"They are our two most experienced guys," LeBeau said. "We're going to be fine with our free safetys. They're going to go through a growing process."

Although Hall has made 23 of his 34 starts at free, he says it's going to take some getting used to again.

"Strong is a much more aggressive position," Hall said. "I'm going to have to slow down."

Armour has seen a slimmer playbook this week and thinks the move shows what the Bengals want this week.

"They want two bigger guys in there at the same time, but I also think they want to go with something that was successful," Armour said. "It's not Mark's fault he's getting benched. They're just looking for something that has worked before."

Armour didn't practice Wednesday with a tender ankle, but is expected to go in limited form Thursday before going full Friday. While Hall moved to free Wednesday, rookie Marquand Manuel took Armour's spot at strong. But the Bengals are clearly looking for older heads back there in two positions that have to get themselves and everyone else lined up.

Hall, saying the defense needs "stability and order," said Sunday's tape showed different parts of the defense weren't in sync with the calls but that no one position was responsible for the "chain reaction," of mistakes. Yet the Bengals are probably hoping Hall can bring some immediate consistency to the spot.

"It's a different mindset," said Hall of the move. "But since JoJuan is like a linebacker, a big safety, he's going to be down in the box and I can worry about covering the pass."

If it sounds basic, it's because that's the way the Bengals want to play it after not being able to execute anything against San Diego.

"We've got enough talent that we don't need a lot of plays," Armour said. "They've minimized the playbook and kept it basic. We're going to go with what we have and execute the plays we have."

Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner and middle linebacker Brian Simmons didn't think the scheme was all that complicated last Sunday. Simmons said, "We never really had a chance to do much more than our base stuff, we just didn't execute it."

But clearly Duffner is going back to basics: "I don't think we've ever left them," Duffner said. "We just have to play them better."

LeBeau still had his grim post-game face on Wednesday. He's not really convinced his club is out of shape because he ran the same training camp last year when the club got out of the box 2-0. Plus, he was disgusted with Sunday's first quarter, when he doesn't think fatigue was a factor.

But he wanted to send a message, so he ran them extra, even if it was just one more gasser. The key difference is that everybody ran it, when usually the players who lift Wednesday run Thursday and vice versa.

"We won't alternate any more," LeBeau said.

He probably sent his most powerful message in Wednesday's team meeting.

"He gave us a few words," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "He told us not to talk about it, but to get back to work. Work is the only way to do it. I think guys were eager to get back to work and figure this stuff out."

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