6-4-04, 4:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
You can't tell much in underwear ball, which is pretty much what the Bengals are doing these days. But one thing club insiders can see is they have dressed up their play at starting cornerback with the athleticism of Deltha O'Neal and the rejuvenation of Tory James.
"So far, O'Neal looks like best corner we've had here in years," said one this week.
And, he's joining James, who had the best season of any cornerback here in years until he got worn down late in the year.
But, this isn't the same James who arrived here a year ago, still feeling the effects of grinding through Oakland's stretch to the Super Bowl with a broken leg. And, this doesn't look to be the same O'Neal, who finished last season as a wide receiver on the Denver roster but looked like a wide receiver when he ended Thursday's first-team two-minute drill stepping in front of quarterback Carson Palmer's out pattern to wide receiver Chad Johnson for an interception.
"Last year, I was all right, but it wasn't the whole me," James said. "Now, I'm in the best shape of my life."
While James' health is thriving, O'Neal seems to be responding to the technical bedside manner of secondary coach Kevin Coyle and his assistant Louie Cioffi.
"He's so focused on technique," O'Neal said of Coyle. "Learning the different defenses, not just learning your position, but learning everybody's down the line. It helps you, and he's getting me to understand that. A lot of secondary coaches don't focus on that. They focus on the defense. They focus on you learning your coverages. His main focus is you put your technique first. He's smart, intelligent. When you got somebody behind you like that who knows the game in and out, it can help you understand the game a lot more."
The knock on O'Neal in Denver was "great athlete, poor technician," and while you can get a debate on that, you won't get one on the respect Coyle is piling up around the league. Last season, CBSSportsline.com quoted some NFL scouts talking about how well coached the Bengals defensive backs were.
"And Leslie (Frazier) knows a lot, too. He's played it," said O'Neal of his defensive coordinator.
After the first three weeks of on-field work, this looks like a nice marriage between The Technician and The Athlete.
"He's showing everything out there that we thought we were getting. He's got great natural talent," Coyle said. "If he can stay away from letting his eyes start to wander, or guess, or try to make a play on something that's not there, he'll make his share of plays."
Take Thursday's play as sketched out by Coyle. The coverage gave O'Neal safety help over the top, allowing O'Neal to stay underneath the route. With O'Neal where he should have been, and knowing where his help was, he was able to trail close enough and gamble just enough for the pick.
"He was disciplined. He got his head around," Coyle said. "He's showing good awareness in his communication. He's gotten better with that every day."
After the pick, O'Neal can't remember Coyle saying anything to him. Usually, Coyle is talking about his hands or feet, or some obscure angle after a play, and O'Neal likes that because it's not just about coverages. But, nothing after that play.
"It's good for a coach to do that. It's a good play, but you can't get overzealous about it," O'Neal said. "There might be 80 plays left. You have to stay focused on the game."
James is having an easier time focusing this spring. Heck, when he arrived here a year ago in May, it was the first time he wore cleats since playing in the Super Bowl for the Raiders in their loss to Tampa Bay.
"After the Super Bowl, I couldn't do anything until I got here. I was shot up with all kinds of stuff trying to get through the playoffs," said James, who had a plate inserted in his right fibula and played the last four games of the season. "After that, it just hit me. When I had time to get off it, I felt what I had been doing to it. I've had a whole offseason to put myself together."
He says he finally feels whole, and prefers not to think about last season, although his four interceptions were the most by a Cincinnati corner in six years. Instead, he recalls a recent conversation with Coyle in which he reminded his starting corners how important they are.
"Coach Coyle already talked to us and he kind of put it on us," James said. "Deltha and I talked about it. We know we have to step up and be the guys making plays and making this thing work."
INJURY UPDATE:** The Bengals completed their last on-field coaching session Thursday before next weekend's mandatory minicamp, when it looks like they should have virtually everybody healthy. Wide receiver Peter Warrick, who has rested his knee the past two weeks, says he's ready to go. Right tackle Willie Anderson, who tweaked his back and sat out this week, says he should be ready, and wide receiver Patrick Johnson indicated he could be ready after resting some sore muscles. Running back Chris Perry (hamstring) may or may not return as soon as next week, but at the very least, everyone is expected to be ready for the first day of training camp July 31.
CUTS: The Bengals cut their roster to 87 players Friday when they released veteran guard Alex Sulfsted, along with two rookie free agents in Arizona inside linebacker Joe Siofele and Minnesota-Morris tight end Michael Walker. Along with their four NFL Europe exemptions, the Bengals must be down to 84 players when they report to training camp July 30.
Sulfsted, 26, ended the third stint with his hometown team. A Lebanon, Ohio, native who attended Mariemont High School and played at Miami of Ohio, Sulfsted signed Dec. 9 last season following left tackle Levi Jones' arthroscopic knee surgery. He is a third-year player with 14 career games and three starts, all with the Redskins in 2002.