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Slotting the secondary

Leon Hall breaks up a pass intended for Saints receiver Marques Colston during preseason action. (AP photo)

Posted: 6:55 a.m.

Cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph have to be getting some Pro Bowl attention after each of the Bengals' four victories have come with a masterpiece against the opponent's biggest receiving threat.

But if the Bengals are to get a fifth win Sunday against the Texans, they've got to rely as much on rookie cornerback Morgan Trent and the guy that Trent calls "Old Man Crocker," safety Chris Crocker.

They don't have to blank Pro Bowler Andre Johnson, but they have to at least make sure he doesn't come close to repeating the carnage he visited upon them last year in Houston. The one thing the Bengals did last year in the 35-6 ugliness is keep him out of the end zone and they'll take that. But it is doubtful they can get the win if he gets 143 yards on 11 catches because the Texans have so many other threats.

Johnson's 15.6-yard average on 28 catches comes with four touchdowns. The Bengals have allowed only five touchdown passes in the first five games. 

"He's a stud," said Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle simply after Thursday's practice. "We've done a good job identifying how to take away the top guy with a combination of things. (Defensive coordinator) Mike Zimmer does a great job with that and there are some structural things you can do each week, but it's not one guy or one thing."

The Bengals believe that along with a major upgrade in the pass rush, the secondary's versatility is a major reason they've been able to shut out the Green Bay's Greg Jennings, Cleveland's Braylon Edwards, and Baltimore's Derrick Mason while also holding Steelers Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to one catch and Denver receiver Brandon Marshall to 27 yards.

Unlike years past, the Bengals have been able to consistently line up their two best cornerbacks on the outside and on the same side every snap, Joseph on the left and Hall on the right, where they are continually matched on the best receivers

That's because they've been getting such good play from Morgan or Crocker in the slot depending on what they want to do.

"That's big. It allows us not to tip what we're doing in coverage and it helps us disguise things," Coyle said. "Once you start to role play people, people get an idea how we're matching up on the receivers if they see a guy playing in a certain spot on certain coverage."

The fact that both Joseph and Hall have spent significant time in the slot as the nickel corner in their previous seasons has not only helped diversify their game but also helped Morgan, the sixth-rounder from Michigan, adjust to the inside after never playing in there in college. Joseph played inside early in his rookie season in 2006 before he took over the starting job and Hall was the nickel corner in there basically all last season.

"They play well with each other. I think the goal, which we've been able to do this year, is to keep them on the outside and on their side, and that can be helpful, because they see the game the same way all the time," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "Sometimes when you slide a guy in, then basically he's getting double the reps, especially with so many three- and four-wide receiver sets that offenses run. I think that has been helpful to both guys. And, you know, they do a good job. They understand. They understand where the strengths and the weaknesses are in the coverages, and they've been able this year to play to the strengths."

Morgan has leaned on Hall and Joseph after his playing time has significantly increased the last two games.

"They're the first guys I go to," Morgan said.

Morgan, who had a stress fracture in his foot his second NFL practice, pounded the rehab quickly and had a remarkable recovery. He was on the field the first day of training camp and it's a good thing because a few days later the incumbent nickel corner, David Jones, suffered the same injury and he's just now getting back.

But Morgan has been like a veteran out there. When safety Roy Williams missed the game in Cleveland two weeks ago and Crocker had to be used more at safety, Morgan played 30 snaps. Last week Williams played sparingly in the second half after what Lewis called getting his forearm banged again and Morgan logged 20 more plays.

"I like it in the slot; you get a lot of action," Morgan said.

That's why Hall and Joseph keep lobbying Coyle to go back in the slot for a few plays. There's a lot to do and the physical play inside suits the game that Hall and Morgan picked up in the Big Ten.

"We've got the same style," said Morgan, who at 6-1, 195 pounds has got the build to survive inside.

Plus, Crocker brings a safety mentality to the slot when the Bengals decide to bring him down and go with Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe at safety.

"There's no question we're getting real good play from our starting corners," Coyle said. "But the other guys are also a reason we've had success holding some guys down. When you can play three safeties at a time that gives you a lot of flexibility. People ask and I just tell them it's not one thing or one defense. It's a combination of players and coverages."

Hall is convinced the shuffling of coverages is a big reason for the success because the quarterback and receiver have a hard time getting into a flow.

Crocker is the guy that provides that flexibility to offer different looks and he's another one that Morgan has gone to talk to discuss the game. Joseph may have played the most Bengals games in the secondary, but Crocker (in his seventh season) has been around the NFL longer than anybody back there but Williams.

Which is why Morgan smiles when he calls him "Old Man Crocker." But Zimmer needs everybody to play forever young against the Texans.

Zimmer is concerned not just about Johnson, but about other weapons like fleet tight end Owen Daniels and old friend Kevin Walter, the former Bengal who has found quite a niche as a second receiver and has 14.5 yards per his 12 catches this season. Houston challenges Zimmer's defense with the most receiving options they've seen this season. Zimmer looks at a guy like David Anderson (nine catches) and thinks of a possession guy like Cleveland's Mike Furrey.

"They've got quick throws, deep throws, throws off play-action and their running game is different," Zimmer said. "They've got a good nucleus of players."

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