Some nostalgia for a look-ahead season

6-7-04, 3:40 p.m. Updated:
6-7-04, 11:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

While the Daryl Gardener Watch ticked into Monday without any word from the Bengals or his agent and many of his future? teammates took a deep breath before this weekend's mandatory minicamp, Justin Smith is enjoying the gentle breeze of nostalgia.

But it appeared that Gardener, the Broncos former defensive tackle, could become a current event as early as Tuesday, although the Bengals and Gardener agent Neil Schwartz wouldn't confirm a Fox 19 report that he was here Monday. Still, the speculation is that Gardener is going to be in town before the weekend to undergo the pending physical for a four-year contract.

Meanwhile, Smith is remembering the old days. It was only three years ago for the Bengals defense. Shorter than a car loan, but it seems longer than a mortgage. Remember where you were when the Bengals finished ninth in NFL defense and 11th against the run and Smith set a team rookie record with 8.5 sacks from right end?

Sure, you were right where you are now. Which is how Smith is feeling these Happy Days. As they move into the second year of the new defense, Smith hears the coaches taking off the wraps and telling them to just go play.

"I feel like we're going to be back where we were three years ago," said Smith, optimistic enough to say he'll be disappointed if he doesn't get at least a career-high nine sacks this season. "It all goes together. We were shutting people down back then, and if you look at the tape now, I think we're running around pretty good on defense. That's what it looks like we're almost back to. It's only on-field days, but we're going pretty full speed. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."

Smith welcomes Gardener as another member of a strong tackle rotation, but he thinks the adjustments the coaches have made in the line's fits against the run has been the big addition of the offseason.

"I've felt comfortable with our D-Line from Day One with (John) Thornton and Tony (Williams) in there. I never really felt there was a problem with that," Smith said. "As far as getting everybody in the right spots, that is more of a key. Any addition helps. Getting guys off the field, giving them breathers. (Gardener) would be a quality guy."

You don't have to tell Smith his sack totals have gone down every season. From 8.5 to 6.5, to five. But defensive line coach Jay Hayes, who coached him for the first time this past season, insists he is "an upper echelon guy,' who has every right to shoot for the Pro Bowl.

So much is involved in getting a sack that doesn't involve the rusher himself. The Bills' Aaron Schobel was drafted 42 picks after Smith in 2001 and they came into the 2003 season with the same number of career sacks at 15. Schobel ended up with 11.5 sacks last year, mainly because he was on the NFL's second-best defense, and No. 8 against the run.

"You know the old saying, 'Statistics are for losers.' Look at his overall play," Hayes said. "He has improved. He's much better against the run, I would venture to say, than when he was a rookie. There are very few tight ends in this league, if any, that can block him one on one. That's to our advantage and we have to find ways to keep improving.

"How many wins did we have when he had those (8.5 sacks)?" Hayes asked, tongue firmly in cheek. "Six? So last year we won eight games and he had five, so maybe if has even less, we'll win more, I don't know. He wouldn't like that (if he had fewer sacks), I wouldn't like that, a lot of people wouldn't like that, but the biggest thing is to win games. For us to win games he needs to get sacks, as all our defensive linemen have to, and helping ourselves on third down, getting in longer yardage situations on third down, will improve that as well."

Footnote: Smith's Bengals finished 8-8, Schobel's Bills finished 6-10 in '03.

Hayes though Smith did well against the run last year and that wasn't exactly true across the board on a unit that finished tied for 25th in the league. The sacks? People see him as a double-digit guy because he was the fourth player taken in his draft, a goal that Hayes sees is only some breaks and a few sharpened techniques away.

"He played a good season last year. He played very well in the running game," Hayes said. "He just didn't have a bunch of sacks. People are always going to want him to have 10, 12 sacks. He was steps away from getting that. There were a few times he got there and hit the quarterback as he was throwing it. That kind of stuff is a little luck and a little cleaning up, like stepping straight when you're stepping under yourself. Those types of things have been addressed."

Both Smith and Hayes say he is working on diversifying his portfolio of pass rush moves. His favorite and best, of course, is the quick first step around the blocker, but he is now more active with his hands.

"Definitely," Hayes said.

Smith knows how important stopping the run is to his game and his team. When he had five sacks in back-to-back games against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay as a rookie, those were games the Bengals allowed barely two yards per carry with 127 yards on 55 carries.

"One of the biggest parts about stopping the run is having everybody in the right spots," said Smith, noting that linebacker Brian Simmons is in his second season now on the weak side and Kevin Hardy is back at his natural spot at strong. "Then you put Nate (Webster) in the middle, now we know what we're doing up front, we've got even more help in the secondary, I think it's going to be a big year for us. I feel real good about it."

As usual, Smith is no-nonsensing it all. The sack numbers?

"I feel good, but I'm not going to say anything," Smith said. "I'm just going to go out and prove it and I think that's not only for me this year, but for the defense."

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