HOUSTON _ As he took questions Friday after his annual State of the League address, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue fielded a question about his reaction to the Bengals' 8-8 season in the wake of reports during the 2002 season that his office was concerned about the club's losing ways.
"The Bengals are back and everyone else in the league better beware," Tagliabue said in taking the word of Bengals Hall-of-Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz.
"He said it reminded him of the two Super Bowl teams. Marvin Lewis has done a great job. He's had terrific support. The players are excited," Tagliabue said. "They're looking to move deep into the playoffs. I think they've made great strides, and I think everyone there gets a lot of credit." **
TV LIGHTS:** Boomer Esiason (CBS) and Cris Collinsworth (Fox), the former Bengals with the biggest TV presence, believe the team will return to prime time this season, and Collinsworth thinks the Bengals will make both Sunday and Monday nights.
"It would be really wrong for the NFL to push so hard for minority candidates and Marvin Lewis and not give them a high profile game," Collinsworth said. "The Bengals have earned it, they're an exciting team, they score points. My gut feeling is they will be on both."
If last year is an indication, they will get on at least once. Every second-place team in 2002 got a prime-time game in 2003. . .
The St. Paul Pioneer Press is reporting that Bengals assistant strength and conditioning coach Kurtis Shultz is one of two finalists for the Vikings head strength and conditioning job. . .
Panther 'D' feels Lewis influence
1-30-04, 7:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
HOUSTON _ Marvin Lewis' goal is to bring the Bengals back to where he celebrated his greatest moment in Baltimore's Super Bowl victory over the Giants thee years ago.
In a rather large way, he is Sunday when the Panthers' roll out their prized defense against the Patriots' beleaguered offensive line in the matchup that is going to determine Super Bowl XXXVIII here at Reliant Stadium.
The matchup within the matchup, of course, is little-used Patriots left guard Russ Hochstein against Carolina Pro Bowl tackle Kris Jenkins. The third-year Jenkins, looking to solidify his position as the NFL's best defensive lineman, is working out of a scheme heavily influenced by those free-wheeling Baltimore brainstorms during Lewis' term as the Ravens defensive coordinator.
Mike Trgovac, Carolina's first-year defensive coordinator, made no bones this week that his playbook that must shut down the quick passes of New England quarterback Tom Brady still has plenty of pages from the one Jack Del Rio wrote last season before becoming head coach of the Jaguars. And that is a playbook where the first edition was published when Del Rio was Lewis' linebackers coach in Baltimore.
"It all started from that defense Jack brought (from Baltimore)," said Trgovac, who worked as Del Rio's defensive line coach last year. "It was really Marvin's defense, then Jack did his own tinkering and his own stuff. The greatest thing Jack had is a great knowledge of what he did and what was being done in Baltimore and then it was, 'This is what Marvin did, what ideas do you have out of this same look?'"
Del Rio exposed Trgovac to the open room policy Lewis employs with his coaches. As the Ravens dominated in 2000 and 2001, Del Rio and Lewis pieced together their different backgrounds before Lewis went to Washington and Del Rio went to Carolina as defensive coordinators.
"One of Marvin's strengths in handling that staff is he encouraged ideas, he wanted input," Del Rio
said. "He did a great job of getting that, yet controlling the room and having all those ideas come together and be one. That's the environment that he created that I was very impressed with, and I created the same type of environment. It's one where a coach feels like he's really a part of the process. I think you get the most out of each coach when you do that.
"My background was different than Marvin's," said Del Rio, who played for Tony Dungy in Minnesota. "Marvin came out of the Dom Capers' blitzing style in Pittsburgh and I'm from the Jimmy Johnson, Tony Dungy school. Cover 2, Cover 4. Understand where everyone fits. Playing simple, playing fast. It was two different schools of thought that meshed."
Trgovac pretty much agreed with this week's assertion that the Panthers play a fairly basic set, and Bengals' fans got used to seeing a simpler scheme this year that emphasized speed rather than gambling blitzes and multiple looks. The idea was to get pressure by just using their front four so the pass could be better covered by more and bigger people who like to be physical.
"Our basic philosophy starts from doing things right," Trgovac said. "We are not going to outsmart you. We are a young team. We are a young defense and we don't want to outsmart ourselves on certain things, but we are going to do enough things that you are going to have to stay honest with us. We play enough packages and do enough things that if you don't, we'll find a way to beat it."
This isn't the page-for-page scheme that Del Rio brought from Baltimore because they have nipped it and tucked it.
"So our defense isn't all Marvin. A lot of it is Jack's. He was as open as any coordinator I've ever seen," Trgovac said. "We've changed things like anybody would change things. We didn't want to be predictable. We changed a few blitzes, changed some rules of coverage, some things that Jack probably would have changed anyway.'
Since Carolina's personnel is built on the marvelous pass-rush abilities of its front four, the Panthers can afford to be simple and their cornerbacks can be physical without having to worry about a quarterback getting time to burn them.
The Bengals are looking to help their corners in much the same way, but aren't near the Panther defensive line's 32.5 sacks that was second only to the Miami line in the NFL.
The line, as well as the rest of the defense, came primarily through the draft. Jenkins, a second-round pick in 2001, is going to his second straight Pro Bowl. Right end Mike Rucker, a second-round pick in 1999, led the team in sacks with 12 despite missing two games with a sprained knee. Left end Julius Peppers, the second pick in the 2002 draft, had five of his seven sacks in the last six games.
It's an uncomfortable matchup for New England, which has two starters missing from its Opening Day offensive line, but not impossible. When center Mike Compton broke his foot in the first month, they moved center Damien Woody to left guard and plugged fifth-round draft pick Dan Koppen at center. They then handled the Titans' highly-regarded front with 38 points in a Oct. 5 victory over Tennessee.
Now the journeyman, Hochstein, is making his third NFL start in the wake of Woody's injury in the playoff opener, and the thinking is that the Pats are going to have to use Coppen in a double team of Jenkins.
"He really has the athletic ability for a big guy. Given the chance, he can really dominate," Coppen said. "I think his size and athletic ability make the difference for him. If he can get in the gap and penetrate, then he can really make a difference. He is a smart player. When he sees something, he will take advantage of it."
The Pats will no doubt attack Carolina's speed with their own speed, and have Brady working out of a spread with quick drops to multiple receivers. The Panthers will need all of the Lewis-Del Rio principles in place to stop it.
"It's big on fundamentals, big on energy and effort," Del Rio said. "Some of the solid things you have to well to be a good defense in this league. You've got to tackle well, you've got to swarm to the ball, you got be sound in what you're doing. There's some blitzing. There's enough to keep teams off balance, but the less of that you have to do to generate pressure, the better you are."
It sounds like Trgovac talking about stopping Brady's quick passes as he calls on that speed and simplicity.
"You just have to get on them fast," he said. "You have to understand what they do out of certain formations and you have to make sure you make the tackles when they do catch the ball. . .They do a lot of those quick screens and your defensive linemen, if they can't get to the quarterback, they've got to turn and run and help on the tackle and possibly strip the ball loose."