The Hardy Boys and the Case of the New Defense

4-13-03, 6:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals would like to tell you about their new defense, but then they'd have to kill you.

"We're not supposed to say anything about it," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "Yeah, everyone knows it's aggressive, but that's all I'm saying."

It turns out that head coach Marvin Lewis' defensive philosophy matches his view of handing out information: Less is more.

"A defense can be complex, but it can be simple at the same time," said cornerback Jeff Burris. "I think we've combined that. Last year, it was complex."

Whatever it is, after the first four practices, the players like it. After a year of blown assignments contributed heavily to the defense's fall from No. 9 to No. 17 in the NFL, they are embracing the no-frills view Lewis and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier hope puts the teeth in their attack mentality.

"I'm rejuvenated," said tackle Tony Williams. "This is how you're supposed to play defense all along. Man-ning up and going. Running to the ball. Swarming. We've even got a swarm drill. You know how people start a new year and say it's a new team, but it's really the old one? This is a new team. A new defense."

It seems like less of Dick LeBeau's fire zones and more of Lewis' cold blasts off the edge. It sounds like less shifting before the snap and more up-in-the-face man pass coverage. It sounds like less zone and more man.

What is no secret is that this is a speed scheme, and, as linebacker Brian Simmons observed after Saturday's minicamp workouts, a player who runs 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash suddenly runs 4.7 when he's thinking about how to do it.

"Our job is to break it down to the simplest form so they can learn it fast and get to the ball," said linebackers coach Ricky Hunley. "We don't want them to be coaches. We want them to be players. If they were coaches, they'd be fat and old like me sitting on the sidelines."

Or, as Frazier said, "We don't want them wondering 'Should I do this, or should I do that.'"

Of course, it's hard for them now because it's new. The symbol of it all is middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, a new face in a new scheme in a new position who is relying on the basics to see him through.

He turns 30 in July after a solid seven-year run as a Pro Bowl player on playoff teams, yet he is now starting a season in the middle for the first time, and learning a new defense on his third team in three years, as well as learning how to call and signal the defense on the field.

"But I don't feel like a rookie," Hardy said.

"The game has not changed. There are different teams and different philosophies, but this is the same game."

The 6-4, 260-pound Hardy, who last month came over from Dallas the weekend Takeo Spikes signed in Buffalo, is what Lewis covets in his defensive players. He may have lost Spikes' productivity, but he gained Hardy's versatility, size and speed that can be interchangeable in Lewis' multiple looks that evolve out of a basic 4-3 set. Hardy likes the idea of slowing down the Xs so the Os can speed up.

"That's how the game is supposed to be played," Hardy said. "If you look at the great ones, that's how they see the game. Things slow down for guys that know it. That's the point we're trying to get to. That's the point I'm not there yet. But I signed up knowing what I was getting into."

What Hardy is getting into is the middle of it all, which means he has to learn to signal the call to the rest of the defense before each play. He has done it before, but not in the base defense, which is what is out there most of the time.

"I'm trying to pick up the scheme, then pick up the plays that are being run, but I'm also (learning) being the quarterback and making checks and making the adjustments," Hardy said. "It's a lot of responsibility. In the past, I've learned the signals, but there's a difference between that and having to make them and make the checks."

Simmons, who has moved from the middle and is now playing in Spikes' spot on the right outside, went through the same adjustment and says it won't be a problem.

"It just takes getting used to," Simmons said. "It's something I really can't help him with, he just has to do it."

When Hardy signed, the Bengals were questioned for putting him in a new spot in the middle. But the club never hesitated on a guy who led the Jaguars in tackles as both an outside and inside linebacker.

Playing the middle is, "not that hard," said Hunley, a NFL linebacker for seven seasons himself. "He's a big, strong, physical strapping athletic guy who can rush and can also handle coverages off three-receiver sets, usually the tight end, and he can plug the holes up. He's a bigger body."

Hardy can take solace in the fact that everyone else is learning, too. Burris says everyone is trying to learn Spanish at the moment.

But Burris also sees it coming together from the back. He compares the scheme's philosophy to what Wade Phillips did in Buffalo when he first came into the league with the Bills.

"It's a scheme that takes advantage of our linebackers' ability to run and all our linebackers can run," Burris said. "It gives the safeties freedom to make some changes, make some checks, freedom to make plays as well as the corners."

Backup linebacker Adrian Ross compares the learning process to ripping the old hard drive out of a computer and putting in a new one. He likes the new one because it can still be complex to the offense, but the defense doesn't have to do much to change the look.

"We're not sitting in one spot all the time, we're always moving," Ross said. "There are a lot of variations of it, but it's still basic. It allows people to be put in spots to use their abilities. It's cut-and-dried. It seems complex to the offense, but not the way it's mapped out and planned."

The old guy on the sidelines isn't revealing any hard-drive information, either. Just an old school textbook.

"Our goal is to try to make it as clear as possible," Hunley said. "If you have a man that is thinking when he lines up, he's slow. If you have a man not thinking when he lines up, he plays fast. When you play fast and you don't think, you're better anticipating the next play."

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