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Johnathan Joseph

Posted: 8:45 p.m.

On Sunday, Mike Zimmer talked about Domata Peko being the best nose tackle he's ever had and how rookie SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga showed up when blitzes were called and how the aggressiveness of safeties Chris Crocker and Roy Williams have influenced the rest of the secondary.

But because the Bengals defensive coordinator is turning the heat up on the pass rush, he had to conclude that after all that, it all really gets down to Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph.

"Those two cornerbacks, they've got to play good for us to be good," Zimmer said. "If they don't play good, we're probably not going to be very good on defense."

But Hall and Joseph have been very good and so has the Bengals defense. After the first team has kept Pro Bowl quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady out of the end zone in the first two preseason games, the Bengals are fifth in the NFL in scoring defense while also holding up at No. 12 against the run, the best of Zimmer's two worlds.

And Joseph says he finally feels like the guy he did his rookie year in 2006 after battling a broken foot for two seasons.

And he looked it on the first series Thursday night in Foxboro with Brady throttling the no-huddle on his first series to the Bengals 14. On the drive's 10th play, third-and-six, Johnathan stood up to the NFL's most feared red-zone combo when he battled future Hall of Famer Randy Moss with a shove before knocking down the pass in an extremely fine one-on-one play.

"With Moss, you're thinking the fade all the time," Joseph said. "And they know you're expecting that, so they run the fade stop. He kind of looked like he was going to do a fade, but he was on the sideline and he didn't have any room to run up to the fade. So I played the fade stop."

Heading into his fourth season, Joseph is still drawing the raves he first stirred during spring ball. On Sunday he said he feels like he did as a rookie and no longer feels the discomfort of a bone he broke in his foot twice. He did it in one of the last spring practices of 2007 and then again in the 10th game last year to end his season.

"I never really felt comfortable after," said Joseph of the first surgery. "I knew it would break again, I just didn't know when. It was like a calling card. So I just went out to play through it. I never said anything and I'm not using it as an excuse. This time around everything went fine."

Zimmer likes to needle Joseph about contact and playing physical. He couldn't resist last week talking to secondary coaches Kevin Coyle and Louie Cioffi when he offered, "He's come over to the dark side. He's hitting."

Joseph contends that he's always been aggressive in the run game and while head coach Marvin Lewis said Joseph had been a good tackler in his first two seasons, he left out last year. And, Joseph had to admit Sunday that when he failed to touch down Houston wide receiver Kevin Walter and Walter got back up to run for a touchdown last season, that's what people no doubt remember.

"He teases me about (tackling)," Joseph said. "But anybody who saw me before Zimmer was here would say it wasn't a problem. I guess he didn't see enough of it."

He has now.

Not only does Joseph's foot feel better, but he has reconfigured his body so well that he's getting kidded about his new and improved abs. He's gone from 194 pounds to 186, but feels much stronger after an offseason of crunching his core.

Joseph says a defensive back has to be the most conditioned player on the field and he knows it will be tested severely in this defense that leaves him and Hall isolated frequently so Zimmer can dial up blitzes and other forms of pressure.

"I would say there is a lot of pressure on us out there with the defense that we play," Joseph said. "It's kind of like always man-to-man. We have to stay on point all the time. Pressure is a big thing in this league."

Joseph has noticed the beefed-up pressure from all across the line, particularly the interior, which "makes our job easier if the quarterback is on his back."

But Zimmer likes how Joseph is putting people on their backs.

"The thing I'm impressed the most by him so far is he's tackling. I mean, he's throwing his body around," Zimmer said. "He wasn't a real physical guy in the past. At least that's my impression. I think maybe the rest of the defense ... I don't think anybody wants to be a soft guy out there. I think the safeties make sure everybody is doing their job. The linebackers are physical now for the most part."

Zimmer and Coyle were talking about that the other day, too. The way Crocker and Williams hit has spread to the cornerbacks whom don't want to be left behind. And Zimmer wants to keep the nastiness rolling.

He was itching to get Maualuga involved as soon as possible Thursday since he had missed the opener with a hamstring/groin problem and was stranded on the sidelines early when the Patriots played four wide receivers in the entire first quarter.

So Zimmer tried to help him along.

"I tried to get him involved in the game so he wouldn't have to do a whole bunch of thinking and the good thing was he showed up on a lot of those," Zimmer said. "We blitzed him quite a bit. He's a kid that finds the football. I like his attitude, how he runs around and plays."

Joseph can sense that kind of fresh excitement in front of him and Hall. He says this is the most defensive talent he's seen here and, "I was talking about that with one of the guys the other day. When I first got here you pretty much knew who was going to make it. Now it's kind of up in the air across the board."

"I think guys want to prove to people wrong it's a fluke they finished 12th in the league (in defense)," he said. "I think the guys have that in their head."

Joseph has only one thing in his head now that his foot is ready.

"I've shown flashes but I'm going to put it all together now and stay healthy for 16 full games," he said. "That's the key."

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