Veterans: Blame players

Posted: 6 a.m.



John Thornton gave the waitress his standard 20 percent tip Monday even though she railed on the Bengals all through breakfast without knowing her customer had participated in the previous day's defensive meltdown.

"The town's upset," Thornton said and he acknowledged, "We stunk," but his next tip is that head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan shouldn't be blamed for the defense's annual slide to what is 28th again in the NFL.

Thornton, along with right end Justin Smith, Sunday's lone defensive player not a Lewis acquisition, and tackle Sam Adams, who played for both Lewis and Bresnahan on Super Bowl teams and says this defense has similar if not better talent, put the blame on underachieving players after Lewis said Monday that he's underachieving in his fourth season.

Here comes the heat. In their last 12 games the Bengals are 4-8. Since starting 4-0 last year, they are 11-11.

"We're not playing up to our abilities; you can't put this on Chuck," Thornton said. "It's the same defense we were playing last year when we got all those turnovers and now we can't buy one. ... To play two halves like that, there's no explanation for that. We did it right in the first half."

The defense has done it right for much of the season, watching the offense struggle in the Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Baltimore losses in which the defense played well enough to win. And that was Lewis' message Monday.

"We've underachieved," Thornton said. "We've played well in spurts, but both sides haven't done it together. That's why we're 4-5."

But Sunday's defensive collapse is so spectacular (35 points in 11 minutes, kids) that it has put the spotlight back on the consistent problem of Lewis' regime: His inability to put together a consistent defense despite two different coordinators, eight first-day draft picks, and the bulk of the club's free-agent money.

Only two starters (Smith and middle linebacker Brian Simmons) and a backup (strong safety Kevin Kaesviharn) were here before Lewis arrived in 2003. As if to symbolize the inertia, the defense has been ranked 28, 19, and 28 in those seasons and it is 28th this week.

"We seem to have new guys all the time, which is unfortunate," Lewis said at his Monday news conference. "We've not had the same group that's been able to play together. With the coaching, they've got to become more responsible. If it doesn't, this kind of thing can happen and you can give up some plays."

If Lewis has put much of his energies into the defense, so have the injuries. A broken neck may curtail the career of one No. 1 pick in linebacker David Pollack. A knee injury wiped out a free-agent pickup in middle linebacker Nate Webster's Bengals career after three games. Adams, another free-agent, has been hobbled by knee problems. The careers of two dynamic second-rounders that were to be the centerpiece of the defense, middle linebacker Odell Thurman and free safety Madieu Williams, have been hampered by losing virtually entire seasons through suspension and injury, respectively.

Plus, the Bengals haven't had their most experienced linebacker, Brian Simmons, for the past month in a lineup that has been relying on two rookie backers.

But, everyone in the league has problems and, as Lewis said, "These are the guys whose backs you were jumping on a few weeks ago, for three or four games in a row, when they limited the opponent to a few points. We had a bad half, and we've got to get back and play football."

And, as Thornton said, "We picked a bad day to have a bad half of football."



It isn't bad enough for Lewis to do what he did in 2004, when he took over the play-calling duties from coordinator Leslie Frazier after the Bengals lost three of their first four games. When they also lost that one in Cleveland (allowing 34 points and 449 yards), Lewis had made his point. Although he did end up dismissing Frazier after that season and promoting Bresnahan.

"The point I proved is that it's not about what you call," Lewis said. "We set up the plan that week, had gone through those various plays, and a certain individual gave up a touchdown play that week. He was not in the right technique, it was corrected in practice and he gave up a big play.

"The coaches have corrected the situation, and reminded him of where you need to be and why. Then it comes down to the player. We'll make some subtle changes on players and get some things right. We've got to be better. We're just not playing good enough football right now consistently enough."

It's not lost on Lewis that cornerback Deltha O'Neal is the same guy that not only blew the coverage in that game in Cleveland two years ago on a 99-yard touchdown pass, but also gave up a 46-yard touchdown pass in the heart of San Diego's comeback.

If it's one thing Lewis despises, it's giving up the long ball, and he hasn't been very charitable while discussing O'Neal this season. O'Neal injured his right shoulder on the play and didn't return until late in the game. If he's going to be one of the subtle changes, Lewis would only say, "We'll see Wednesday," when the injury report comes out.

"Coaches get too much credit and too much blame," Smith said. "They can put you in good situations by putting you in this type of coverage against that type of team and disguise blitzes. Anybody can call a defense, it's getting the right calls at the right time. I think Chuck's a good defensive coordinator. I think we have to look at ourselves first instead of looking at the coaches."



Smith used two examples from Sunday to show why the players should shoulder responsibility, one on each side of the ball.

"On one play on the defensive line, they were in an over formation and we lined up wrong," Smith said. "That's what they told us. We knew what to do. We just got lined up wrong."

On Monday, the Bengals were congratulating the Chargers on a blitz call on first down in which they got the matchup they wanted with outside linebacker Shaun Phillips on fullback Jeremi Johnson on a play that ultimately decided the game when Phillips caused quarterback Carson Palmer to fumble on the Bengals 9. Smith's point is that Phillips executed the blitz, something that Bresnahan has called but not with the same results.

"He could have gone under the linebacker instead of over the top," Smith said. "That's a problem on our blitzes. Sometimes we're not hugging up right with the backs instead of going over the top."

Adams played on Lewis's Super Bowl winning defense in Baltimore and on Bresnahan's defense in Oakland that lost to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. He says this is Bresnahan's show and system but that Lewis has obvious influences.

"Chuck and Marvin weren't out of their gaps," said Adams, who came up with his first Bengals sack Sunday. "They didn't bust coverage. They didn't get beat on anything. You can't blame them. If you bust coverages, it doesn't matter what you call. Do what you're supposed to do. That's it in a nutshell."



In Baltimore, Adams was one of two defensive linemen who were Pro Bowlers on a defense that also had a Pro Bowl linebacker and couple in the secondary.

"We have that caliber of guy on this defense," he says. "I don't think there's any question that we've got more talent here than we did in Oakland."

So we're back to the chicken and the egg, which it always seems to be with defense and Bengaldom.

"Discipline, plain and simple," said Adams, when referring to preparation. "We have to carry ourselves better than how we carry ourselves on the field. What you get done off the field goes back to on the field."

Adams says it's really all pretty simple.

"If you're supposed to be in that gap, be in that gap," he said. "If we execute the plays that Chuck and Marvin give us, we'll go to the Super Bowl and win it."

The veterans pretty much echoed what Lewis talked about Monday.

"At some point players have to take responsibility to get their jobs done," Lewis said. "A lot of the things that errors were made on were not the first time through. It was through the week on particular plays, particular formations, particular defensive snaps in practice, and it was done correctly (in practice). It was done correctly earlier in the football game at certain points. It comes down to the player being consistent with it. What happens is that when you start pressing, then you try and alter what you do a little bit, because the last time, the other guy wasn't where he was supposed to be in the fit.

"You get on a run like that and it's hard to get off of. We had one of those against New England a few weeks ago. We had eliminated that, but it crept back. Yesterday there was no need for it to, and I thought we were past it, but we're not. We have to get there."

He had to smile because a few weeks ago offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was taking the same heat and Lewis was given the third degree about how involved he is in the offense. Now, a day after the offense came up with its most yards in 16 years, 545 yards, he faced questions about his input in the defense. It turned out to be pretty close to the same answer.

"I'm involved with both sides of the football," he said. "I'm not the defensive coordinator, nor am I the offensive coordinator. But I make suggestions all the time. I make suggestions on the game plan, I sit in the meetings on Tuesday with both sides of the football, and ultimately everything has to go through me and I approve what we do."

He also said he's satisfied with how it comes down during the game and his role on the sidelines.

"I don't call the game on Sunday because I need to be in other areas at some point," Lewis said. "So I can't be there making adjustments on defense and be conscious of what's going on with the offense. I don't choose that to be my role. And I think the person that does that needs to be hands-on in that fashion. He has to be a part of that in that way."

Thornton smiled, too, when he heard that Lewis said he was underachieving.

"He's taking the blame for us," he said. "We've underachieved as a team."

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