After spending first-round picks on cornerbacks the last two years the Bengals have been relatively stable with their secondary comings and goings this year. S Madieu Williams was allowed to depart via free agency for Minnesota but the franchise was well prepared for that with the immergence of both Marvin White and Chinedum Ndukwe as rookies last season.
Like much of the rest of the defense there is plenty of youth being counted on, although with S Dexter Jackson and CB Deltha O’Neal there are two veterans who have played at high levels previously and have the capabilities of continuing to do so.
STARTERS: CB Leon Hall, CB Johnathan Joseph, S Dexter Jackson, S Marvin White.
KEY RESERVES: CB Deltha O’Neal, S Chinedum Ndukwe, CB Blue Adams, CB David Jones, S John Busing, S Ethan Kilmer, S Herana-Daze Jones.
LOSSES: S Madieu Williams (UFA Minnesota).
NEWCOMERS: S Kyries Hebert (FA, Winnipeg-CFL), CB Simeon Castille (College FA), S Corey Lynch (Round 6).
SYNOPSIS: A couple of days ago I wrote about how the Bengals need to improve on their 2007 sack total of 22 and the obvious players pointed at were on the defensive line but the secondary holds as much responsibility in this area as the men upfront. Sacks come from a combination of pressure on the quarterback and good coverage. The Bengals gave up 29 touchdown passes last season (by comparison, Carson Palmer threw for 26 touchdowns), including 11 of 20 yards or greater distance.
The Bengals have to get better play from their secondary in 2008. The good news is that they have the talent to improve.
There aren’t many teams that can boast of having three first-round cornerbacks on the roster but the Bengals can count themselves in that fraternity. They selected Johnathan Joseph No. 1 in 2006 and Leon Hall with their top choice last year. O’Neal was Denver’s first-round pick in 2000 and twice has earn Pro Bowl honors, including with the Bengals in 2005 when he tied for the league lead with 10 interceptions and didn’t allow a single pass completion of more than 20 yards.
The problem O’Neal has had is being constantly motivated to play. The Bengals turned down his overtures for a new contract following the ’05 season and that clearly affected him on the field in 2006, as well as some nagging injuries which included a bad knee. He rebounded last season but it was inevitable that Joseph and Hall would become the starters and that happened in the middle of the season. O’Neal still managed to tie for the team lead with 16 pass breakups. O’Neal is entering the final season of his deal and that may be the best motivator the Bengals could ask for because the player believes he is worthy of one more big-money deal and he’s going to want to prove it.
Ndukwe was the third-to-last player taken in the entire ’07 draft but he saw immediate action on defense and posted numbers in every statistical category on defense, including coming up with three interceptions, two of which came against Cleveland in December when the Bengals beat the Browns 19-14 and effectively knocked Cleveland from the playoffs.
White didn’t get into the lineup as quickly but his playing time increased dramatically the final month on the season and he made an impact with five pass breakups and timely tackling. He ran down St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson after the Pro Bowler ran 54 yards deep into Cincinnati territory. While it took him some time to drag Jackson down his tackle did prevent a touchdown as the Rams eventually turned the ball over on downs.
Jackson may not have the same range he once did during his prime time with Tampa Bay but don’t underestimate his ability to diagnose plays on the fly and get where he needs to be more often than not. That will be invaluable to Ndukwe and White. Jackson was fifth on the team in tackles last season and showed up in every defensive category, including two interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
The only draft choice used on the secondary was in the sixth round when the Bengals took S Corey Lynch of Appalachian State, he of the famous last-second blocked field goal that sealed the Mountaineers’ upset win at Michigan last season. Lynch has a nose for the ball, having blocked six kicks in his college career and recorded 24 interceptions among his 54 passes broken up. Lynch should help immediately on special teams.
The Bengals are also optimistic regarding the return of Ethan Kilmer, a jack-of-all-trades player who played wide receiver in college at Penn State but was moved to secondary as a rookie while excelling on special teams. A knee injury forced him to miss all of last season but his return will help coordinator Darrin Simmons’ special teams improve from the start.
Herana-Daze Jones led the team in special teams tackles for the second straight season in ’07 while seeing limited time on defense. When a guy makes plays on special teams, you find a spot for him and the Bengals have a good one in Jones.