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The Bengal coaches must have choked a bit on their coffees the morning they learned about the team’s schedule. They might have turned to each other and asked why God or Goodell—sometimes it's hard to tell the difference—was smiting them so. While their own division is tough enough, they also face the AFC East with the surging Jets and the ever-dangerous Patriots, the NFC South with an improving Atlanta Falcons team, and of course, the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. But the real kicker is the two random conference teams they've been assigned: Indianapolis and San Diego. They play every reigning AFC playoff team, and two playoff-caliber NFC teams; the quest for the Ring would appear more doable.
So how will Cincinnati survive such a dangerous labyrinth of a schedule? The common denominator among all the non-divisional quality teams that the Bengals face this year is that they all have excellent quarterbacks. The Bengal front office noticed this trend as well and loaded up on secondary help as a result. Last season the goal was to win the division and it took brute force to accomplish that objective. This season the goal takes on a bigger scope and beating teams outside of the AFC North becomes an added focal point.
Stopping the pass is somewhat easier when you employ the league's top corner tandem; luckily for the Bengals, they enjoy such a luxury. It's no secret that both Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall are Pro Bowl caliber cornerbacks; each had six picks last season and have become the lynchpins to the defense's growing success. There are concerns that Cincinnati may not be able to afford both once their contracts expire, but for now, each is under contract for this season and neither appear dissatisfied with their current situations.
It's the new acquisitions that point to Cincinnati's shifted defensive priority this offseason. The schedule demands that the Bengals become deeper at cornerback to counter the spread-formation aerial assaults they are certain to see. Second-year man Morgan Trent, played a nice rookie season at the nickel position last year, but he will be challenged to keep that spot, both by third-round pick Brandon Ghee, and free-agent pick-up Adam Jones.
Some analysts project Ghee as a possible free-safety someday, but Marvin Lewis made early comparisons to Joseph after drafting Ghee and if he was used at safety, it would likely be on a spot-duty basis. Chris Crocker is aging, and will likely need to be replaced someday soon, but Ghee has a better chance at winning the nickel-back position than he does winning a starting job at safety.
Jones, though, is battling for that nickel spot himself. A lot was made of Adam when he landed at the Home for Wayward Boys—better known as the Bengals—and there was once again media and fan backlash of the move. Yet all the reports of the man coming out of minicamp since then are filled with superlatives concerning his attitude and play. Like so many other reclamation projects chanced by the Bengals, Jones seems on track to become yet another redemption story. Regaining his 2006 form is still a very long way off, but if he continues his dedication to resuscitating his career, there is no reason to think that he won't help the team. Jones has always had tremendous natural football skill as both a cornerback and as a punt-returner. Taking one step at a time in the right direction will certainly turn up the heat for that nickel-back competition.
The other new face in the secondary is safety Gibril Wilson. Both Oakland and Miami signed Wilson to sizable contracts only to suffer buyer's remorse and cut him the next year. But if you look at the numbers and production, it seems this trend is more a representation of inflated contracts than of his game. The Bengals didn't spend a ton on him and they have a few other veteran safeties already on the squad, so his expectations aren't too overwhelming in Cincinnati. Nonetheless, I do expect him to push both Roy Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe for the strong safety spot, and even Crocker at free-safety—though I do harbor concerns about Wilson's speed and coverage ability. With such an aged corps of safeties, and, once again, facing a pass-happy schedule, bringing in another capable man for the job makes good business sense.
And if all those acquisitions weren't enough, the team picked up hall-of-fame defensive back Rod Woodson as an intern coach for this year’s training camp. It doesn't matter that he is a former Steeler, Raven and Brown, the man knows how to play corner and safety, and can only serve as a wealth of information for every player in the Bengals secondary. Defensive-backs coach Kevin Coyle does a fine job, and, presumably, so does his assistant, Louie Cioffi, but Rod Woodson brings a different aura to the advice he gives. The coaches know the textbook stuff, but the greats know the intangibles that separate the elite from the average; players wanna learn from Coyle and Cioffi, but they wanna be Rod Woodson.
It's clear that Cincinnati is taking their schedule seriously. When Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and even Mark Sanchez await, a team has no other choice but to take immediate countermeasures. The NFL is said to be a passing league, and has created a pass-defense premium as a result. Offenses use more wide receivers and spread formations more than ever before, so having multiple worthwhile defensive backs is the logical approach. Even though many people in the world still refuse to admit it, the Bengals' logic has been sound for a while. Adjusting to their tough schedule is just the most recent example of that.
Mojokong—imagine a tiger-striped missile-defense shield, and that's kind of like our defense.