The Cincinnati Bengals enter 2013 with a strong defensive reputation. Since Mike Zimmer has taken over that side of the ball, the Bengals have surpassed respectability and now are seated at the high table with other impressive defensive specimens. They have earned this caliber by drafting well and developing projects to their fullest.
Yet, like many other defensive strongholds, there are weak spots to be found if one looks closely enough. Like Smaug's missing scale or the thermal exhaust port left open on the Death Star, the Bengals too have exploitable areas if their opponents can get through the first and second lines. Many may point to safety as this window of opportunity-and there are certainly a stockpile of concerns at that position-but cornerback too worries me.
Leon Hall is their leader in the back end. Out of all the names listed at corner, he is the most dependable. Last year he turned the tide on three late-season games with timely picks and tremendous returns. His pick-six against the Texans in the Wild-Card game gave his team their only lead of the contest. Hall has always played a half-step slower than many of his colleagues but also demonstrates terrific technique that not only has kept him in the league, but also keeps him as his team's best player at the position.
Aside from foot speed, health has become Leon's biggest drawback. In 2011, he ruptured his achilles tendon and missed the last seven games. Last year he missed Weeks 3 and 4 to a strained calf and really didn't look like his old self until the last third on the season. Prior to his achilles injury, Hall was a mini iron-man of sorts playing in 74 straight games, but an injury of that caliber is hard for any athlete to come back from and he isn't getting younger entering his seventh year as a pro.
Still Hall's toughness has never been called into question. He is a pros pro and is a good example for younger players around him. His spot at right corner awaits him until his health fails him again. When he is at his best, the benefits are easy to spot. His score against Houston was the only Bengals touchdown in the 2013 postseason, his touchdown against Pittsburgh proved to be an early dagger that vaulted the Stripes into the playoffs in the first place, and his interception in Philly fended off a nightmare upset that might have ruined the season in Week 15. He is a Pro-Bowl caliber player when he plays free and easy but even at 85 percent, he can be easily picked on.
Behind Hall are a litany of other question marks. The next most dependable of this lot is Terence Newman. Newman is not a young man as far as corners go (34) but held up better than most suspected last year as a new member to the Zim Clan. Zimmer has made the most of other aged defensive backs in his time here and Newman was familiar with his style from their days together in Dallas. One has to wonder, though, how long he can hold up. He was brought back this offseason after flirting with Oakland and still figures to be a major contributor, and the national media seems to put more credence into his play this year than last, but we close Bengal observers can't feel reassured penciling him in as a starter.
Newman impressed me with his tackling, like Hall, he too is no cream puff, but Torrey Smith, Antonio Brown and even still Mike Wallace who lurk on the schedule are very fast men who won't take pity on Newman's elder stage of his career. Not only must Newman stay healthy and remain on the field, but he must also maintain his speed which Father Time typically heavily discourages as men get older. Using him as a nickel seems like a natural demotion as the weeks and months pile up, but how soon is the defense as a whole ready to replace him with someone younger and more spry?
The organization would love that person to become last year's top draft pick, Dre Kirkpatrick. Sadly, however, the youngster has all the stigma of a cursed prospect and has found life hard and unfair in the NFL. No one really knows what this kid is capable of. We watched him line up only a handful of times on defense in 2012 and he didn't have the chance to show us much of anything. He is still tall and rangy with no real mileage applied to his body but the rest of his scouting report has yet to be determined. The lingering knee problem is a major red flag. What was diagnosed as Osgood-Schlatter disease eliminated all of his rookie mini and training camps and kept him off the field until Week 8. He played sparingly in five games before being rocked with what seemed to be a somewhat severe concussion that kept him out the next two weeks. The knee started acting back up late in the year and the Bengals shelved him for a fresh start this season. Dre had another procedure done to the knee in the offseason but sounds optimistic about making back in time for camp in 2013. Zimmer and Marvin Lewis are likely hopeful about his future, but one would think their optimism is somewhat guarded to do his short but injury riddled pro career.
Expectations around Kirkpatrick for fans have plummeted. We've seen this before. Dubious recurring knee problems are close to a death sentence in the NFL, not to mention the concussion he suffered statistically makes him more vulnerable for it to happen again. If he comes back and plays even sparingly but consistently, it would be a huge relief and instill hope that maybe he can develop into a first-round pick, but as it stands now, he is behind the eight ball and his battle is steeply uphill.
Adam Jones is a nice story. Here, a troubled young man found a new lease on life in Zimmer's system and he enjoyed what many consider his best year last season. Jones is a passionate player that brings a lot of good things to the table, not only on defense but as a return man too. He played in every game last year which was perhaps the most important stat for him to attain after battling hamstring and neck injuries the two previous years. He has shed a lot of the negativity that surrounded his reputation from past transgressions, and really seems to care about winning more than anything else.
Yet while he may warm our hearts, the Bengals may need him to play at perhaps unrealistic levels. Like Hall and Newman, he too is no spring chicken. Not only that, but one full season does make up for the abundance of missed games he has endured by either injury or suspension. He can still make exciting plays and has the football instincts to change the game by himself, but one cannot yet call him a reliable player.
There are others on the list but they all have their own, mainly injury, problems. Brandon Ghee remains on the roster (I think) but he's always hurt. Chris Lewis-Harris looked good in the preseason and even cracked the wild-card roster, but he is a project and a fill-in at best. Shaun Prater could develop into a decent player but missed all of last year with a knee injury in his rookie season-not a good start to a career.
The whole philosophy on defense this season for the Bengals centers around getting pressure on the quarterback, which, in theory, takes pressure off of the corners. We all know, however, that the pass rush will not be dominant on every single play and that a lot of pressure still exists within the corner ranks. They are not the fastest bunch in the NFL-and with quarterbacks likely to deliver the ball quickly against a heavy pass rush, they don't need to be-but they also are not the deepest for a unit with so many injury concerns. Don't expect a big free agency splash like Charles Woodson. Instead expect the Bengals to rely on their existing veterans to assist the younger players in their development while everyone keeps their fingers crossed in hopes of avoiding injury.
The more it's examined, the more tenuous the position appears. A chink in the armor perhaps not fortified enough. I trust the coaching staff in place to make the most of the situation, and the commitment on defense has been given to the players up front, but the back end becomes more worrisome as the reality sets in. Hopefully that worry quickly dissipates in the bask of winning meaningful games.
Mojokong-cornering the market.