When your car breaks down you often just replace what is broken. In the case of NFL defenses, teams often decide to start fresh by bringing in new coaches, players, and philosophies to stop losing games on defense. Mike Zimmer has brought a top ten defense to town in his tenure, but he is not stopping there. Last year's second half was evidence the secondary needed to improve to sustain a playoff caliber defense for multiple seasons. This off-seasons fine-tuning changes in the secondary have helped build from within without overhauling the game plan. Cut-down day is gonna be tough coming out of training camp, here are the changes and factors that will surely keep Mike Zimmer up all night on September 2nd.
No one in Cincinnati other than Marshall Thundering Herd fans and Chris Crocker's momma are upset with the failure to re-sign Chris to another contract after the terrible strong safety play against the Texans during the 2011 playoffs. Many fans on this site have waxed philosophical on the potential dominance of Taylor Mays if he is given the chance to start. All of us are excited about the arrival of Dre Kirkpatrick. And, if you weren't aware, ex-first round picks Terence Newman and Jason Allen were added as free agents. The changes don't necessarily signify turnover, a major change to the approach is how to describe it. These are huge investments that demand immediate success or they won't be worth it. Ultimately these decisions are up to Mike Brown, and he will find out this year if the money he is paying Mike Zimmer and his philosophy is well invested. You could already say he has been well worth his salary for top seven defenses in 2009 and 2011. However, if the Bengals are to break their consecutive playoff seasons curse, we will need to rely on Zimmer's defensive stability.
Leon Hall: The man, the myth, the best corner we have is a big question mark going into the 2012 season. If he hadn't had the Achilles Injury against the Steelers last year, Zimmer could count on him to be a top flight cover man. The injury leaves questions about his speed, ability to change direction, and most importantly how many snaps will he be able to play this year. Hall himself has stated multiple times he will be ready for the season opener. IF he can play in at least two preseason games, and plays well, the Bengals staff will sleep better at night. If not, there are even more questions to be answered.
Taylor Mays: To a Bengals fan, it is almost like saying Tim Tebow in New York; what do we get, how good can he be? May's career so far doesn't point to top-10 safety production. We all watched him in college and heard ESPN promote his abilities. Being traded by the Niners one year after acquiring him in the draft, and having very few suitors to trade him too, let you know how the league viewed him. The Bengals see his potential however, and have him penciled in to start game one. We will definitely be watching.
Rookies: Dre Kirkpatrick, Shaun Prater, and George Iloka were all taken in this year's draft for a reason: Stop the bleeding. The Bengals had Jonathan Joseph leave for Texas, Chris Crocker's play declined, and injuries last year left us with back-ups starting games entering the playoffs. You can't guard a five receiver set from a traditional 4-3 defense, so we needed to address the trend by adjusting to it, hence our additions in the off-season. No one doubts the rookies ability to contribute, they doubt WHEN they will contribute. Other than running back, most rookies take a couple years to reach their potential. We know this though ; they will all have to be judged by the fire in live game situations.
New old-guys: Terrence Newman's best years in the NFL happened with the Cowboys under Mike Zimmer. Since then he was turned on by the Dallas fans and media. Jason Allen was a 2006 first round draft pick to Texas, but primarily played the slot and last year started a few games at free safety. Now, I can't say that the glory days are back for Newman, or that Allen will discover his draft potential, but if Zim is the defensive magician we think he is then maybe quarterbacks are in trouble against us.
Strategy: If you compare Zimmer's defense with Marvin Lewis' defenses in Baltimore, you will see a different philosophy at safety. Zim doesn't differentiate between strong and free safety. He uses strong side/ week side approach, lining up his two safeties interchangeably to confuse the offense. Marvin ran the traditional positions, freeing up Ed Reed to be a center fielder of sorts and let his strong safety pressure the box. Speaking of safeties, what will be the approach to covering the NFL's nouveau riche success of tight ends. Big, strong, fast players like Sands, Iloka and Mays look like the answer, unless you want to guard Gronkowski with a linebacker. Pick any LB in the NFL, he will beat them all day.
Who plays, who goes: If Hall is healthy, then this is almost easy. Newman or Clements at two, Nelson and Mays at safety. If Hall starts the year on the PUP list, who can guard number one type receivers? Does Dre get his chance early? Do we have another corner with the skill we need? Is Newman still capable? Clements doesn't seem in line to get a look at safety, in fact Kirkpatrick would probably get more interest from coaches if the need arose (here's to hoping that doesn't happen). I figure the Bengals will keep 10 defensive backs this year. Lets start with the obvious.
Not getting cut: Nelson, Hall, Kirkpatrick, Jones
Has to earn roster spot: Mays, Newman, Allen, Iloka, Brandon Ghee, Robert Sands
That is ten, let's just say Hall starts the year on the PUP and add one more: Clements
Odd men out: Prater and Tony Dye
Projected depth chart to start the season from first time contributer Drew Leckie:
CB: Hall, Newman, Clements, Allen, Kirkpatick, Jones
FS: Nelson, Iloka
SS: Mays, Sands
Practice squad: Miles,Prater, and Dye