Lewis sharpens Bengals' `D'

Architect of 2000 Ravens defense has 3-0 Cincinnati leaving its mark

September 30, 2005|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

Five years after Marvin Lewis' voracious Ravens defense chewed up the NFL to win a Super Bowl championship, his latest progeny is beginning to cut its teeth.

In the past three weeks, the Cincinnati Bengals have taken several shark-sized bites out of opposing quarterbacks Trent Dilfer, Daunte Culpepper and Kyle Orton.

The result was 12 interceptions, 16 take-aways and three Bengals wins.

The names are Deltha O'Neal, Tory James, Madieu Williams and Kevin Kaesviharn. If you don't know them now, you soon will. They are the starting secondary for the Bengals and already this season they've combined for eight interceptions.

Call it feeding frenzy.

"When you play defensive back in this league, you've got to have the mentality that when the ball goes in the air, that's your football," said Lewis, the Bengals' coach, at a news conference this week. "Because both guys have every right to the football. We've just got to keep up with that attitude."

The upstart Bengals are not quite ready to impersonate the record-setting Ravens defense of 2000, but they are pointed along parallel tracks.

At 3-0, the Bengals hold undisputed possession of their division lead, the AFC North, for the first time since 1990. That was also the last time the Bengals reached the playoffs.

They shoot for their fourth straight win Sunday at home against the 0-2 Houston Texans and beleaguered quarterback David Carr.

Lewis' 2000 Ravens led the NFL with 49 take-aways in the regular season. His 2005 Bengals have seven more take-aways - and six more interceptions - than any other team. The 50 points Cincinnati has generated off those turnovers also lead the league.

What is this defense capable of?

"It's too early to tell," said Chuck Bresnahan, Lewis' defensive lieutenant and coordinator. "I like to say the sky's the limit. We do have youth and athleticism, but I do know in this league you've got to stay healthy and be lucky.

"Once you get on these rolls, you've got to stay on them. We feel very fortunate we got off to a fast start, but it wasn't a fluke."

The Bengals, who play four of their first six games on the road, have beaten the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears by an average of 20 points. After Dilfer threw two interceptions in the opener, Culpepper and Orton, a rookie, threw five each.

With that, the Bengals became the first team in 35 years with five or more interceptions in consecutive games. The last team was the Cleveland Browns in 1971.

"Right now, the simplification of things - where our guys know where they're supposed to be, how they're supposed to get there and the right technique once they get there - is putting them in position to make plays," Bresnahan said. "You can't give the players enough credit. I'd love to say it's scheme, but it's players."

The Bengals have eight first-day draft picks in their starting defensive lineup, and two more who get considerable playing time, including this year's No. 1 pick, linebacker David Pollack. Their second-round pick, middle linebacker Odell Thurman, was named the NFL's Rookie of the Month for September.

The secondary, meanwhile, is the most improved area on the team. Cornerbacks O'Neal and James have been outstanding on the edge. Kaesviharn, the strong safety, was a practice squad player in 2001 who worked his way into the lineup. Williams, a free safety from Maryland, was drafted seven picks after nickel back Keiwan Ratliff in the second round a year ago.

With a league-leading four interceptions, O'Neal has vindicated himself after being switched to wide receiver and ultimately traded by the Denver Broncos.

"He was a gambler who was undisciplined with his technique," Bresnahan said from his time as defensive coordinator with the Oakland Raiders. "Since he's been here, we demanded he play sound technique. That's helped his game."

James, released by the Raiders before the 2003 season, made the Pro Bowl for the first time last year with eight interceptions. Bresnahan said he has grown as a playmaker in Cincinnati and improved his tackling.

Williams, meanwhile, is the most explosive player of the group.

"His upside is incredible," Bresnahan said. "He studies the game because it's important to him. He could be an unbelievable player in this league."

The defense started the season as the biggest question mark on a team with Carson Palmer at quarterback. But when the Bengals struggled on offense last week, going 2-for-14 on third down, the defense picked them up with turnovers.

"We haven't carried anybody, we haven't done anything yet," Bresnahan said. "We're a work in progress. We're so young, and we're making so many little mistakes. But we're getting better."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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