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Next men up

Posted Nov 17, 2011


Kelly Jennings

You hate to fire up that dog-eared cliché from the 20th century, but when the Bengals resume their AFC North rivalry with the Ravens this Sunday in Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12), they’re going to have to throw out the records.

Sure, in their last four meetings Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has made life miserable for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. He’s given the Ravens just a touchdown in each game and held them to below 200 yards passing in each while Flacco has thrown nine interceptions with just two touchdowns. That computes to only a 48.2 passer rating and the Bengals 3-1 record against the Ravens lately.

But this is the first time Zimmer faces Flacco without Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph at cornerback. And it is also Ravens rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith’s debut against the Bengals. Plus, wide receiver Lee Evans, Baltimore's prized preseason pickup that hasn’t played in the last seven weeks because of an ankle problem, is on the current All-BengalsKiller team averaging more than 20 yards per career catch against them.

(Evans was limited Wednesday, but he also practiced last week and didn’t play on Sunday.)

Still, no one is expecting Zimmer to back off his in-your-face, man-to-man-based style even though he lost his best man. But Flacco will say that Zimmer switches enough between man and zone that he’s expecting anything.  

Anquan Boldin is still Baltimore's go-to guy, but with Hall undergoing Achilles surgery Wednesday and Joseph in Houston the Bengals are still very different with Kelly Jennings expected to line up opposite Nate Clements at right cornerback.

How different?

“If you would ask me, I'd say we built this defense around Leon and that's the honest-to-God truth,” safety Chris Crocker said before Wednesday’s practice. “You can't do a lot without having a shutdown corner. We still have guys who are talented and we'll do what we do—we're not going to change anything, because we can't—but it's hard to lose somebody (like that).”

But not many teams can do what the Bengals can do, which is replacing a first-round cornerback in Hall with another one in Jennings. Or, even better than that, have a new third corner drafted higher than both of them in Adam Jones, the sixth pick in the 2005 draft.

(Both should be fine at right corner. Jennings has played only on the left side since he’s been here but played on the right during his five seasons in Seattle. Jones played right corner all of last year. Clements goes into the slot with three receivers for one of Sunday’s marquee matchups against Boldin.)

The problem with Jones is he has yet to take a snap from scrimmage this season and while he thinks he can play Sunday, he didn’t practice Wednesday with a groin problem that kept him out last week. But not only is he getting anxious (he hasn’t played defense in 13 months), his team suddenly has gone from wanting him to needing him.

“I also have to think about my team,” said Jones, who said he’d work Thursday. “They’ve been waiting on me patiently. I’ve had some nicks and nacks. I might have to play through a little pain to do what we have to do. I’m prepared to see how it goes. It is what it is. I’m happy for the opportunity. I want to be 100 percent before I get back out there. This week I think I will be 100 percent. My goal is to get out there and play fast without thinking.”

Which is exactly what Jennings is saying. Even as little as he’s played since he came over from Seattle in a trade just before the preseason finale, he’s played more than Evans has since the Ravens got him in a trade from Buffalo. And Jennings is feeling more comfortable after playing his first three consecutive games of the season.

“I finally got a chance to play three games back-to-back,” said Jennings, who missed two games early in the season with a hamstring issue he brought from Seattle. “With the injuries, I played two games and then I was out another two games, so I’m starting to settle down, calm down.”

The Bengals traded little-used defensive tackle Clinton McDonald to Seattle for Jennings for this very reason. They wanted reliable, experienced depth from a guy that can run. What they are hoping is that Jennings plays with the confident aggressiveness he displayed in the first five seasons of his career in Seattle and that the more he gets familiar with the system he’ll shed the tentativeness he showed at the end of the half in Tennessee two weeks ago.

With eight seconds left Jennings hesitated on a 16-yard touchdown pass when it appeared as if he expected help over the top and he never got back there. Now that he’s getting into a groove, Jennings thinks that’s the kind of play he’ll be able to make now but “regardless of help or not, I have to be smart on a play like that in a situation with 14 seconds left," he said. "Make them throw the ball short. That was a bonehead play by me.”

Jennings is viewed as a pro’s pro, a conscientious and smart guy that fits into the Crocker-Hall good guy DB room, but he is grappling with his fourth system in four years. And it’s not easy.

“It’s a lot different,” Jennings said of the Bengals scheme. “Every word and everything in it is different. But that’s why you study at home, here in the locker room, you just have to take your time until you get it.

“The hardest part in my opinion is just terminology. Defense in a sense boils down to being a lot of the same, but the terminology is different. Sometimes I find myself about to say a call that I would make if I was in Seattle. Once you get someone to learn something and see the same thing and bring in a whole different terminology to it, that’s been the hardest part for me.”

But he’s hoping the Bengals keep their aggressive approach, as if Hall was in the lineup. Jennings likes Zimmer’s in-your-face, cover-them-tight aggressiveness.

“I don’t see any reason to go away from it,” Jennings said. “No doubt about it Leon is a great player. He’ll be missed in our secondary, but I think we can keep the wheels rolling and make the defense work.”

Zimmer walked off the practice field Wednesday and announced, “We’ll do whatever it takes to win,” and the way Crocker reads that is Zimmer isn’t changing much. If at all.

“They've built reputations in this scheme. It wasn't like those guys (were shutdown corners) when they came here,” Crocker said. “That's what they worked themselves to be. So we'll just move right on along. It's unfortunate to say because you don't want to lose anybody, but this machine keeps ticking.”

Crocker, who also played under Zimmer in Atlanta, says things are going to be relatively the same. Has to be, he says.

“You do what you keep doing. We're already playing good up front, the front seven,” Crocker said. “They just have to play better. The guys who come in, there can't be any letdowns or any slack. Kelly's a first-round draft pick, (Jones is) a first-round draft pick, Reggie (Nelson)'s a first-round draft pick. We have guys who are talented. They're here for a reason. You just have to step up. When Leon went down this past Sunday, we didn't stop doing what we were doing. Zim's not going to change his calls. We just have to make plays. “

With the drafting of Smith and the trade for Evans, the Ravens have been riding the perception that they have become big-pass masters. And Smith is 14th in the NFL with 18.5 yards per catch. But the Ravens are merely 21st in the NFL with 26 pass plays of at least 20 yards and are tied for 14th with five pass plays of at least 40 yards.

Meanwhile, the Bengals defense has been more vulnerable to the pass than run, allowing 25 pass plays of at least 20 yards and five of at least 40 yards. And the Ravens like to throw it, passing it 362 times and running it just 221.

“I think that the game will depend what we play; it just depends on who we play,” Crocker said. “You can't play a lot of zone because it's easy to make completions. The thing about us in this secondary, we like to play tight coverage and we like to contest balls, contest throws. We're not a zone team, so we're not going to change what we've done. We're going to keep going.”

 

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