A lot of my optimism starts with the return of middle linebacker Stewart Bradley. He only played six snaps in the preseason opener so we didn't get to see much of him. Bradley played a whole half last Friday. At first I thought he looked rusty. Bradley was caught out of position in coverage. He was slow to get to the ball on run plays. Things changed in the second quarter. The rust went away and the light came on. Bradley played faster and more confidently. He showed good range in coverage and just flat-out looked better. The highlight play was his big hit on receiver Chad Ochocinco. There was no getting up quickly or trash talking after that shot.
Bradley is hugely important for our defense. Last year we struggled to find a middle linebacker that could play the run or pass, let alone both. Seeing Bradley patrol the middle of the field at 260 pounds is a beautiful thing. The fact that he's so big and strong, but also runs well, is critical for us. We need him to come up big when teams run draw plays out of the shotgun against our nickel defense. Bradley is agile enough to be effective in coverage and to not make throwing over the middle so easy. Welcome back, big fella.
The player that has surprised me the most is linebacker Akeem Jordan. He was moved from the weak side over to the strong side. That isn't as easy as it sounds. One thing that coordinator Sean McDermott is doing to help is playing Jordan off the ball for the most part. Last year we had Chris Gocong at SAM and he played up on the line quite a bit. That fit his size and skill set. Jordan is better on the run. McDermott is keeping him back and letting Jordan play downhill. Jordan had a tackle-for-loss in the opener. Against the Bengals he played the run well. He had several runs come to his side. Jordan attacked the blockers and either disrupted the play or strung it out so that other defenders could come up in pursuit and make the stop. Some people are curious about his cover skills. Jim Johnson used Jordan to help on tight ends down the stretch in 2008 and that worked well. We'll see what happens, but I think Jordan will be OK. I'm very encouraged by how well he's played this summer.
Ernie Sims remains a polarizing player. Some fans and media members see him as too small and a player that can't get off blocks. I've watched his snaps over and over. I think the good definitely outweighs the bad. Sims blew up a lead blocker on a run that came his way. That clogged the running lane and left the running back with nowhere to go. Sims wasn't credited with the tackle, but he made the play. He later ran through a lead blocker on a play where we got Cedric Benson down in the backfield. Sims didn't make the tackle, but was part of the play. There were a couple of plays where Sims either got stuck on blocks or was slow to get through traffic. I didn't see it as a problem that hurt the overall defense. All linebackers get blocked at times.
The other thing to remember about Sims is why we got him. He was brought here to help us when we face explosive passing offenses like Minnesota, Dallas, and Green Bay. We won't know his true value until we play a passing team and see what kind of a difference he makes.
Rookie Brandon Graham is now the starter at left defensive end. We lose experience, but add speed, quickness, and size. Graham is about half an inch shorter than incumbent Juqua Parker, but is 15 to 20 pounds heavier. That should make him a more effective run defender. Graham has the physical skills to be a very good pass rusher. He just needs game reps so that he can learn the subtleties of the position. Don't expect Graham to pile up a ton of sacks as a rookie, but he should offer more consistent pressure from the left side. With a force like Trent Cole on the right side, regular pressure is important from left end. That will affect the quarterback and mean less coverage time for the players in the back seven. I'll gladly take five or six sacks if Graham can consistently get into the backfield and pressure the passer.
Rookie Nate Allen has been the starter at free safety for most of the off-season. He showed why in the game against Cincinnati. Allen looked like a complete player. He tackled well. He was good in coverage. He also blitzed off the edge and forced Carson Palmer into an interception. Allen did have a couple of hiccups. He got trucked by Benson on a run up the middle. Allen got in position to make the tackle, but Benson just ran him over. Welcome to the NFL. Allen also had a sloppy tackle attempt on a tight end. Allen dove at the guy, but didn't hit him with enough force to affect the play. This is pro football, not the Big East. But I was definitely encouraged by what I saw overall. The most impressive play came on a downfield pass. Allen got deep and then rotated over to the receiver who had gotten behind the cornerback. Allen took a good angle and then was in good coverage position. In that game we saw Allen's ability to play at the line of scrimmage or 30 yards downfield.
Allen's solid play brought out the best in Quintin Mikell, who had an active game as a tackler and also picked off a pass. Mikell admitted that his play slipped last year in part due to worrying about the free safety position. Mikell's first two years here came with Brian Dawkins as the other safety. Last season Mikell had to adjust to Macho Harris and Sean Jones, guys he hadn't played with. Allen has been the other safety for several months now. He and Mikell have practiced alongside each other. They've been forming a bond. I expect our safety play to be much improved this year now that Mikell is more comfortable and we have a true free safety playing the position of free safety.
Last Friday we also got to see Ellis Hobbs handle another test. This time out he had to face a pair of gifted wide receivers. Hobbs gave up some completions to his side, but I thought he covered well for the most part. He tackled well again. I'm starting to get more and more comfortable with him. Hobbs isn't great on downfield passes. That's something that McDermott will have to keep in mind as he makes gameplans and calls defenses. Having a fast, rangy free safety like Nate Allen will certainly help that situation.
Think about the big picture for a minute. The promotion of Graham makes us more athletic up front. We're definitely better at linebacker. The development of Allen at safety is very promising. Hobbs is off to a solid start at right corner. The starting defense is starting to look pretty good.
More from the Cincinnati game ...
• Did you notice that Omar Gaither was the backup SAM? He's got starting experience at the other two linebacker positions. Now Gaither is getting cross-trained so that he can be the top backup at all three spots. I thought he played well. Gaither's move to the outside meant more snaps for Jamar Chaney in the middle. I thought he looked a step slow. That wasn't a physical problem. Chaney was reacting rather than attacking. He was too hesitant and unsure of himself. That should change with more game experience.
• Rookie Daniel Te'o-Nesheim played much better this week. He didn't do much as a pass rusher, but did play the run well. He was strong and physical at the point of attack. He did a good job of shedding blocks.
• Keenan Clayton is another rookie that played well. He picked off a pass and looked good in the open field. Clayton is still a project. He has to become a better run defender. I would trust him in the nickel defense right now, but I'd be nervous about him playing in the base unit.
• Cornerback Dimitri Patterson had another strong game. He picked off a pass and forced a fumble. He also did well on special teams. He and Riley Cooper were the gunners on the punt team in the first quarter.
• The offense didn't have such a great game. The biggest problems were up front on the offensive line. None of the starters had a strong game. The Bengals used a lot of stunts and blitzes. We didn't handle the situation well at all. Part of that could be on Mike McGlynn for not making the correct pre-snap adjustments. It looked like the biggest problem was simply that guys made sloppy mistakes. Five times we were called for lining up incorrectly. Not good. Other times veterans would whiff on a block or fail to pick up a blitzer. I didn't see a lack of talent so much as I saw mental mistakes and poor execution.
• Riley Cooper had a couple of catches and continues to look like he should be the number four receiver.
• Neither Clay Harbor nor Cornelius Ingram has a catch so far. Backup tight end remains somewhat of a mystery. Harbor blocks pretty well, but I keep hoping we'll throw him some passes so we can find out what kind of receiver he is in game situations. Ingram is now battling a knee injury. If it wasn't for bad luck, he'd have no luck at all.