HIS SECOND season as an NFL head coach was off to a miserable start, and Marvin Lewis decided enough was enough. Tired of watching opposing offenses effortlessly roll up the yards against his team, Lewis took over the defensive game-planning and play-calling duties from embattled coordinator Leslie Frazier before the fifth game of the season. The one-game experiment officially became a disaster midway through the opening quarter, when the Browns, pinned near their own goal line, scored on Jeff Garcia's 99-yard touchdown pass to Andre' Davis.
Three hours later, after a 34-17 defeat in which Cincinnati allowed 449 yards to a lowly Cleveland offense, Lewis gathered his players in the locker room and cracked, "Well, I just proved I could give up 34 points--just like anybody else."
Upon the completion of a second consecutive 8-8 campaign, Lewis made some tougher calls: He replaced Frazier and three defensive starters. "If you don't tackle well, that's a very frustrating thing, and it is somewhat a correctable skill," Lewis says. "You coach them as hard as you can, and then if they don't get it, you replace them in the off-season."
As the architect of the Ravens' record-setting defense in their Super Bowl season of 2000, as well as other punishing units in Pittsburgh and Washington, Lewis knew precisely how to address the problem: The Bengals' defense needed some dawg in it, and in April the coach took that philosophy to a new level, using the team's first two draft picks on a pair of relentless defenders from Georgia, end David Pollack and linebacker Odell Thurman.
Lewis and his new defensive coordinator, Chuck Bresnahan, projected Pollack, the No. 17 pick, and Thurman, a second-rounder, as immediate impact players--and Cincinnati's offensive players were quick to understand why. "What stands out are their motors," says wideout Chad Johnson. "They're consistently moving, moving, moving. They just don't stop. Most players from Georgia are like that."
Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson, sees the presence of Pollack and Thurman as the start of something nasty in 'Nati. "If you want to have a good defense, you've got to have some real bad-ass linebackers," Anderson says. "Your linebackers have to bring an attitude. They should be the identity of your defense, or even of your entire team."
That's the way Lewis has always liked it, from his days in Pittsburgh, where he coached such standouts as Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Chad Brown, through his glory days in Baltimore with Ray Lewis. He coached a Ravens unit that went nearly three seasons without allowing an opposing runner to gain 100 yards. The Bengals, by comparison, were victimized by nine 100-yard rushers and gave up four runs of 50 yards or more in 2004 alone.
Enter Thurman, a 6-foot, 235-pound middle linebacker who has impressed Lewis with his quick grasp of the pro game and his intensity. "I don't want to jinx Odell and compare him to other guys," Lewis says, pausing before doing just that. "But he has the personality that Ray [ Lewis] had as a rookie. Ray walked into that [ Baltimore] huddle on the first day with vets like Pepper Johnson and Don Griffin like he'd been there for years. Odell has that same aura."
Landon Johnson, who had 84 tackles as a rookie in '04, will likely start the season ahead of Pollack at outside linebacker, opposite steady veteran Brian Simmons. But Pollack will be given ample opportunity to put up eye-catching numbers: On passing downs he will be asked to come off the corner and harass quarterbacks. The Bengals, however, don't expect the 6'2", 276-pound Pollack to live by the sack alone. "Everybody puts him in the wrong category," Anderson says. "I see him as a young Junior Seau--someone who can put his hand down and rush but can also make plays in the running game and in coverage."
Whatever Pollack does for the Bengals, Lewis is convinced it will elevate the defense. "Talk to anyone he grew up with--no matter what it is, he's always been good at it," the coach says of Pollack. "His entire life, everything he's touched has turned to gold."