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Bengals' draft focus on defense

Pass rusher priority as coaches return from scouting Sr. Bowl

By Mark Curnutte

Enquirer staff writer

It's a good year to be looking for defense in the draft, particularly on the defensive line, and Bengals coaches and scouts took a close look this past week at practices for the Senior Bowl.

The Bengals' contingent - coaches, scouts and management - will return today from Mobile, Ala. The game will be played Saturday.

"In this game, there are more representatives of the better players in the draft," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said from Mobile. "The potential for some higher picks is greater than what was here last year."

Lewis and his staff coached the North team a year ago, and their access to a pair of South all-stars - defensive backs Keiwan Ratliff and Madieu Williams - moved them up on the team's draft list. The Bengals drafted both in the second round.

Lewis declined to comment this week on specific players, partly because, as he said, "This is my entry into (the 2005 draft process). This is my first chance to begin to look at the players."

Lewis has said the Bengals must improve their run defense and develop a more consistent pass rush. His statements make defensive linemen and outside linebackers an area of interest.

Some defensive linemen making good impressions in Mobile are California's Lorenzo Alexander, Southern Cal's Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, LSU's Marcus Spears and Wisconsin's Antaaj Hawthorne.

The University of Cincinnati's Trent Cole is among the linebackers in Mobile, a group that also includes Alfred Fincher of Connecticut and Lance Mitchell of Oklahoma.

Cole and cornerback Alphonso Hodge of Miami University are playing on the North team, coached by the Oakland Raiders staff.

Early-entry junior Shawne Merriman of Maryland is said to fit the mold of a Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker - strong against the run with potential as a pass rusher.

Merriman is not at the Senior Bowl, which is limited, as the event's name states, to seniors.

Bengals scouts, who traveled the country during the college season to attend practices and games, used the week to cross-check their reports on players.

Coaches and scouts can't get as close a look at players as they once did in Mobile, Lewis said. They have been confined to the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, where all practices were held for the first time this year.

"I liked to see the look in a guy's eyes when he came off the field," Lewis said.

Still, he and the coaches and scouts will view film from Senior Bowl practices and the game.

The game has value, though, because it provides NFL teams another opportunity to see the athletes "playing a physical game of football," Lewis said.

In an interview earlier this month with reporters that cover the Bengals, Lewis expanded on his needs analysis.

"We've got some youthful linebackers," he said. "But we still need to be able to rush the passer better as a football team and ... we need a dominant pass rusher. We have not been able to go out and dominate a game with a pass rusher."

Rookie Robert Geathers had 3.5 sacks last season, and Lewis said defensive end Justin Smith had a solid season.

"But that's an area of defense where we have to get better," Lewis said of the pass rush. "We have to play sound run gap defense."

In addition to any potential newcomers, the Bengals will be looking for second-year defensive tackle Matthias Askew, a fourth-round pick in 2004, to seize his opportunity to win playing time.

E-mail mcurnutte@enquirer.com

Feeling a draft

The Bengals have the 17th overall pick in the 2005 draft and might again trade down to acquire additional picks later on. Here are some players worth keeping an eye on, not all necessarily as first-round picks, as April approaches:

Player Pos. Ht., Wt. School

Lorenzo Alexander DL 6-1, 295 California

Mark Clayton WR 5-10, 185 Oklahoma

Shaun Cody DL 6-4, 292 USC

Antaaj Hawthorne DL 6-2, 310 Wisconsin

Vincent Jackson WR 6-5, 223 N. Colorado

#Shawne Merriman DE-LB 6-3, 246 Maryland

Mike Patterson DL 6-0, 292 USC

#Ernest Shazor S 6-4, 229 Michigan

Marcus Spears DL 6-4, 295 LSU

#Early-entry junior; not at Senior Bowl

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