Bengals try to move on without top CB Leon Hall
The Bengals are learning to get along without a cornerback who is also one of their cornerstones.
Leon Hall tore his left Achilles tendon in a loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday, ending his season. The Bengals (6-3) will try to stay in contention in the AFC North without one of their most indispensable players.
How indispensable? When they gave contract extensions to their most important players before the season, Hall was a priority, getting his deal rewritten through 2015.
''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. ''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.''
The first-round draft pick from Michigan in 2007 teamed with Johnathan Joseph to form one of the league's top tandems. Joseph left for Houston as a free agent after last season and was replaced by free agent Nate Clements.
The secondary is in flux heading into a pivotal game in Baltimore (6-3) on Sunday. The winner will move into a first-place tie with idle Pittsburgh (7-3) atop the AFC North. One of the deciding factors will be how the defense handles Hall's loss while facing Joe Flacco and a diversified offense that can challenge cornerbacks.
''You do what you keep doing,'' said Crocker, who also plays cornerback in passing situations. ''We're already playing good up front, the front seven. They just have to play better. The guys who come in, there can't be any letdowns or any slack.''
Three relative newcomers will find themselves in big roles.
The Bengals traded for Kelly Jennings last August to provide depth. Jennings, a first-round draft pick by Seattle in 2006, started 14 games for the Seahawks last season. Jennings has missed three games early in the season because of a sore hamstring and his unfamiliarity with coordinator Mike Zimmer's system.
Now, he moves into a starting spot.
''I finally got a chance to play three games back-to-back,'' Jennings said. ''With the injuries, I played two games and then I was out another two games. So I'm starting to settle down, calm down.
''It's a chance for me to play more, a chance for me to get in the groove. I believe this is what they brought me in for - if something like this were to happen - so I'll be ready to play.''
Adam ''Pacman'' Jones also becomes more important with Hall gone. The Bengals gave Jones another chance at the NFL last season, and he won the No. 3 cornerback spot before a neck injury at midseason prompted him to have surgery.
Jones missed the first six games this season while completing his recovery from the neck problem. He pulled his right hamstring in his first game back and pulled groin muscles during practice last week, leaving him inactive for the last two games.
''I hate it for Leon, but someone has to step up,'' Jones said. ''Hopefully, I will be ready for Sunday. I've been dying for this opportunity.
''They've been waiting on me patiently. I've had some nicks and knacks. I might have to play through a little pain to do what we have to do. I'm prepared, and we'll see how it goes.''
Then there's Clements, a 31-year-old playing well so far. He becomes their top cornerback.
''One thing that I've learned: You don't really force it,'' Clements said. ''Just continue to do your job and your responsibility and everything will take care of itself.''
One thing won't change: Cincinnati's style. The Bengals play tight man-to-man coverage, something they won't abandon with a different cast.
''You can't play a lot of zone because it's easy to make completions,'' Crocker said. ''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.''