One of the favorite words in a football coach's dictionary is "cross-train." In Cincinnati this week, there has been a whole lot of it going on.
For the uninitiated to that bit of football nomenclature, cross-training occurs when players at one specific position are taught techniques at another. Days before the Bengals head to Soldier Field to open the 2013 season against the Chicago Bears, safety Taylor Mays has seen his share of it.
According to Mays, the Bengals long had designs of alternating him between the safety and linebacker positions. It was just a matter of when the learning would take place.
Enter last Thursday night, when, in Cincinnati's preseason finale, nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lamur went down in the first quarter with a shoulder injury so bad it finished him for the season. All of a sudden, as coaches began trying to set the 53-man roster, an opening appeared on the depth chart. Expecting to be down to just five linebackers entering the season, they began scrambling for a solution.
Part of that solution included working out a rehabbed Thomas Howard and young free agent Tyrone McKenzie on Tuesday. Either could fill the linebacker hole at any time. For now, though, it doesn't appear they will. Cincinnati's big fix will come from within.
"Next guy up's gotta play. Whoever it may be," linebackers coach Paul Guenther said Wednesday afternoon. "Whether it’s a backup player or a guy who we’re putting in at a new spot. Chicago’s not going to feel bad for us. So we’ve got to get the guys ready to play."
Part of getting each of his linebackers ready for the opener means making sure they each know and understand multiple roles and multiple positions. That's where cross-training comes into play.
"We kind of train guys to know all the positions," Guenther said. "That’s how I teach it from Day 1. It’s kind of putting guys in different situations. The techniques and responsibilities are similar in what we’re doing. If they learn the techniques and understand the difference in the formations and the motions or whatever that may be, it’ll be just like in practice."
Rey Maualuga, a fifth-year veteran who has starred in Guenther's system at middle linebacker, echoed those sentiments. Now that Cincinnati's linebacker numbers are down, the knowledge of concepts at the Mike, Will, Sam and nickel positions becomes paramount for each of the Bengals' 'backers.
"We’ve just got to make sure to know every single position on the field so if somebody goes down, you might be thrown into that spot you’ve never played before," Maualuga said.
Mays has never played linebacker. He didn't during his first two seasons with the Bengals, despite insistence from some fans who were puzzled that the 6-foot-3, 220-pound defensive back hadn't made the switch. He didn't play it in college, either, despite leading USC in tackles as a senior with 96.
Despite lacking linebacker experience, Mays feels very confident he'll learn Guenther's techniques and will shine at the nickel linebacker position.
"It's definitely exciting," Mays said. "Maybe naturally, for me, it's a little better [fit]. I'm more in the box and it could be a better position for me. I felt good about it and excited. It's the kind of plays that I can make."
Mays didn't seem comfortable at safety in the preseason, and at times drew the ire of fans who still wanted to see him moved. Through those four games, he had 10 total tackles, including a sack.
At the nickel linebacker spot, one that Guenther contends will see an occasional rotation featuring Maualuga and Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Mays will be required to cover receivers and tight ends. His experience as a safety may make him more suited for that job than the more physical, run-stopping Maualuga and the defense-setting Burfict. At the position, Mays also will play closer to the line of scrimmage, enabling him to have a presence in certain blitz packages.
"It's the same thing as when a safety inserts into the box," Mays said. "Some of the run-gap fits are a little different. Paul does a great job of teaching and making things simple. I've been picking it up quick."
Guenther's teaching methods include getting into a gymnasium with Mays and simulating coverages and formations by using chairs and other inanimate fill-ins. It was the same approach the coach took last season when he quickly had to move Burfict into an outside linebacker's role after Howard went down with a season-ending injury to his anterior cruciate ligament.
"He’ll be fine," Guenther said of Mays. "He’s the same body type as E-man, the same ability as far as his coverage. So he can play in the back half on some of the things. He’s a versatile guy. Really, I’m doing the same thing with Taylor that I’m doing with Vontaze. We’re getting him ready the same way. It worked last year, so hopefully it’ll work this year."