Will the safety position hold the Bengals back in 2010?

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 15:  Chris Crocker #42 and Chinedum Ndukwe #41 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrate in the bench area en route to an 18-12 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers during their game at Heinz Field on November 15, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Bengals defeated the Steelers 18-12. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Merry preseason, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be breaking down the Bengals’ safeties and why they could become a liability for the team this season.

Special teams is arguably the Bengals’ biggest weakness heading into the 2010 season, but I’ve avoided talking about kickers to this point and I’m not going to start now.

Pass protection, pass rush and quite frankly, even Carson Palmer are question marks for Cincinnati heading into the season. But the safety position may be the biggest concern the Bengals have in 2010.

Granted, this isn’t a huge issue because starters Roy Williams and Chris Crocker have loads of experience and Crocker has played very well in Cincinnati despite lackluster tenures in Cleveland and Atlanta earlier in his career. But both of these players have glaring weaknesses that can be exposed by opponents.

We’ll start with Williams, because his weakness is more widely known. The man is a force against the run but couldn’t cover his bed in new sheets. He has also played in just seven games the past two seasons because of nagging injuries. His backup, 25-year-old Chinedum Ndukwe, has failed to impress in his first couple of years despite having the opportunity to see live action when Williams was out.

As previously noted, Crocker has been a good Bengal over the years but he was assisted off the field in the first quarter of the Hall of Fame game earlier this month with a right ankle injury. He dealt with ankle issues late in the year in 2009 and had arthroscopic surgery on one of them in February so obviously that’s a concern.

But even when he is healthy, he can be a liability in deep coverage. That’s not to say he can’t cover because he can, but teams have been able to beat him deep throughout his career, especially when he winds up in one-on-one situations. He either can get into position to make a play and doesn’t, or is trailing the receiver because he gets caught anticipating when the quarterback will release the ball.

The good news is that Williams is now healthy and is reportedly in great shape. He took up boxing and sand workout regimes this offseason and was also fitted with a custom-made carbon fiber pad for the forearm he injured last season. Even if he can’t cover, as long as he can stay healthy he’s going to be a valuable commodity against the run.

That said, the team is thin at the position behind Williams and Crocker. The Bengals signed free agent Gibril Wilson to a one-year deal this offseason, but then had to place him on injured reserve with a torn left ACL and MCL suffered in preseason. The hope is that Ndukwe shows improvement, because as of right now he’s the team’s third best option.

I wouldn’t deem safety a glaring weakness for the Bengals because truth be told, they don’t have a glaring weakness. But this is a position that could become an issue if Williams and Crocker can’t stay healthy, or if the front seven can’t generate a decent pass rush so the pair isn’t left in coverage too long. It’s hard not to like the Bengals’ chances of making the playoffs again this season, but this is one area to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

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