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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bengals' Jonathan Fanene worth the wait

By John Erardi
jerardi@enquirer.com

On the edge of the mayhem, but also deeply (and gratefully) entrenched in the middle of it, stands the Bengals' Jonathan Fanene, the indomitable defensive end from American Samoa.

He's been there since Antwan Odom went down five weeks ago with a season-ending injury.

It is guys like Fanene and Brandon Johnson and Bernard Scott --and other players who've had to step in when the starters went down --that have helped make the Bengals what they are this season: 7-and-3, and extraordinarily close, a team in the best sense of the word.

Typical of the squad's unselfish attitude --perhaps even the very symbol of it --is Fanene, 27, who has had to earn his way up the depth chart as a seventh-round draft pick out of the University of Utah in 2005.

"When I came in, there were already guys who were ahead of me, high draft picks," said Fanene, a fifth-year pro. "There wasn't anybody willing to take me under their wing and explain how the system works. It's taken me (a while) just to learn the defense. There were a lot of things to do, and I wasn't prepared."

The biggest adjustment to the pros is that playing football is a business, not merely unbridled fun as it was in college, Fanene said. If you don't approach it like a job in which you grow and keep getting better and become more valuable to your team, you'll soon be on the outside looking in, he said.

He admits that he had to come to grips with that fact. There's more time required, more film-watching, more sacrifice.

"I'm still trying to catch up, doing more, learning more" he said.

Fanene didn't begin playing football until he was 14. He began as a tight end.

Typical of all the D-linemen on the Bengals, he has good hands. The Utah product wasn't switched to defense until he was a senior in high school. A junior-college defensive coordinator moved him to outside linebacker, "which is where all this ( pass-rushing) started," he said.

"My junior year, I was moved to the inside and my senior year I was moved to right end," he said.

Coach Marvin Lewis raised some eyebrows earlier this season when he said that nobody among the current Bengals had come so far as Fanene. Lewis wasn't talking geographically; he was saying that nobody had come into the Bengals' fold as such a project and had developed into such a player.

No higher compliment can be paid to an athlete, to anybody really, because it means he or she has done the utmost to fulfill their abilities.

"I'll agree with what Marvin says on that (because) I feel like I've improved a lot," said Fanene, noting that this past offseason was huge learning experience. "Coach (Mike) Zimmer taught me a lot -- not only me, but the whole D-line. To get to the quarterback, the first thing you've got to do stop the run and then use your hands."

It is also possible that Lewis' words were meant as continued motivation to Fanene. Just don't expect Lewis to ever admit that.

The Bengals needed Fanene if they were going to stay on the playoff road. The loss of the reconfigured and re-charged Odom, who had eight sacks, was potentially season-altering.

"We miss him," Fanene conceded. "Antwan's a tremendous pass-rusher. But we're going to keep this thing going."

Without a push toward the opposing team's quarterback, there is no push to the playoffs. One of the top surprises, of many, on this team is its ability to get to the QB, to trigger the sack dances and the chest-pounding and the crowd-rallying that is the Bengals' 2009.

For all the excitement that the offense brings when it is clicking -- the increasingly fine play-action and precision passing of Carson Palmer, the thumping running style of Cedric Benson, the remarkable cutting ability of Bernard Scott, the fingertip grabs of Chad Ochocinco -- it is the defense that is this team's emotional center.

With the blanket coverage by the Bengals' cornerbacks, there is time for the D-linemen to do their work, and none have done it so dramatically well to the naked eye as Fanene, who has five sacks, tops among the active players.

He didn't have any sacks last Sunday -- none of the Bengals did, for the first time this season -- but he did have a big pressure that flushed the quail that Johnathan Joseph picked off.

"Came from outside, beat the tackle," Fanene explained.

It was one of the few times Fanene wasn't being doubled Sunday. He's come a long way. Not too long ago, the only thing he was being doubled out of was the starting lineup.

Fanene used to be known as a guy who made unconventional plays --not because he didn't want to follow the book, but because he didn't know the book. Now he knows what he's supposed to do.

"I don't want to be selfish in my rush lane; the job is to contain," Fanene said.

When he put the pressure on Raiders' QB Bruce Gradkowksi that resulted in the interception, the score was Bengals 17-10, and there were exactly six minutes left on the clock, tailor-made for the offense to put this game away as it had put away so many games this season.

It didn't happen, but Fanene's attitude is this:

There's another game Sunday. It's like pass-rushing.

"You just keep coming," he says.

Like the rest of the veterans, Fanene knows that doubts are already being voiced nationally that maybe the Bengals finally realize where they are, and will wake up.

"We don't believe in that," Fanene said." We don't believe in the talk, the rumors, all that media stuff. We have a great group of guys that want to work, want to win, and we've got a staff that's going to prepare us for this game...We're going to win this game, and the division."

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