During the Cincinnati Bengals' three-day minicamp that concluded Saturday, much of the attention was directed at the continuing rehabilitation of quarterback Carson Palmer, who seemed well ahead of schedule in his recovery from a pair of torn ligaments in his left knee.
But for the Bengals to progress another step in 2006 -- to move deeper into the playoffs than they did a year ago, when they were eliminated by Pittsburgh in the wild-card round -- their defense versus the rush must dramatically improve. In that regard, the minicamp provided uplifting news, too, with free safety Madieu Williams seemingly whole again after a 2005 season that ended prematurely with a shoulder injury.
It would be hyperbole to suggest that Williams is as important to the Cincinnati defense as Palmer is to the team's explosive offensive unit. But he is key to solidifying Cincinnati's defense versus the run, a glaring deficiency in coach Marvin Lewis' first three seasons, and his absence from the lineup in 2005 magnified Williams' importance to that element of the game.
Which is why, even in the non-contact environment of minicamp, it was gratifying for Lewis and defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan to see Williams moving well again.
"He's been a man on a mission and it's been great to see," Lewis told the Cincinnati media as the minicamp concluded. "His breaks, his angles, all those things have been perfect. He's added some more body mass and he hasn't seemed to slow a bit."
A second-round choice in the 2004 draft, Williams started 13 games as a rookie and registered 95 tackles and three interceptions. But after starting the first three contests in 2005, Williams injured his left shoulder in a Sept. 30 non-contact drill. The Bengals held him out for a few weeks, hoping the rest would enable him to get back on the field later in the season, but subsequently decided Williams required surgery to address a torn labrum in the shoulder.
Notable was that the Bengals had earlier lost their other starting safety from 2004, Kim Herring, to a season-ending shoulder injury suffered in camp. That left journeymen Kevin Kaesviharn and Ifeanyi Ohalete as the starters, and neither performed well in run defense.
Even though the team's statistical ranking against the run improved from its 2004 performance, up to No. 20 after having been 26th in 2004 and 25th in 2003, the ramifications of Williams' absence were obvious.
In his three starts, the Bengals permitted 93.3 yards per game on the ground and two rushing touchdowns. In the 14 games without Williams in the lineup, including the playoff loss to the Steelers, the Cincinnati defense surrendered an average of 123.0 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Five opponents rushed for 140 yards or more and two rang up more than 200 yards on the ground.
To help address the problem, the Bengals signed veteran defensive tackle and renowned run-stuffer Sam Adams as a free agent this spring. And the staff is tinkering with incorporating more 3-4 fronts into the Bengals' repertoire. But to defend well against the run in this era, the safeties must be involved in playing close to the line of scrimmage, too.
The addition of veteran Dexter Jackson should help. The return of Williams to good health, though, will help even more.
Blessed with the ability to play down "in the box" against the run, but with good enough range to be a solid pass defender, Williams isn't the flashiest player around. But the former Maryland standout makes the routine plays that have to be finished, and he is a solid, wrap-up tackler. Plus he reported to the minicamp a little bigger, up about 10 pounds to 205 pounds now, and apparently a lot louder, too.
"He understands the ins and outs of things," Lewis said. "He's more vocal. He has become a leader."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.