To pick on Ambrose is to risk pickoffs

Ashley Ambrose is a cornerback who craves action. If the alternative is respectful neglect, he prefers to be picked on.

''I'd rather they throw at me because it gives me more chances to make plays,'' the Bengals defensive back said. ''When you're being ignored, you don't get any chances and the game becomes boring.''

Cornerback is no place for faint-hearted football players. The position requires extraordinary reflexes and a resilient ego. The man who spends his life with his feet to the fire must be able to cope with the consequences of being burned.

For Ashley Ambrose, it is a simple tradeoff. Among the reasons he leads the National Football League in interceptions is that quarterbacks continue to test him. His reputation as a thief has not yet reduced his opportunities for robbery.

Ambrose has achieved the cornerback's ideal balance. He can be considered for the Pro Bowl without being made to feel that he's being avoided.

''The ball has just been there for me to make the plays, and I'm holding onto them,'' he said Wednesday. ''Early in the year, I was dropping them.''

Interception record in reach

In his first season in the Bengals' secondary, Ambrose is already within reach of the franchise record for interceptions. He has picked off seven passes in 10 games, and must appropriate only two more to match the team mark Ken Riley set in 1976.

Ambrose stands to become the first Bengal to lead the NFL in interceptions for a full season. His real significance, however, has been more subtle. For the first time during this decade, the Bengals have cornerbacks capable of decent man-to-man defense.

This means Bengal coaches can periodically put more defensive resources into rushing the passer without fear of devastation downfield. This affords opposing quarterbacks less time to seek out open receivers. This, in turn, leads to an increase in turnovers.

Though the Bengals rank only 25th in the NFL in yards allowed through the air, they lead the league in interceptions. This is mainly attributable to the off-season acquisitions of Ambrose and Jimmy Spencer.

Since 1977, the Bengals have placed one cornerback in the Pro Bowl. Once. Eric Thomas went to Oahu in 1989 following a splendid Super Bowl season. Otherwise, the cornerback position has been the Cincinnati franchise's most enduring disaster area.

Talent was so thin last February that Bengals General Manager Mike Brown consented to spend $5 million on a cornerback who did not start a single game for Indianapolis during the 1995 regular season. Ashley Ambrose, it now appears, was a bargain.

''I haven't watched all the corners in the league, but he's played very well,'' said Ron Meeks, the Bengals secondary coach. ''He's had some bad plays, but they've been minimal. He has a great understanding of pattern recognition, where zone help is and where he needs to be.''

Mouse picks off cat

This is as much an art as it is a science. Quarterbacks and cornerbacks are engaged in an endless game of cat-and-mouse. Beneath the surface of most plays is a subliminal effort to facilitate the next one. A good corner knows when he's being baited, and can sometimes sucker a quarterback into thinking he has succeeded.

''Pittsburgh was trying to throw a lot of quick patterns on me early because I was playing off,'' Ambrose said. ''They wanted me to start jumping, to start becoming aggressive. I told the safeties in the game that they're trying to get me to bite on the short stuff so they can hit me for the home run. Sure enough, they tried to do it on the next series.''

Ambrose was not fooled, and he later foiled the Steelers with his seventh interception. You would think people would start picking on someone else.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 14, 1996.