MASON, Ohio – Players in shorts and T-shirts huddle around defensive captain Domata Peko, who holds up a clipboard loaded with plays and flips to a particular one.
The Bengals defense gets into position and runs through the play. Afterward, a veteran takes a young player aside to explain an intricacy in the pass coverage. Others talk among themselves about how it turned out. Then, they line up and do it again.
The NFL's lockout has turned players into coaches.
Coaching staffs aren't allowed any contact with players during the lockout, leaving them to organize, work out and practice the playbooks on their own. Instead of a coach running the show, the players decide what to practice and how to do it.
It's quite a role reversal for some of them.
"I like to lead by example and the way I work," said Peko, who organized the defense's two weeks of workouts at a suburban soccer complex. "I'm on my sixth year this season, so now I can talk without feeling like a young guy. Now I can speak up more and guys seem to respect that, so it's going really well."
It's that way across the NFL, with teams getting together on their own and working out without coaches telling them what to do. Nobody blows a whistle to stop a sloppy play or gets in a player's face for missing an assignment.
Things are a lot quieter — maybe too quiet at times.
"It's nice, but coaches are always a great motivator," defensive lineman Tank Johnson said Tuesday. "Like player-to-player breeds competition, coaches bring out the best in the players. Part of me misses having the coaches around."
There's more to it than calling plays. Peko and offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth — the team's union representative — became team managers while organizing the two weeks of workouts. They arranged to have the soccer facility and the University of Cincinnati's field available for practices; booked hotel rooms for teammates or put them up at their homes; borrowed equipment from a local high school; ordered food for after practice.
They even clean up after themselves. Following a full-team practice last week at UC, quarterbacks Jordan Palmer and Andy Dalton filled their arms with water bottles and blocking pads and headed for the storage area. Palmer couldn't recall the last time he's had to put the equipment away.
"It's been a while," he said.
They try to run the practice the way coaches handle offseason team workouts, working on a little bit more of the playbook each day while making sure rookies and other newcomers learn the nuances.
"We've been able to get after the playbook and chop away at that and get these young guys some experience on the field with all the play calls and hand signals," Peko said. "I know how important the (offseason workouts) are. Those aren't happening, so you need something like this to get things going."
With no coaches around, younger veterans have to act more like leaders. Third-year outside linebacker Rey Maualuga will likely move to the middle this season, giving him a lot more responsibility. He's using the informal workouts to grow into the role.
"Last year, I was just a person that was following the crowd, just listening," Maualuga said. "Now I feel my presence and the way to speak to the guys will help one or two people. I'm just trying to be that leader and no matter how it works out, when the season starts I'm trying to be that captain. That's my goal.
"When it's third-and-short, I want everybody to look in my eyes and feel confidence knowing I can call a play, line everybody up and make that play."
Peko thinks it's especially important for the Bengals to get together and clear out the cobwebs from their 4-12 season.
"When you have such a bad season like last year, people start pointing fingers and stuff," Peko said. "I think the only way to get away from that is to go back to the basics, get better, look yourself in the mirror and say, 'How can I get better?'"
A coach couldn't have put it better.