Getting finer with time Ratliff's NFL career began slowly, but now he's starting By Kevin Kelly Enquirer staff writer Bengals cornerback Keiwan Ratliff broke up two passes last Sunday against New England. Enquirer file/Michael E. Keating Zoom The initial steps were wobbly ones. No sooner had Keiwan Ratliff ended a five-day contractual holdout - joining the already-in-progress Bengals at training camp - than a hamstring injury held back the rookie. "To get injured like he did in the third practice ... and then not really be able to participate in the preseason really puts you behind," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "The other guys kind of passed him up, and he wasn't able to hold his own." So the preseason did not go as the Bengals and Ratliff hoped it might. The 49th overall draft pick, a gifted cornerback at Florida from 2000-03, played in two of the Bengals' four preseason games. But that setback seems minor in hindsight. Thirteen games, and three starts, into the regular season, Bengals coaches are certain Ratliff, 23, is every bit the talent they envisioned on draft day. "He's gotten healthy and fought through that (hamstring injury) and it's been great," Lewis said. "Obviously we keep expanding his role because of the confidence we have in him." Ratliff, who Aug. 5 signed a three-year contract with a team option on the fourth year, has started the past two games at left cornerback with Deltha O'Neal inactive because of a nagging ankle injury. Ratliff also has slipped into the role as the team's primary punt returner the past four games. "Any time you get a chance to get out there and get experience on the field, it's always better than just studying film and trying to do everything mentally," said Ratliff, who led the Southeastern Conference with nine interceptions as a senior last season. "When you can get out there, physically, I think that will only help you in the long run." Negotiating the jump to the NFL, even for those from a top-flight college program, can be tricky. In addition to the Bengals' normal preparations, Ratliff devotes at least 30 minutes two to three times each week for extra film study. He also leans on veteran corners Tory James and O'Neal for their insight and advice. "They've helped me tremendously," Ratliff said. "They've helped me understand what our opponent's tendencies are." Knowing an opponent's tendencies allows a corner to react on instincts. Last Sunday's game against the Patriots displayed that. Ratliff broke up a season-high two passes and finished the game with three tackles. "He's a great learner," Lewis said. Ratliff's other role - that of a punt returner - is a more familiar one. Steve Spurrier and his staff at Florida recruited Ratliff as a wide receiver out of Whitehall-Yearling High in Columbus. He converted to defense as a true freshman in 2000 but played some receiver as a junior. Three of his 12 career interceptions at Florida he returned for touchdowns. "He has good hands and good ball skills," Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons said. "He fields the ball and reads it as well as anybody." On Ratliff's nine punt returns this season - eight of which have come in the past four games - he's averaging 13.4 yards per return. The Bengals haven't had a player average that many yards per return since the 2001 season. Ratliff returned one punt 49 yards against the Browns Nov. 28 that gave the Bengals' offense the ball 19 yards from the end zone. A 23-yard return on a booming 69-yard punt Sunday was reduced to 18 because of a penalty. The ball went over Ratliff's head, but he managed to get his hands on it. "He's got good vision and cuts well," Simmons said. "But his biggest asset is his ability to field the ball and field it cleanly. "When he's had the opportunity, he's made plays."