When the Bengals released veteran Chris Crocker this offseason and didn't pursue a free agent or draft a replacement, a gaping hole was left in the back end of the defense next to starter Reggie Nelson.

A funny thing happened in the process of searching for an answer at the position -- they found three of them. Suddenly, a position of perceived weakness shifted to one of depth and versatility.

Current starter Taylor Mays is being pushed by emerging backup Jeromy Miles, while cornerback Nate Clements has spent more and more time working in at safety in passing situations.

The combination allows Mays' physicality, Miles' athleticism and Clements' coverage skills to create a versatility capable of inserting the desired skill set for the corresponding situation.

“That’s what you want on your football team,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “You want to have 16 or 17 guys who feel like they’re starters on each side of the ball. And I think we’re going to have that defensively.”

The current starter, Mays, entered with a sullied reputation after the San Francisco 49ers bailed on their 2010 second-round pick, offering to trade him to anyone willing to take him off their hands. The Bengals eventually obliged and placed the physical specimen into the special project bin of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

One year later, what emerged has been one of the most physical, intimidating safeties Zimmer's been privy to since arriving in Cincinnati.

“I weigh almost 240 pounds; I should be (physical),” Mays said. “There are some plays where I could have been more physical still, and if that’s the best part of my game, I need to show it all the time.”

He's shown it enough for Lewis and Zimmer to keep him as the starter for now despite the play behind him.

Miles leads the Bengals in passes defensed (3), is one of three players with an interception and is third on the team tackles (13). He made his reputation as a special teams ace and will continue to do so this year, but his spike in production defensively allowed Zimmer to rotate Miles in with the first team the last two games and the confidence is growing in what he can bring to the position.

“He’s a great blitzer, he has a chance to come up and play nickel and do some things for us in special situations,” Lewis said. “When you’re playing against tight ends that flex out and do those types of things, you have some flexibility with a Jeromy Miles.”

Nobody has become more flexible than Clements, though. When he hits the practice field these days, he waits for someone to point out which group he will be joining. Zimmer spent much practice time poking around with Clements at safety and the 11-year veteran corner even started at safety against Green Bay. It lasted for only one snap because the numbers at corner are low at the moment. Lewis made it known after the game, however, he hoped to see more snaps for Clements back there.

With Terence Newman, Leon Hall, Adam Jones, first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick all expected to play Thursday the situation eases for Clements to experiment at safety. He's never played a down there in his life.

“Getting used to the different sight lines lining up at safety in comparison to corner was the biggest adjustment for me,” Clements said. “But, as far as knowing my responsibilities, I think at safety spot you have to know a lot more checks and a lot more assignments then one built-in call.”

Follow Paul Dehner Jr. for Bengals updates on Twitter at @CBSSportsNFLCIN.