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8-28-02, 6:50 p.m.


You can get a variety of opinions on the meltdown of the preseason NFL's No. 1 defense against the Saints last Saturday night.

But everybody in Bengaldom agrees on two things. The esteemed Cincinnati defense can play much better. And if it doesn't tighten up Thursday night against Atlanta, Falcons quarterback Michael Vick will do some hellacious things at Paul Brown Stadium.

Falcons coach Dan Reeves told the Atlanta media Wednesday he plans to play Vick for at least a half and maybe more. Just five days removed from getting strafed by a poor man's Vick in New Orleans' Aaron Brooks, defensive coordinator Mark Duffner has let the word go forth.

"Vick has a terrific arm, plays with confidence, and he's got tremendous speed," Duffner said. "He's an explosive player. You better be coordinated. If you're not in sync at any position against that guy, you're going to be in a lot of trouble. He can make the big play."

Of course, Duffner's game plan figures to be about as vanilla as a Graeter's sundae. He meets Vick in 25

days in a game that counts double because it is on prime time TV. But this final preseason game is more than a dress rehearsal for his defensive backs.

As the Bengals struggle with keeping five or six cornerbacks, and five or six running backs on Cutdown Day (you can't have six of both, can you?), corners like Rodney Heath, Robert Bean, Bo Jennings and the rookie free agents are getting one last once-over. Plus, Mark Roman makes his first start at free safety in front of rookie Lamont Thompson, but head coach Dick LeBeau said he plans to play Thompson as much as he played him in the three previous games.

"The lesson from Saturday is you have to be ready from the opening snap," Duffner said. "We didn't have focus. We didn't tackle well. I don't feel that way, that our guys forgot what got us (to ninth in the NFL last year). If our goal is to be a good defense, you have to make offenses earn the yards they get against you. We didn't quite have that focus from the start."

The Saints put the Bengals back on their heels right away. Cincinnati, now ranked third in the league after allowing 337 yards Saturday, gave up 38 yards to running back Deuce McAllister on the first two plays. The Bengals came in allowing just 47 yards per game on the ground before Deuce trumped them.

"It was big-time little things," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "There was a lot of being in the right place, but making the wrong checks. We were thinking right, but just got tongue-tied out there. And the fact we got out of camp the day before, we just weren't sharp. The best thing about it was it didn't count."

No one wanted to say it was also the first game the club has ever played without both right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes and middle linebacker Brian Simmons, and none of their starting linebackers played.

And only Simmons is expected back Thursday night with Spikes out with his torn shoulder muscle and left outside linebacker Steve Foley (groin) doubtful, although both are probable for the Sept. 8 season opener.

"The way I look at it," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, "is let's get all this stuff ironed out now when it doesn't count. All this stuff is correctable. Last year we had some games like that early against Chicago and Pittsburgh."

The Bears and Steelers each rolled the Bengals for more than 200 yards rushing two weeks apart last October, and Gibson could see some of the same signs Saturday. They also had a starter missing in those games in tackle Tony Williams, and people were trying to do a little too much out of the scheme.

Gibson noticed he did it when the Saints double-teamed him and he found himself out of position when he tried a spin move out of it

"Stuff like that happens when you fall behind early," Gibson said. "You try to do things on your own to catch back up when you should be just worrying about your own responsibilities. We'll get it straightened out. Better now than later."

The Bengals were also plagued by a series of crushing penalties. A roughing the passer on Williams turned a Saints' punt from their own 22-yard line into a 12-play play touchdown drive at the end of the half.

Gibson had three penalties, one of which was a personal foul on the Bengals' 2-yard line, and he pled innocent on all three.

"They had a guy who wasn't getting off Book's leg and I was trying to help," said Gibson of defensive end Vaughn Booker. "I told the ref what was going on, but the guy wouldn't get off and I'm not going to let him do that to one of my guys, so I got him off and the guy flagged me (for a personal foul). They got me for being in the neutral zone and I still don't understand that. Then they called me for "leveraging," on a field goal and I've been in the league eight years and never heard of that."

But they know they will have to forget that against Vick. As Hawkins said, "If we don't get in the rush lanes, stay on coverage, or do all the little things, he's going to hurt us," Hawkins said. "He's such as good athlete, you can still be in the right spot and still not make the play. So we have to be 120 percent on. It's a good test after Saturday."

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