BY GEOFF HOBSON
When the Bengals opened the NFL season in Tennessee last season, they went into the game with 16 NFL starts at cornerback and 52 at safety. This year, it's 116 starts at corner and 132 at safety. It's like cornerback Artrell Hawkins says. The Bengals' defense is better on paper. "Put it this way," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "We should be. We can be. But will we? We dont know. That's why you play the games."
With the plucking of left cornerback Tom Carter's $2.2 million salary in 2000 off waivers from Chicago in late '99, the Bengals added four defensive starters through free agency for a total package of about $30 million. Joining Carter are end Vaughn Booker, tackle Tom Barndt and free safety Darryl Williams and even though they bring a quarter of a century of NFL experience with them, "they're still rookies to the system," Simmons said.
The Bengals were rattled by allowing 38 points in the first quarter of the preseason, when offenses scored on their opening drive in three of the four games. Teams also scored six touchdowns of at least 34 yards. But Barndt (chest) and end Michael Bankston (thighh/kee) didn't play a snap because of injuries, and as one NFL personnel guru suggested, "I'm waiting on Cincinnati's defense because they had so many injured guys."
"I'm not making excuses, but a lot of those guys who blew those assignnments aren't here anymore," Simmons said. "The bottom line is it's how much these guys get into their playbook and how much they don't want to be the guy who makes a big mistake on a play."
Williams begins his second term here in the secondary and says this defense is a little faster as well a little younger than the units that went 18-46 from 1992-5. Williams has been trying to get used to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme and said, "I feel better than I did in the preseason. I think we're all more comfortable with each other. You need the reps on the field instead of just being in the classroom."
The Browns have a better running game with back Errict Rhett this season after finishing dead last in NFL rushing last year. The Bengals are emphasizing stopping the run after the last six games of '99, when they switched to a 4-3 defense from a 3-4. In three games, they allowed 105 yards rushing or less, including a franchise-best 11 against the Browns.
"That was last season. You know how that goes," said nose tackle Oliver Gibson. "What we have to do is improve the pass rush."
That's not a good matchup from the Bengals end. Browns quarterback Tim Couch wasn't sacked once during the preseason and the Jags got him once in garbage time last week.
"We can't get frustrated," Simmons said. "If he hits the quick passes, we have to keep coming with pressure."
Hawkins, whose play dipped when the number of years of experience also dipped around him last year, observed that the big plays didn't come from physical mistakes. But from missed assignments.
"That's all part of whether we're a better defense or not," Hawkins said. "It should be interesting to see where we are at the start of this year compared to the start of last year."
No one knows. But Gibson had an idea what better not happen.
"We've got more experience in the secondary and on the line," Gibson said. "No more excuses."
CHALK TALK:** An analysis of the top matchups in the Bengals-Browns game. Bengals RT Willie Anderson vs. Browns DE Courtney Brown. Bengals TE Tony McGee vs. Browns OLB Rahim Abdullah. Bengals LE Vaughn Booker vs. Browns RT Steve Zahursky. Bengals MLB Brian Simmons vs. Browns RB Errict Rhett.
ANDERSON VS. BROWN:You figure a guy named Brown would play a big role in this game as the Bengals get their first look at the NFL's No. 1 draft pick. The 6-5, 335-pound Anderson outweighs the 6-4, 270-pound Brown by a good 60 pounds and one NFL personnel guy observed, "The Bengals probably ought to run it right at him." Scouts love Brown's relentless play and passion, but they're still looking for some productivity. Browns coach Chris Palmer had to pull out the videotape to show Brown made some plays in his NFL debut last week. Brown just doesn't have a big frame and Anderson not only has a big edge in size, but also in his experience. Still, Anderson's 335 pounds better be in shape to chase Brown around in 80 degrees.
MCGEE VS. ABDULLAH:** Jaguars tight end Kyle Brady caught five balls for just the fourth time in his 77 NFL games last week against the Browns and rung up a career-high 85 yards. During the preseason, Bengals quarterback Akili Smith established that he's not afraid of going down the middle to McGee. After catching 26 balls last season, McGee caught five during the preseason, one for a TD and one for 31 yards. Abdullah is known more as an up-field player rather than a coverage guy.
BOOKER VS. ZAHURSKY: The Browns are hurting at tackles without the Brown tandem of Orlando (physically unable to perform list) and Lomas (New York Giants). Booker makes his first start for the Bengals and 52nd of his career. Zahursky, a free agent out of Kent State in 1999, is making his ninth career start and third at tackle. The Bengals plan to rotate their defensive linemen with Michal Bankston and his 129 career games also getting a shot at Zahursky.
SIMMONS VS. RHETT: Rhett gives the Browns some explosiveness they didn't have last year with Terry Kirby, and Rhett is an option in quarterback Tim Couch's quick, three-step drop passing game. With Simmons in the middle of the field, he'll be looking to keep Couch's flips from breaking into big plays. Plus, he'll be a key figure if the Bengals decide to try and lull Couch into a sense of security with their coverages.
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's Bengals-Browns game, such as No. 11. That's Bengals quarterback Akili Smith's uniform number and the number of times a Paul Brown-coached team played in a professional championship game.
167-53-8: Paul Brown's record coaching Cleveland
55-59-1: Paul Brown's record coaching Cincinnati **
5-7:Paul Brown's record coaching Cincinnati vs. Cleveland
9/7/08:Date of Paul Brown's birth in Norwalk, Ohio
9/10/00:Date of first game in Paul Brown Stadium
13:Number of Cleveland Pro Football Hall-of-Famers who played for Brown.
18:Number of coaches who worked under Brown and players who were either drafted by or played for Brown in Cincinnati and Cleveland who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
60,284:Record Cincinnati sports crowd saw Brown's Bengals lose to Cleveland, 27-24 on 10/17/71.
65,600:** Best guess of regular-season inaugural Paul Brown Stadium crowd.
COMING ATTRACTIONS:** Coach Bruce Coslet's advice to quarterback Akili Smith for the night before the game is to rent a good movie. "I told the Blues Brothers to rent 'Caddyshack,' " Coslet said. That's what he calls linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons, "because they're cool and on a mission from God."
Back when he was coaching the Browns, Bengals coach Paul Brown had a tradition of taking the team to a movie the night before the game. That broke down a little bit in the '70s when movies became a little racier, and Coslet recalled the night in Kansas City business manager John Murdough thought "Midnight Cowboy," was a Western.
"The next week, Paul took no chances," Coslet said. "We got our own movie and projector in the hotel and he previewed it before he showed it to us."
FRIDAY INACTIVES:** LG Matt O'Dwyer, RB Michael Basnight, CB Mark Roman, WR Danny Farmer. O'Dwyer is serving a league-mandated one-game suspension.
GAME WEATHER: Tim Hedrick, the WKRC-Channel 12 weather guru, has this call for kickoff: "Mostly cloudy, a little humid with a slight risk of showers. Temperatures in the upper 70s to 80."
NAME GAME: Todd Portune, the Democrat running against Republican Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, has suggested he would open up negotiations with the Bengals about selling naming rights for Paul Brown Stadium in an effort to get money for other riverfront projects. But Bengals President Mike Brown said he's not looking to get involved in politics or in re-visiting a decision to go with a non-corporate name that was made four years ago.
NEW INFANT POLICY STARTS OCT. 1:** The Bengals have revised their infant policy effective Oct. 1 for the game against Miami. A child under two years old will be allowed to sit on the lap of a ticket-holder and won't be required to have a ticket. One infant will be admitted for one ticket-holder.
"Our goal is to be fan friendly and this is in response to our fans," said Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn. "We hope those fans who come to the games with infants will be considerate of the patrons sitting around them. We felt it was unfair to change the policy at this late date for Sunday's game against the Browns."