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Ole Miss linebacker Armegis Spearman was one of the more coveted free agents available in the hours after this year's draft, so he figured he would end up starting some games at middle linebacker in the NFL one day.

He just didn't think it would be in the second game of his career. But not only is Spearman, 22, starting in the base defense in Jacksonville in place of the injured Brian Simmons, he's also calling the signals with the aid of three-year veteran Takeo Spikes next to him on the weak side.

"He's going to be OK, he's a good athlete," Spikes said. "I told him to just worry about getting the defense called and people in place. And if we have to check off, and he needs me to handle that, I can do that."

If Spearman gets in trouble, linebackers coach Mark Duffner would turn to four-year veteran Billy Granville. Adrian Ross, who backs up Spikes on the weak side, has only had two days of working in the middle. But the 6-1, 254-pound Spearman has the confidence of the staff. Partly because he played well in the dozen plays after Simmons tore knee cartilage off the bone against the Browns last Sunday and is lost for at least eight weeks.

"He's going to be a good player," said head coach Bruce Coslet. "Is he Brian Simmons? No. But he'll be all right. He's a tough kid."

Spearman said checking into different defenses has been the major adjustment from college to the pros. But he feels a lot better about it with Spikes next to him.

"We're working it how he and Brian worked," Spearman said. "If one of them missed something, the other one picked up the slack and we've been gelling this week. I'd have a much harder time doing this if there was a rookie next to me."

Spearman said he doesn't have family coming to this game ("We had no idea this would happen,") and he really doesn't see his hometown of Bruce, Miss., and many of her 10,000 or so residents gathering at the local tavern to catch the game off the dish.

"I think there'll be a lot of people watching in their houses to see how the homeboy does," Spearman said. "But we don't have a place like a big restaurant or a bar. If anybody would go out to watch it, they'd probably have to go (30 minutes) to Oxford."

MATCHUPS: What does MLB Brian Simmons' loss mean? Check out the matchup between Bengals SS Cory Hall vs. Jaguars TE Kyle Brady. The Bengals don't buy that his reconstructed knee is hampering him all that much as they send DEs John Copeland, Vaughn Booker, Michael Bankston vs. Jaguars LT Tony Boselli in a rotation in an effort to find a pass rush. Bengals LT Rod Jones vs. Jaguars DE Tony Brackens highlights the line play while Bengals CBs Tom Carter and Artrell Hawkins vs. Jaguars WR Jimmy Smith battle to see who will appear on the highlights.

HALL VS. BRADY: With his 4.5-second speed, the 6-3, 248-pound Simmons is that rare breed of backer who stays on the field on third down and usually ends up covering the tight end. With Simmons out, the Bengals opt for an extra defensive back, which means the 6-0, 210-pound Hall could find himself on the 6-6, 277-pound Brady. He's a huge target, but Hall's speed at least puts him in position to make a play. Brady has been effective in the first two games with seven catches averaging 14 yards.

BOSELLI VS. ET AL: Copeland on the 6-7, 318-pound Boselli's recovery from the torn ACL he suffered against the Bengals Jan. 2: "He still looks like a Pro Bowler to me. He just moves so much quicker than guys his size." Boselli held Ravens sack ace Michael McCrary to one tackle last week, but defensive line coach Tim Krumrie is hoping his run-pass rotations will wear Boselli down after a week of practice the pass rush was emphasized.

"Our timing on our games is off simply because we didn't all play together during the preseason (because of injuries)," said nose tackle Oliver Gibson. "It's not timed up yet. When it gets to third-and-nine, we've just got to get on the edge and go. The thing with (Jaguars QB Mark) Brunell is he's going to get rid of it, so we can't leave our DBs out there against those receivers."

The Jags' line is dinged with Boselli limping, rookie Brad Meester starting at left guard and right guard Zach Wiegert moving to right tackle to replace the injured Leon Searcy. Former Steeler Brenden Stai is at right guard.

"I played with him in Pittsburgh and he's a tough guy." Gibson said. "They may be hurt, but they're experienced and competitive."

JONES VS. BRACKENS: All eyes are on Jones after he got benched last Sunday. But Brackens has been taking some heat in his town, too, after a training-camp holdout. Coach Tom Coughlin is still fielding questions about his conditioning, but Brackens has two sacks this season, a hellacious spin move to the inside, and a 1999 Pro Bowl berth.

The Bengals expect to try and run the ball against Jacksonville's signature two-deep zone coverages. But after the Ravens rung up 39 points and the Jags got fried by journeyman quarterback Tony Banks, Coughlin hinted there would be changes to get pressure on the quarterback. He no doubt saw the trouble the Bengals' backs had picking up blitzes by the Browns' bigger linebackers. **

CARTER, HAWKINS VS. SMITH:** Smith is merely leading the NFL's Triple Crown race with 21 catches, 343 yards and four touchdowns. The 6-0 Carter and 5-10 Hawkins will at one time or another face the 6-1 Smith. The Bengals will no doubt double cover Smith in some fashion, with the X factor being Keenan McCardell, the Jags receiver on the other side.

BY THE NUMBERS: All the big numbers for the weekend, including 28-4 and 7-25. The first numbers are the Jags' NFL-best home record since 1996. The second numbers are the Bengals' away record since 1996.

4.9 _ Yards per carry average by Jags running back Fred Taylor in four games vs. the Bengals.

4.3 _ Yards per carry for Bengals running back Corey Dillon in five games vs. the Jags.

10 _ Losses suffered by Jags quarterback Mark Brunell in 36 starts against AFC Central teams for a .722 winning percentage.

7 _ Combined NFL starts by Bengals receivers Ron Dugans and Peter Warrick and quarterback Akili Smith.

21 _ This season's catch total for Jags receiver Jimmy Smith, who has the most catches in the NFL since 1996 with 380.

3 - This season's catch total for Titans receiver Carl Pickens. As a Bengal in 1996, Pickens outcaught Smith, 100-83.

13 _ Winning drives engineered by Brunell in the fourth quarter.

1 _ Winning drives engineered by Akili Smith in the fourth quarter.

30-14 - Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin's record in AFC Central games since the team came into the league in 1995.

17-26 _ The Bengals' record in the AFC Central since 1995.

FRIDAY'S INACTIVES: MLB Brian Simmons, RB Michael Basnight, RB Curtis Keaton. WR Danny Farmer.

AKILI THE MAN: Coach Bruce Coslet would consider pulling quarterback Akili Smith in favor of Scott Mitchell during Sunday's game, but it would have to be pretty obvious.

"I'm not looking to pull Akili," Coslet said. "It depends on what the problem is. If it's a furious pass rush we can't deal with, I'd rather have Akili in there because he's faster and quicker. . .If Akili's not playing well and everyone else is holding up, sure, just like we took (left tackle) Rod Jones out. . .I'll do that to anybody except kickers because you don't have anybody else to put in."

POPE SALUTED:: Yes, the Bengals are among the league leaders in one stat. Bengals punter Daniel Pope has a net average of 39.8, trailing only the Browns' Chris Gardocki (45) and the Colts' Hunter Smith (41.2) in the AFC in net punting. The Bengals were at the bottom last year with Will Brice and Brad Costello, but Pope's consistent hang times of four seconds or more have been steel-belted consistent.

"If our net stays at 39.8 all season, we'll lead the league by a long margin," Coslet said.

Coslet didn't want to praise any facet of the club after the game, but he was pleased with special teams despite Craig Yeast's fumbled punt and Neil Rackers' 42-yard blocked field-goal attempt. Coslet recalled that Rackers' kick came after rookie receiver Peter Warrick dropped what would have been a first-down pass: "Blame the wide receiver who dropped the pass."


THIS AND THAT:** Bengals tight end Tony McGee says his cuts may not be the sharpest, but he's ready to start his team-high 105th straight game Sunday despite a sprained right ankle and bruised left toes. Coslet said he'll be active, but won't make a call on starting him until he sees him warm up Sunday.

"He's a tough SOB," Coslet said. "He wants to keep his start streak intact, but he wants to play against Jacksonville more than that. . .I would never do something like that (start him and then pull him), just to keep a streak going. If he's able to play, he'll start. If he's not, he won't." . . .

Rookie cornerback Mark Roman will make the trip, but Coslet doubts he'll be active Sunday. That's because rookie Robert Bean still has the edge with more days in training camp. Plus, veteran safety Chris Carter, picked up on waivers from the Patriots after Cutdown Day, has become a special teams regular and the club can only have eight DBs active . . .

Bengals kicker Neil Rackers knows his 42-yard field goal try was blocked because his kick was too low. He says he kicked it with the top of his foot. Don't look for Rackers to be in on any more kick-off tackles. Rackers, who once recovered his own onside kick in college, mixed it up in preseason, but the Bengals told him to back off for fear of injury. Presto, the week after they warned him, Denver kicker Jason Elam was lost for at least a month with a back injury suffered trying to make a tackle. . . .

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