9-25-03, 5:45 a.m.


After three games, only one team has fewer sacks than the Bengals' two in the NFL. Their sack ace, right end, Justin Smith, is still looking for his first one. But sacks and stats aren't a high priority right now as they try to dig out of the 0-3 hole at Cleveland Sunday.

"Sacks don't guarantee you wins," said head coach Marvin Lewis Wednesday. "They're not guaranteed to do anything for you. In fact, most of the time they don't. The only time they're close to guaranteeing wins is if you get them in the fourth quarter."

Smith, who had just one sack in his first seven games last year before finishing with a team-high 6.5, isn't sure what all the fuss is about. Not when the Bengals are ranked fourth in pass defense.

"We must be doing something right," Smith said. "If we had 15 sacks and were 20th in pass defense, I'd rather have whatever we've got and be fourth. It's only three games. Everyone is having a panic attack. That's probably just how the city is with us losing so long."

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier isn't going back to the drawing board this week. He's still going to keep his line rotation intact for the Browns and keep Smith, at times, on the bench on first and second downs.

"The idea is to keep your better players fresh for December," Frazier said. "We want to be one of the teams vying for the playoffs and we want guys like Justin to be ready to make plays for us."

Smith is also thinking, "big picture."

"I've been beating guys around the corner. I'm not worried about it," Smith said. "If this was Week 11, Week 9, I'd be concerned. But it's Week 3. We've got 13 games left. We've got a long way to go."

Frazier's board says the goal is to hold teams to 17 points every week, which has been hit the past two games with opposing offenses combining for just 30 points. Defensive tackle Tony Williams asks if the defense is, "Playing good enough to win?" and Smith says, "The goal is to have a sound defense," and not one with a lot of stats. It is ranked 14th overall, and does have the best opponent passer rating in the AFC.

Of the six teams that have double-digit sacks (Atlanta, New England, New Orleans, San Francisco, the Giants, the Jets), only the Patriots and Giants have winning records and the Jets are also winless.

Besides, the defense has bigger fish to fry, as in, "If you're giving up 150 yards a game rushing, you're not going to get any sacks on," Lewis said.

Here is what concerns Lewis. Go back to last

Sunday's fourth quarter and that Steelers' third-and-eight just before the two-minute warning and the Bengals needing the ball back to tie the game. There is running back Amos Zeroue popping a draw play for 11 yards.

Ball game.

"It's a recognition thing," Lewis said. "It's guys doing their job. Recognizing the situation and doing what that calls for and doing their job and making the play instead of trying to get a sack for everyone in the stands."

Smith is dropping less into coverage this year because it does seem the Bengals aren't zone blitzing as much as they have in a scheme that usually puts seven and eight players back into coverage. But he says there isn't much difference to adjust to.

The team-oriented defense crafted by Lewis and Frazier asks only that their front line to put heat on the quarterback about 70 percent of the time in three- and four-man rushes. Lewis figures throughout his career as a defensive playcaller, he has brought pressure 30 percent of the time, which he thinks is about average for everybody.

He doesn't think the percentage of when his team has blitzed this year is that much different than what the Bengals did last year.

"You look at the number of people they're releasing into patterns and how you want to overload it to one side," Lewis said. "You look at formations, too."

Smith saw a stat recently that said the majority of NFL sacks come in the game's last seven minutes. Since the Bengals have never had a lead this year, that's not a good thing.

"We need to get three-and-outs, and stop them from putting points up on the board," Smith said. "So we know they're going to pass, so the defensive coordinators know that, everybody knows that. Like last week with Zeroue. Who would have thought they would have run that? We just need to give them less options."

Frazier says Smith is showing progress in diversifying his game. Known pretty much as a speed rusher, Smith, Frazier thinks, is developing a better bull rush as well as counter moves inside.

Smith, who played 95.5 percent of the snaps last season, says he likes the new rotation that at times puts him on the bench on first and second down when Duane Clemons and Carl Powell take his spot. But he figures he's still playing about 80-85 percent of the snaps.

"We've got a good roll going," Smith said. "Really, I think the defense is playing pretty well."

Frazier, actually, seems pretty happy about the number of hits on the quarterback, like the one Clemons delivered early to Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon that might have had more to do with him having a bad day than anything else. He would like to see more, but "a lot of times hitting the guy as he's throwing is just as important as getting the sack,"

There have also been some schematic reasons why the sacks haven't been there with quarterbacks like Gannon and Denver's Jake Plummer.

"We've faced some offenses where the quarterback is getting it and throwing it quickly," Lewis said. "And we've faced teams who have spread it."

But what Lewis and Frazier don't like is giving up that 152 yards per game on the ground.

"It's distorted some because of the reverses," Lewis said. "But it's still too much."

Frazier thinks the number shows players are still adjusting to the scheme, and learning where they fit in the run game. But there's also a lack of discipline he doesn't like.

"You get into a tight game like the last two weeks, and guys are trying to make something happen," Frazier said. "They get out of their gaps and get into somebody's lane, and that's it. The play's blown. That's where a guy like (Jerome) Bettis can hurt you and even the kid a couple of weeks ago (Denver's Clinton Portis). These guys are good. You give them a little hole and they make it bigger."

But Frazier knows a sack when he sees one. When he coached the Eagles' secondary last year, Philadelphia led the NFL. He probably knows the Eagles only have two sacks right now just like his defense.

"I'm not worried about Justin Smith," Frazier said. "The sacks will come."

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