10-25-03, 9 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Of course, it's a big game.
When you can count on your hand the number of times the Bengals have been within a game of the division lead in late October (1995 and 2001) since the last time they went to the playoffs, Sunday's game against the 5-1 Seahawks is, as they like to say nowadays, as big as it gets.
There is only AFC North game in the next five weeks, Pittsburgh at Cleveland Nov. 23, and who knows what the scramble will resemble when they re-convene? But a game like this one is as important as emotionally and statistically as a division game for a Bengals team (2-4) that looks to be getting its legs in the first play-off push era of the Marvin Lewis era.
There are more ties and knots winding through this game than the laces that wrap into a NFL football:
Bengals kicker Shayne Graham, who has made all but one of his first 10 field-goal attempts in Cincinnati, plays against the team that cut him in the training camps of 2001 and 2002. He harbors no bitterness, but he would no doubt like to keep it going against Alexander's team.
"When I first got out of college and was saved, he helped me learn about being a Christian," Graham said of Alexander. "I spent time at his house and hanging out, meeting friends through him, and his girl friend who is now his wife. I haven't been able to visit since I was released, but we keep in touch."
That's the way it is in the NFL. You might not see each other in person for years and still feel close. That's the way it is with this series, because for some odd reason, Seattle has always seemed to be a crucial opponent for the Bengals in their history even though they've played just 16 times.
The Bengals beat them in the 1988 playoffs to go to the AFC championship game before the Seahawks came to Riverfront Stadium the next year and dealt them a devastating 24-17 loss in Game 14 that served to
knock them out of the playoffs in a 8-8 season. In 1990 on Monday night, Seattle knocked the Bengals from the ranks of the unbeaten in a night better remembered for head coach Sam Wyche barring a female reporter from the locker room.
Some would argue that was the beginning of the end for Wyche, and so maybe it was fitting that the first game in the post-Wyche era was in Seattle, where the Bengals won Dave Shula's debut in 1992. Then on Nov. 6, 1994, the Shake and Blake era officially opened when third string quarterback Jeff Blake dropped 387 yards on the Seahawks during his first victory in overtime in the Kingdome.
Alexander might be able to recount all those moments as the elementary schooler who remembers Larry Kinnebrew spinning the ball in the end zone and as a sixth-grader who remembers the "Ickey Shuffle." Later, when he became a Northern Kentucky legend at Boone County High School, Alexander worked out with such Bengals as Joe Walter and Bruce Kozerski, and once met with Bengals President Mike Brown in his Spinney Field office.
"I was around them enough that they always seemed to be my guys," said Alexander, who says the Bengals are "definitely" his second favorite team.
"I'm a Bengals' fan in blue colors," Alexander admitted. His hero growing up was Boomer Esiason. His favorite Bengal now? He's got three.
"Shayne Graham, Jon Kitna, and Corey Dillon," Alexander said.
The Bengals were never close to dealing Dillon to his Seattle hometown for the right to draft Alexander out of Alabama in 2000. The Bengals never called the Seahawks and though Brown has always admired Alexander as a player and person, the club decided to keep Dillon and the fourth pick, which turned out to be wide receiver Peter Warrick.
Which gave Alexander a chance to watch Kitna during that miserable 2000 season in Seattle and he walked away calling Kitna, "the ultimate captain."
"I can't say enough good things about him," Alexander said. "Something you just wouldn't believe would happen in front of everyone and he would take everyone out on the field and go all out the whole game. I'm excited for him playing so well.
"I have the highest form of respect for him," Alexander said. "How he carried himself when things weren't going right and when things were going great. I just thought he was an awesome leader."
Alexander saw the clash between Kitna and Holmgren up close, but then began to realize that Holmgren is going to clash with people simply because he wonders if a player is performing at "100 or 104.
"He loves those players that have it, know they have it, and want it just as bad as he does," Alexander said. "That's the way he was with Steve Young, Brett Favre, me, Matt (Hasselbeck). At the end of the day, there's no hard feelings."
There were hard feelings when Holmgren benched Kitna in 2000, and then turned to him again because of injury, and then let him go to free agency and the Bengals. While Kitna steered Seattle to its best start ever at 8-2 in 1999, he turned down a contract extension that contained no guaranteed money.
Holmgren, who is far from a callous guy, got thinking about those events as he prepared for this week. The offensive mastermind doesn't usually look at the opposing offense, but he flipped the tape on to watch Kitna, whom he calls "a class guy," and "one of the good guys. . .I don't want him to do very well Sunday, but I root for him. . .I'm a Jon Kitna fan.
"I didn't know the players here very well," Holmgren said of his 1999 arrival. "I was trying to establish something that had been missing here for a long time. It didn't have much to do with Jon Kitna as it did with bringing in something new. Fair or unfair, and sometimes it is unfair, the quarterback that's there before (moves on)."
But Holmgren is delighted with the way that Kitna is playing. He makes a point of checking his stats in the paper every Monday morning and he sees the same thing we see. Nine touchdown passes and six interceptions. He brought that "one game-killing mistake," rep with him from Seattle, but Holmgren doesn't see it now.
"That's the product of being with the same coaches for awhile and having confidence in what they're doing and having confidence in the guys you're throwing to and the guys that are protecting for you. When you have that combination, and it takes a little time to get there, those type of decisions that kind of plagued any quarterback previously, they should start going away a little bit."
Williams and Randle go back longer than Kitna and Holmgren. When Williams was a fifth-round round pick of the Vikings in 1997, Randle drove by the kid's hotel room that night to take him out and they've been close ever since.
"That was a very unique thing for a guy at the top of his game to do that. I haven't seen him face to face for three years, but we talk on the phone," Williams said. "I was with him when we won 15 games, 11 games, 10 games, he was a big reason for it. You talk to any of the guys, and I played with Pro Bowlers like Chris Doleman and Jerry Ball on the line, and they'll tell you that John is the Jerry Rice of defensive tackles. He's the best I've ever seen."
Bengals receivers coach Alex Wood, who came from the Vikings, saw Williams this week and said, "With No. 93 coming in, you better play."
Williams smiled. He knows he has to, and he plans to.
"I guess the one thing I learned from him was getting geared up every Sunday," Williams said. "The guy has a tremendous motor. You have to get that way. That's how you have to prepare."
They will talk before the game and after the game. Kitna will probably seek out Holmgren to check on the family. Graham will hunt down Alexander and maybe ask him about the rollicking Game Day birth of his child last month.
"That's why you see guys at the end of games stop and shake hands," Graham said. "You have relationships. But it doesn't stop you from doing everything in your power to win the game."
FRIDAY'S QUICK HITS:** Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis emerged from Friday's practice optimistic about running back Corey Dillon's injured groin after his first football work of the week, saying it's much better than it was last week but that it will still be a game-time decision like the one he made to play him last week. Dillon was polite enough on his 29th birthday and at the end of his media-storm week. But he didn't want the Seahawks to know his condition.
Asked if he'll play, Dillon said, "That's for me to know and for others to find out." Asked if it feels better than last week, he said. "That's for me to know and for other people to talk about." Asked if he could say how much he practiced, he said, "That's for me to know and for other people not to worry about."
Lewis said Dillon spent an attentive week taking notes and seems to be starting to cope with the injury on the field because, "he's learning now to deal with it, which also helps you as a pro. Pros learn they're going to deal with injury and pain and he's dealing with that.
"He had good work, good spirit, good tempo," Lewis said. "I want to make sure Corey feels like he's where he can burst and do the things he needs to do."
For all his venting on Wednesday about entertaining a trade and not being healthy and not being appreciated for playing hurt, Lewis and his teammates say his presence alone was a big factor in Sunday's 34-26 victory even though he had just 39 yards on 18 carries. He converted two huge third-and-ones, ran in a two-yard touchdown to put the Bengals ahead for good, and ran them into field-goal range with a 14-yard catch and run early in the third quarter.
"Those kind of things. He sets the tempo," Lewis said. "Those are what you like. That's what Corey Dillon is all about." . . .
Game balls last week went to left tackle Levi Jones and quarterback Jon Kitna on offense, right end Justin Smith on defense, and kicker Shayne Graham on special teams. . .
The captains for Sunday's game against Seattle are right tackle Willie Anderson on offense, cornerback Tory James on defense, and strong safety Rogers Beckett on special teams. . .
Former Bengals Isaac Curtis and Louis Breeden stopped by to visit practice and chatted with Lewis a few minutes after practice. Yes, Curtis, who leads all Bengals with 100 catches on 17.1 yards per catch, has noticed the man wearing his No. 85. Chad Johnson is leading the top 15 receivers in the AFC with 17.5 yards per catch. "He can wear it now," said Curtis with a laugh. How about this? Johnson has 101 career catches for a 17.1 average, matching Curtis in the team's all-time rankings. . .
CB Artrell Hawkins practiced Friday after resting Thursday. . .
Marvin Lewis is the NFL Staples Coach of the Week announced out of Framingham, Mass., after the victory over his old Ravens. A total of $5,000 in supplies is headed to Our Lady of Victory Catholic School in Delhi Township, where he'll visit in the near future. . .
MATCHUPS:The Bengals face a much more diversified offense than the one they played last week. The Seahawks have thrown it (176) just six more times than they've run (170) it and their patient ball control is going to test theBengals red zone defenseagainstSeahawks RB Shaun Alexander.**Bengals LBs Kevin Hardy, Brian Simmons, Adrian Ross have to beat the two-way threat of Alexander's main man, Seahawks FB Mack Strong, and force turnovers to gum up the rhythm of Mike Holmgren's West Coast offense.
Seattle WRs Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson get all the ink, and Bengals cornerback Tory James just might be their most valuable defensive player. But Bengals CB Artrell Hawkins is going to have to make the drive-stopping plays in the slot against Seahawks WR Bobby Engram. Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has been adept at not forcing the ball downfield and taking the safety valve, so Bengals DE Justin Smith needs to get some heat on the passer against his second Pro Bowler in as many weeks, Seahawks LT Walter Jones.
Welcome to the NFL, kid. Rookie Bengals LG Eric Steinbach faces a possible Hall-of-Famer in Seahawks DT John Randle. Bengals RT Willie Anderson has bad memories of Seahawks OLB Chad Brown even though it was seven years ago and not against him.
Bengals RB Corey Dillon has to go through Seahawks MLB Randall Godfrey and FS Ken Hamlin to get his first 100-yard game of the season. Two of the NFL's budding stars and former college foes meet when Bengals WR Chad Johnson puts his 17.5 yards per catch this season on the line against rookie Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant.
BENGALS RED ZONE VS. ALEXANDER:** No one scored more rushing touchdowns than the 5-11, 225-pound Alexander in the NFL in 2001 and 2002 (30), and only Priest Holmes has scored move overall touchdowns (43-40) from 2001 to 2003. The Bengals' red-zone defense is ranked in the heart of the league at No. 16, while Seattle is 20th in scoring inside the 20.
"He's a little different runner than Jamal Lewis," said Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons of Alexander. "He's a slasher. He'll try to make you miss. He's fast, real athletic, where (Lewis) tried to run over you."
Hey, Alexander knows what it's like to score touchdowns in Cincinnati. He plays his first game in the hometown where he rushed for a legendary 3,166 yards and 54 touchdowns in his senior season at Northern Kentucky's Boone High School. He prefers to bounce it outside and he'll try to pop the big run out that way most of the time. **
HARDY, SIMMONS, ROSS VS. STRONG:Strong is not only a solid blocker for Alexander, but he's a first-option type threat out of the backfield as a receiver. After winning the turnover battle last week against the Ravens, the Cincinnati linebackers have to be active and force some against a Seattle offense that has turned it over just six times, second fewest in the NFC, with only two fumbles.
HAWKINS VS. ENGRAM:Jackson led the NFL in 40-yard catches a few years back and Robinson's 15.9-yard average last year was fourth among NFL receivers with 60 catches. But last year, 25 of Engram's 50 catches were on third down and 43 of his catches went for first downs. This year, 13 of his 18 catches have gone for first downs with seven coming on third down. The 5-10, 190-pound Engram likes to do his work out of the slot in the middle.
SMITH VS. JONES:This isn't a battle between just a couple of guys named Smith and Jones. Smith is coming off a Game Ball performance against the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden and if he's not the best left tackle in the game than Jones probably is. He's quite an athletic pass protector, but Alexander slithered outside and followed him for a 25-yard touchdown run last week in the final minute of the 24-17 win over the Bears.
STEINBACH VS. RANDLE:At 35, Randle is still bringing it every snap as one of the mot feared competitors in the game. Seattle's linebackers fly to the ball and one of the big reasons is because Randle lets them. He's still a threat with two sacks this season, good for 134 in his career, 1.5 more than Lawrence Taylor and four away from Richard Dent and fifth on the all-time list.
ANDERSON VS. BROWN:Brown, drafted and cultivated by Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis when both were with the Steelers, seems to be rebounding from his broken ankle. He's 33, but he's still strong and active with a sack in each of his last two games, and he forced a fourth-quarter fumble from Garrison Hearst to nail down a win over the 49ers in the Sunday night game a few weeks back. He could very well end up lining up over Anderson on passing downs. With Pittsburgh in 1996, Brown rung up 4.5 sacks against the Bengals and Anderson says the next week they moved him to left tackle even though he was a rookie.
DILLON VS. GODFREY, HAMLIN:Dillon knows Godfrey from his days in Tennessee and he's still running down backs from sideline to sideline, and is coming off a team-high, eight-tackle game. Hamlin is a rookie who is rapidly becoming known as "The Hammer." He leads the team with 46 tackles and is second with six passes defensed.
JOHNSON VS. TRUFANT:** With veterans Shawn Springs (shoulder) and Ken Lucas (ankle) struggling with injuries, Trufant has emerged as the team's most consistent corner with a team-high seven passes defensed. Springs got picked on a third-and-11 and got nailed for pass interference late in the last game, but Trufant has been as advertised as the 11th pick in the draft out of Washington State. He covered Oregon State's Johnson in college, but he could also end up covering Bengals WR Peter Warrick in the slot on third down. Warrick has 13 third-down catches, tied for fourth in the AFC.
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game against Seattle, including 2,990 and 2,829. The first is the number of yards Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander has gained since the 2001 season. The second is the number of yards Bengals running back Corey Dillon has gained since the 2001 season as the hometown backs go at it Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
18-15 _ Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's record as the Seahawks' starter.
10-23 _ Kitna's record as the Bengals starter.
54 _ Touchdowns scored by Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander during his senior season at Northern Kentucky's Boone County High School.
58 _ Rushing touchdowns by the Bengals since 1998.
17.1 _ Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson's career yards per catch.
17.1 _ Former Bengals wide receiver Isaac Curtis' career yards per catch, tops in franchise history among receivers with 100 or more catches.
4-0 _ Seattle coach Mike Holmgren's record against the Bengals, 3-0 with Green Bay.
1-1 – Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' defense vs. Holmgren teams.
21-3 _ Seattle's record since 1997 when one of his backs rushes for 100 yards.
14-13 _ Bengals' record in his 100-yard games since Corey Dillon came into the league in 1997.
134 _ Career sacks for Seahawks defensive tackle John Randle, fifth most of all time.
139.5 _ Careers sacks by Bengals' front seven on defense.
10/29/89 _ Date the Bengals beat Tampa Bay to finish 3-2 for their last winning October.
1-1 _ Bengals record in October, 2003.
8-31 _ Bengals record in October from 1993-2002.