BY GEOFF HOBSON
Two Bengals rookies make their first NFL starts Sunday just in time for the NFL's hottest team. In the past two weeks, the Jaguars have rolled over teams with three victories like Cincinnati, 92-10.
Second-round pick Mark Roman makes his long-awaited debut at cornerback. Danny Farmer, a fourth-round pick cut by the Steelers, gets the nod at receiver opposite Peter Warrick.
And with Warrick returning punts full time for the first time, that's three spots manned by rookies as the Bengals try to take more out of this 3-11 season than fan angst.
"And I'll do it with a smile," said Warrick, whose enthusiasm for the job has been questioned by special teams coach Al Roberts.
Roman's promotion has been openly embraced by a team frustrated with a struggling secondary. The Bengals have allowed 18 passes of 20 yards or more in the last six games.
"It's about time. About time. That's all I have to say," said one Bengal as he walked by Roman Friday. Defensive captain Takeo Spikes expressed relief at the change.
"You've got to put in guys who make plays," Spikes said. "I've been wondering where Roman's been. You don't pick a guy in the second round and sit him on the bench." . . .more
Where Roman has been, says secondary coach Ray Horton, is "begging me to play. Well, here it is. Show us what you can do," with Tom Carter benched and Robert Bean injured.
Of course, it's going to be a stormy debut against Jags receivers Keenan McCardell ("Thunder,") and Jimmy Smith ("Lightning)." Smith leads the NFL with 441 catches since 1996 and McCardell is fifth with 391.
"I wasn't real vocal (with Horton)," Roman said. "I just asked him to point out some of the things I needed to work on to get into the lineup. I was hoping it would be sooner rather than later."
Roman is a converted safety who didn't play cornerback at LSU until his senior season that got cut short at the halfway point. But he insists that hasn't been a reason for his late debut. He also says his three-week holdout wasn't that big of a deal, either, although Horton thinks it's a reason the fifth-rounder Bean ended up starting in front of him.
"It's matter of doing the little things," Roman said. "I know what to do, I just have to take it to the next level."
What the Bengals are looking for is a guy to play the ball. They felt they were in position to make several plays against the Titans last week, but the receiver came down with the ball.
As Spikes noted, Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair had a knee injury and couldn't plant his foot well enough to get any zip on his long throws.
Roman has made a play on the ball. He did it late in the first half in New England Nov. 19 when he knocked a ball away in the end zone.
Wide receiver Craig Yeast, who doesn't usually talk to the media, can't be smiling. He's got the second most yards by a wide receiver behind Warrick and he's sitting behind Farmer, a fourth-round pick cut by the Steelers in training camp.
"We'll look at other wide receivers, too," said coach Dick LeBeau.
MATCHUPS: Jags RB Fred Taylor puts his streak of eight straight 100-yard games on the line against the Paul Brown Stadium grass he calls "a dirt-bike track," and Bengals RB Corey Dillon's home average of 6.1 yards per game. Bengals TE Marco Battaglia gets his first full start and Bengals LT John Jackson returns to the lineup against active Jags RDE Tony Brackens.
What's racing through the minds of Jags WRs Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell against Bengals CBs Artrell Hawkins and Mark Roman? Bengals Gs Scott Rehberg and Mike Goff have to mix it up against virtually a full-time nickel package manned by Jags Ss Donovin Darius and Mike Logan. . . more
TAYLOR VS. GRASS, DILLON: Jags coach Tom Coughlin says Taylor is questionable with a sore knee, but Taylor needs 63 yards to reach a $500,000 incentive, so what do you think? He's ripped the ripped PBS turf, but he can clearly run anywhere and hopes on Sunday to tie Walter Payton with nine straight 100-yard games, third most all time.
Yet Taylor has a slashing, cutting style that may be too fancy for a sloppy field. In a meeting between backs that have three of the NFL's 10 200-yard rushing games this season, Dillon returns to a place where he's had two 200-yard games, two 100-yard games and a 95-yarder.
When the Bengals lost in Jacksonville, 13-0, Sept. 17, Taylor was out with a sprained knee.
BATTAGLIA, JACKSON VS. BRACKENS: Bengals TE Tony McGee had quietly developed into a solid blocker in one of the league's top rushing offenses over the past five years before breaking his ankle last week, and now Battaglia has to pick up the slack.
It's Jackson's first game since re-aggravating a hamstring pull Nov. 12 in a renewal of a rivalry he had with Brackens when Jackson was in Pittsburgh. Jackson can remember allowing Brackens a two-sack game only once.
The Jags have been ripped for dropping Brackens into pass coverage too much into their zone blitz instead of rushing the passer. But they may be listening. Brackens has four of his 6.5 sacks in the last five games.
SMITH, MCCARDELL VS. HAWKINS, ROMAN: Smith and McCardell are the sixth tandem to catch 1,000 yards in a season and last month set an NFL record when they each caught 100 for the eighth time in their careers.
They'll be looking for their ninth Sunday. Roman is making his first NFL start and Hawkins is making his first start since getting demoted to the nickel package Oct. 2.
But Cincinnati has more than struggled on third down, allowing opposing passers to sift them for a 123.9 rating with five touchdown passes on third down in the past six games. As the "Two Angry Guys," would say, "That's a problem." McCardell leads the NFL with 29 third-down catches.
REHBERG, GOFF VS. DARIUS, LOGAN: Injuries to linebackers have the Jaguars playing mostly a pass-like defense on first and second down the past few weeks, which would seem deadly against the Bengals' top-rated running game.
But even good running teams haven't been able to dent the package. In the last month, the Steelers' Jerome Bettis and the Titans' Eddie George couldn't crack 70 yards rushing. And the bad teams have been bad. In the last two weeks, the Browns and Cardinals managed 102 combined rushing yards.
NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need for this weekend, including 20-12 and 14-20. The first one is the Jaguars' NFL-best road record since Nov. 24, 1996. The second is the Bengals' home record since that day. The Jags are 4-4 in games in Tennessee and north in December during that stretch. In honor of a freezing game, a look at rushing stats. .. more
2,557 – Combined rushing yards this season for Jags' Fred Taylor and Bengals' Corey Dillon.
2,106 _ Rushing yards from Bengals' NFL-leading running game.
4.8 _ Bengals' yards per rush.
4.8 _ Dillon and Taylor combined yards per rush.
3.8 _ Yards per rush allowed by the Bengals.
221 _ Yards Dillon needs to become 10th running back to get 5,000 yards in first four seasons.
180 _ Yards Dillon needs for 1,500 season.
26 _ Jags' rank in NFL rushing when Taylor missed first two games with sprained knee.
9 _ Jags' current NFL rushing rank.
8 _ Consecutive 100-yard rushing games by Taylor.
14 _ NFL-record consecutive 100-yard games by Barry Sanders. **
ANDERSON DOUBTFUL:Trainer Paul Sparling said calling right tackle Willie Anderson questionable with a sprained ankle is "generous." Which means Jamain Stephens would get the start.FRIDAY BENGALS INACTIVES:** MLB Adrian Ross, CB Robert Bean, RB Curtis Keaton, C Craig Heimburger. Ross said this week he probably can't play in next week's season finale with his injured hand tendon.
WEATHER CALL: The frozen tundra of Paul Brown Stadium. The weather gurus at Channel 12 WKRC are calling for temperatures in the mid-to-low 20s with possible showers of blowing snow early in the game.