12-28-2001-UNKNOWN

12-28-01, 7:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

For the second straight day, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis practiced with the scout team in Pittsburgh. But he took only a couple of handoffs and no one close to the Steelers expects him to play much, if at all, Sunday against the Bengals.

Bettis, who has missed the last three games with a groin injury, didn't even wear pads Friday on a day his teammates wore shells. The Steelers are 3-0 without Bettis in working by committee and have received back-to-back career days. Last week against the Lions, running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala had his first 100-day with 126 yards and the week before in Baltimore Amos Zereoue had a NFL-best 73 yards on just 16 carries.

Bengals left guard Matt O'Dwyer, who didn't practice all week with a sprained knee, likely won't play. Left outside linebacker Steve Foley (back) probably won't, either. Fullback Nick Williams worked with his bruised calf Friday, but is still questionable.

Quarterback Scott Mitchell (rib cage) is better, but if he played he could only hand off.

$ACK$ VALUE? Reinard Wilson has seen the future and it is Kenny Holmes. Which means Sunday could be the last time Wilson sees Paul Brown Stadium as a Bengal.

Five years ago, the Bengals picked Wilson, a defensive end from Florida State, with the 14th pick in the first round. Four picks later, the Titans took Holmes, a defensive end from just down the road in Miami.

Holmes became a free-agent last year after an eight-sack season and hooked on with the Giants. Wilson, who has nine sacks in the last season of his contract, knows exactly what that means.

He has gone from a bust to the bank.

"I would never want less than he got," Wilson said of Holmes' payday in New York. "He's not a better player We came out together. I know about him."

Wilson knows everything about Holmes and everyone else who plays his position. He knows Holmes has just one more career sack than he does (25-24) and "he got $21 million for five years and he missed a few games (two) because injuries, but he still got decent money. . .I've always been healthy. I don't get laid up and always in the training room with people wondering whether I'm going to play."

Wilson has missed just one game because of injury in his career (a hamstring in 1999) and missed two others last season because he was a game day deactivation.

That's hard to believe a year later since he's a sack away from becoming the first Bengal to get 10 since Alfred Williams in 1992. And he's getting them playing on only about a third of the snaps as a pure pass rusher. His goal is to finish with between 10 and

12 and if he gets two more it will the most for a Bengal since Eddie Edwards had 13 in 1983.

"As the season has worn on, it's pretty clear that he's found his principle role as a pass rusher," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "It's where he shines best. We think we've got a good combination here and we'd like him back."

Wilson is making no bones about it. He'd like to go some place where they will put him on the field for three downs and not just when the offense is passing the ball. At 270 pounds, Wilson thinks he's big enough and strong enough to play at left end, opposite the Bengals' latest first-round pick, Justin Smith.

"I'd like to get a chance to play every down," Wilson said. "I like to play, to run around and get into a groove. I'd like to go to the Pro Bowl and you can't really do that playing part time unless you were like Trace Armstrong that one year he got 16 sacks. I might take a little less if I could play (three downs) somewhere."

The Bengals seem to like the combo at left end of 300-pound Vaughn Booker playing the run and Wilson rushing the passer. After hardly playing in the first quarter Sunday, he got his career-high three sacks in a span of 6:42 bridging the second and third quarters.

"A lot of teams use combinations like that," Brown said. "Baltimore does the same thing with (Tony) Siragusa that we do with Booker. It's worked for us. And that's not to disparage Reinard. Pass rushers are very important to teams and we'd like to have him back."

But Brown won't get into what price he's willing to go.

With linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons coming up for contract talks in the next year and nickel rushers like Steve Foley and Adrian Ross fresh off new contract extensions, it's hard to see the Bengals dropping a Kenny Holmes number on Wilson. Or tagging him with the transition designation, which figures to be about a $4 million drain on the salary cap during free agency.

"I'd like to win, but I think the program is turning around and the defense has come together," said Wilson, a major reason the club can break its 25-year-old sack record with three more. "Look at the games. We lost one in overtime and a couple by a point, three points, six and seven."

Whether he comes back or not, Wilson has shown powerful perseverance. Labeled a bust from nearly Day One, Wilson had to adjust to playing outside linebacker when the Bengals drafted him for a 3-4 defense. But it didn't work for three years and they even started Ross, a second-year college free agent, in front of him in 1999.

How tough was that? Wilson points to how easily Smith made the transition this year to right end now that he's one sack from breaking the rookie club record of eight.

"He's coming right out and playing the same position he did at Missouri and fit right into the system," Wilson said. "If you asked him how he would be playing if he was playing (left outside linebacker) Steve Foley's spot and he was looking silly in pass coverage worrying about hooks and drops, he'd probably tell you it'd be harder.

"You've been playing in the interior line since elementary school and all of a sudden you're running around in space," Wilson said. "That was hard."

But now he's found his niche. The question is if the Bengals and their former No. 1 pick can agree on what it is.

**

MATCHUPS:Two leading AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates are on display Sunday withBengals DE Justin Smith* saring the field with *Steelers RILB Kendrell Bell.* * engals WR Darnay Scott* looks to recapture the days of bombs and glory for an offense that hasn't caught a pass longer than 20 yards in December against Steelers CB Chad Scott and his top-ranked NFL defense that hasn't allowed a pass longer than 19 yards in the past three games.

Bengals CBs Artrell Hawkins and Kevin Kaesviharn have to find a way to cool off Steelers WR Plaxico Burress and his binge of 44 catches in the last nine games. Two Cincinnati blockers who think they should be going to the Pro Bowl, Bengals RT Willie Anderson and FB Lorenzo Neal get it on against two guys who may very well go in Steelers LOLB Jason Gildon and SS Lee Flowers.

Two trench battles worthy of note: Bengals DT Tony Williams gets a formidable foe in Steelers LG Alan Faneca and Bengals LG Scott Rehberg, subbing for injured Matt O'Dwyer, meets former Bengal and Steelers DE Kimo von Oelhoffen.

SMITH VS. BELL: The impressive thing about Smith besides his 7.5 sacks is that he has 54 solo tackles, which is third on the team for a guy who showed up the day before the regular season started and didn't start until the sixth game.

But Bell may have him beat on the pub from a playoff team. Bell became the only player other than Jevon Kearse to win back-to-back NFL Rookie of the Month awards in October and November. Bell, a second-round pick out of Georgia, has a Steeler rookie record seven sacks and leads the Steelers with 14 tackles for loss.

SCOTT VS. SCOTT: Halloween has come and gone. Thanksgiving has come and gone. So has Christmas. And speed merchant Darnay Scott still hasn't caught a pass longer than 20 yards since his 30-yard touchdown in the last Bengals' win Oct. 28 in Detroit.

Scott has caught a touchdown pass of at least 44 yards that includes a 76-yarder in four wins against the Steelers. But that was 1999 and his longest catch this year is just 41 yards.

Plus, Chad Scott, who can be burned with his aggressiveness and has been by Darnay Scott on several occasions, has been counseled the past month to keep the ball in front of him after the Titans rung up two 60-plus yarders back on Nov. 25. People have move the ball underneath Pittsburgh, but no quarterback has passed for more than 159 yards since that Titans' game.

HAWKINS, KAESVIHARN VS. BURRESS: Burress, the second-year guy Shannon Sharpe called 'Plexiglass,' the week before Burress shattered the myth that was the Baltimore defense, isn't the same guy of a year ago. Heck, he's not the same guy who caught three balls against the Bengals Oct. 7 and had just 14 in the first five games with no touchdowns.

Since then, he's got four touchdowns, 16 yards per catch, and three monster games against two of the AFC's top cornerbacks in Tennessee's Samari Rolle (151 yards and 114 yards in two games against the Titans) and Baltimore's Chris McAlister (164 yards and eight catches against the Ravens) while fulfilling his first-round promise.

"He's a legit 6-6," Hawkins said. "He's been jumping up and taking the ball away. He's playing with a lot of confidence. You don't want to get into a situation where he can shove off you and pull you around. You can't always stay on him. You have to change it up and be careful when you do it." **

ANDERSON VS. GILDON:** Gildon has 10 sacks for the second-best pass-rush in the league, which is one behind Green Bay's pace-setting 50. Anderson has played every game for an offensive line that has allowed the seventh fewest sacks in the league with 25 and boasts the AFC Central's leading rusher.

Guess who is getting the Pro Bowl votes among the two? Not Anderson, but if he stones Gildon Sunday then someone will notice.

NEAL VS. FLOWERS: Flowers didn't play with a knee injury when the teams met in October, but the Steelers still held Bengals running back Corey Dillon to 64 yards on 19 carries. Since Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna hasn't thrown a touchdown pass to a wide receiver in five games, look for Flowers to be challenging Dillon at the line of scrimmage with run blitzes and being content with daring Kitna to beat one-on-one coverage.

Flowers is a good player and good talker and gets good ink on a popular team. Just the kind of guy Neal would like to clear out in his quest to show he's the best blocking fullback in pro football.

WILLIAMS VS. FANECA: Faneca is being bandied about as one of the top guards in the game, especially after the Steelers' top-ranked running game gouged the Ravens for 158 yards two weeks ago as Tony Siragusa disappeared in this universe's biggest black hole. Williams got hurt early in the last Pittsburgh game and also missed the Chicago game, the last two games the Bengals have allowed a 100-yard rusher.

REHBERG VS. von OELHOFFEN: The former Bengal has made a nice transition from nose tackle to end in a rush defense that gives just 70 yards per game. In the four games O'Dwyer has missed completely or a significant amount, the Bengals have rushed for 71 yards per game. But last week against the Ravens, the Bengals moved the ball on the ground in the fourth quarter without O'Dwyer.

**

NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for the weekend, including 119 and 60. The first is how many yards Bengals running back Corey Dillon has averaged in the 11 December home games of his career. The second is the average rushing yards the Steelers have allowed in the past 10 games.

16-3 _ Bengals' record in their last 19 home finales.

14-5 _ Steelers' record against Bengals in their last 19 games.

9_ Sacks by Bengals DE Reinard Wilson, most on the club since John Copeland had nine in 1995.

55 _ Wilson's jersey number and the Steelers record for sacks in a season in 1994.

43 _ Sacks by the Bengals, three off the 1976 club record.

49 _ Sacks by the Steelers this season.

15.8 _ Average points the Bengals have allowed in the last five games.

7.4 _ Average points the Bengals have scored in the last five games.

37 _ Percentage of the Bengals' points running back Corey Dillon has scored this season (66 of 177).

13 _ Interceptions Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna has thrown in the last seven games.

1 _ Interceptions Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart has thrown in the last seven games.

1 _ Touchdown passes Kitna has thrown in last five games.

23 _ Consecutive quarters since a Bengals wide receiver caught a touchdown pass.

103-66 _ Bill Cowher's record since the Steelers hired him as head coach in 1992.

48-110 _ The Bengals' record since Dave Shula was hired as head coach in 1992.

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