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Back in the middle

9-18-01, 12:15 p.m.


Here is what the Bengals' defense lost when they lost middle linebacker Brian Simmons last season.

During the third quarter of the Bengals' 23-17 season-opening victory over New England, Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe engineered a well-conceived throwback screen to tight end Jermaine Wiggins that caught many Bengals off guard.

Not Simmons. He fought through a block and made the tackle after a four-yard gain to force a punt.

"He brings more ammunition to our fire power," said defensive captain and fellow linebacker Takeo Spikes. " His ability to go sideline-to -sideline, you just can't replace that."

The final whistle meant more to Simmons than just his first Opening Day victory in the NFL.

"It feels good to get through a game. It feels even better to get through it," Simmons said. "Winning that first game, hopefully we can start something."

Last season, Simmons didn't make it through the Bengals' opener against the Cleveland Browns with a torn meniscus cartilage in his knee that ended his season. After

leading the team with 111 tackles, knocking down five passes, and recovering one fumble, many felt 2000 would be the year Simmons gained respect around the league.

"I felt last year was definitely going to be the year for me to break out and prove some things," Simmons said. "It just got postponed until this year."

Instead of breaking out, Simmons was breaking down, doing something he hadn't done in a long time. He was forced to watch his team from the outside.

"I watched some of the games for the first month and a half. After that, it kind of got not necessarily boring, but knowing that I wasn't going to be able to get back out there more frustrating to sit down there and watch a whole game." Simmons said.

This year he started where he left off, finishing the opener among the team leaders with nine tackles.

He also knocked down a pass and combined with left outside linebacker Steve Foley to stop Patriots fullback Marc Edwards on a third-and-one. That led to a punt and the series that produced the Bengals' clinching touchdown.

The man who replaced Simmons in the lineup last season, Adrian Ross, says something else could not be replaced.

"We call him the 'Silent Assassin,'" Ross said. "He's always quiet, but he's got a real impact. Off the field, he's quiet. He'll crack his little jokes here and there. On the field, he's very focused and he wants to win. He just has a real good knowledge of the game."

It was Ross who filled in admirably for Simmons, moving from an outside linebacker position to the middle linebacker spot. Ross signed a three-year contract extension just before this season after proving his versatility.

"It gave me the opportunity to show that I had more skills," Ross said. "Now, it helps this team out because they know I can play (middle linebacker) along with (the other two) I was already playing. Now, Brian is back, so it makes us deeper as a linebacking group overall."

But make no mistake about it, Simmons is still the man at middle linebacker. He has the skills to keep it.

"I feel like I bring a total package," Simmons said. "I think I can play the run, play the pass real well, and be athletic enough to make plays all over the field. That's what I plan to show this season because I missed last year."

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