10-12-01, 6:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
How big is this one?
If Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau caught a player in the locker room as he walked out to practice this week at 12:53 p.m.?
"He said it would cost us thousands," said one Bengal.
How big is this one?
The Bengals were reminded during the week about last year's HBO film clip that showed some of the Browns' defensive linemen exulting in the fourth quarter at how they had worn down the Bengals' offensive line in last year's 24-7 victory that spoiled the Paul Brown Stadium opener.
How big is this one? Big enough that the taciturn LeBeau allowed he would remind his team how the Browns dominated last year's opener.
How big is this one? At 2-2, the season can only go a couple of ways.
"It's a big game in terms of where we want to be," said tight end Tony McGee. "The expectations we have for oursleves. The attitude throughout the community and probably throughout the locker room. Here we go again or we're a pretty good team. We don't want to crawl back into where we've been."
How big? The Bengals are trying to get over .500 for the first time in October since the playoff season of 1990. But they go against a 3-1 Browns team riding an expansion team's first success. It's the first time these storied Ohio-Paul Brown-AFC Central rivals have both been .500 or better in any game except an opener since 1989.
"Cleveland is having a great year," said Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson. "Look at the tape and you see a team that looks like it wants to go to the playoffs."
Or as McGee said, "They're bullying people a little bit. Pushing guys around. That's something you haven't seen from them the last couple of years."
New Browns head coach Butch Davis brings that certain Dallas Cowboys/Miami Hurricanes' swagger and arrogance that irks foes but makes for tough teams. Davis, who coached in both places before coming to Cleveland, said earlier in the week the Bengals remind them of his team and why not?
Each used free agency to bring in starters on the offensive line and on defense. Each has revived their offense with a new coordinator and draft picks. Each has defensive players playing better than in years past.
The Bengals know their season is sitting on the fence and could go either way. Playoff run or run for cover.
"We need this one," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "We're still on the fence, but so is half the league. A game like this is big enough to help how people see you at the end of the year. It could be, 'Yeah, the Bengals had a real good year,' Or, 'The Bengals were all right. They were better, but. . .'"
Three more games until their bye week and with the 2-1 Bears at home and 0-2 Lions on the road looming after Cleveland, there is a goal.
"If we want to be 5-2 at the bye, it starts now," said
cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "Nobody would admit the first game (a 23-17 win over New England) was a big game for us, because what would we say if we lost? But look what that win did for us. It help put us in position to make a move. You can't fall into two- and three-game losing streaks."
The Browns' three-game winning streak has been built on quarterback Tim Couch's AFC-best fourth quarter passing, a NFL-leading 11 interceptions, and 10 sacks that is third best in the AFC.
"They're just much better on defense," McGee said. "(Strong side linebacker) Jamir Miller is a quick pass rusher and it just doesn't look like the same secondary back there. You get seven interceptions in a game and you're going to play with more confidence."
The Browns picked off Lions quarterback Ty Detmer seven times in responding to new defensive coordinator Foge Fazio's aggressive style, two each from holdovers Daylon McCutcheon and Earl Little. Fourth-rounder Anthony Henry, a nickel corner, has three interceptions.
And Fazio has finally ignited the 266-pound Miller's career. Miller already has five sacks, a half-sack away from his career-high in seven previous seasons. The Bengals aren't getting that much production from right end Reinard Wilson, but Wilson continues to start because he's also having his best season as a pro.
And while the Bengals beefed up their defensive line over the offseason with the signing of tackle Tony Williams and the drafting of Justin Smith, the Browns signed tackle Mark Smith and drafted tackle Gerard Warren a spot ahead of Justin Smith for a defense that finished last season 26th and is now fifth.
When weak-side linebacker Dwayne Rudd followed Fazio from Minnesota, the Browns got a quick, athletic 237-pounder to match Takeo Spikes in Cincinnati.
A few weeks after Colts quarterbacks coach Bruce Arians interviewed with LeBeau for the job of offensive coordinator, Davis hired him in Cleveland when LeBeau opted for Steelers receivers coach Bob Bratkowski.
Couch has responded in a quick scheme that has no seven-step drops and is stocked with short routes and crossing patterns after he struggled with deep balls in Chris Palmer's offense his first two seasons.
"They've got a system in there that really seems to fit Couch," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "It's what the Colts have (Peyton) Manning doing and he's proven to be quite effective at it."
The Browns drafted their starting running back (James Jackson in the third round) as the Bengals did their third receiver (Chad Johnson in the second round) and dipped into free agency to bulk up the left side of their offensive
line in guard Ross Verba as the Bengals did with tackle Richmond Webb.
Actually, the Bengals went after Webb a month after they offered Verba basically the same deal he took in Cleveland to play right tackle. But the emergence of fourth-year right tackle Roger Chanoine allowed Verba to move to left guard.
"To me, it's their offensive line that is so much better," Simmons said. "They're more athletic than they have been and they've got good size."