Bengals' defense faces NFL's best

12-30-01, 9:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

To a man in the Bengals' locker room, and that means offense, defense, special teams, there is no question what has to be done during the offseason.

In fact, it may be the most black-and-white offseason since Paul Brown told coach Sam Wyche to stop sleeping in the office after the 4-11 of 1987.

"We have to find a way to score points," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "They don't give you points for stopping people."

If they did, the NFL's 10th-ranked defense would have the Bengals somewhere other than in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and threatening the franchise-low record for points for the second straight season.

"We could be playing better," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "If we could have had some shutouts, we would have won some of those games."

Head coach Dick LeBeau's rather institutional goal for the last two weeks is beating Pittsburgh and Tennessee to go along with the win over Baltimore so the Bengals can split with the three teams in next season's first year of the AFC North.

But a more emotional button is Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium against Pittsburgh. If there is a game the Bengals' defense wants to show how far it has climbed into the elite, it's this one.

The Steelers' defense has reached heights it hasn't seen since LeBeau coached them six years ago. They come to town with the league's No. 1 defense, the AFC Central title, and the NFL's leading MVP candidate in quarterback Kordell Stewart.

The Bengals went into Sunday's game hamstrung in the running game when left guard Matt O'Dwyer (knee) and H-Back Nick Williams (calf) were deactivated. For the second straight week, so was running back Curtis Keaton so they can continue to look at rookie receiver T.J. Houshamandzadeh returning kicks while also dressing six receivers. Rookie running back Rudy Johnson played in his first game Sunday and is expected to return some kicks. Scott Mitchell (rib cage) is healthy enough to be the No. 3 quarterback, but he can't throw that well. The Bengals did get a break when Jerome Bettis (groin) was shelved.

A Cincinnati defense that has served up six straight masterpieces in holding foes to 20 points or less (16 points or less in December) would dearly love to post another one in front of the league's best.

"In order for us to win," Simmons said, "we're going to have to."

They have to do it against Stewart and forget about this not being your father's Kordell Stewart. This isn't even your twin's Kordell Stewart. He's no longer "Slash," the QB who can only run and catch. Since the Bengals lost to the Steelers, 16-7 (one of the eight games Cincinnati has allowed 20 points or less), Stewart has been "Gash." He's completed 18 of his 19 passes of at least 25 yards since that day at Heinz Field and eight of those have come in December. The Bengals haven't had one such play yet this month.

"Turn on the tape and he's the MVP," said Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "The way he's throwing the ball down field is tremendous. Long balls. Touchdowns. He's a different guy than when we played."

Simmons sees the same thing on his machine. In the last two games, Stewart has hit the 25-yard play mark seven times. They also have to keep in the back of their minds that Stewart is also the guy who had two his runs of at least 15 yards against them in Pittsburgh.

"He always hurt you when he ran, now he's hurting people with his

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arm," Simmons said. "The big thing now is the coaches have the confidence in him throwing the ball down field. The first time we played them, they did a lot of quickouts and underneath stuff. Now, the coaches call whatever and he's making the play for them."

At some point Sunday, the Bengals will probably use their "spy,' package with strong safety JoJuan Armour mirroring Stewart's every move. But against an offense that has a dazzling agenda of trickery (double and triple reverses, fake reverses, quarterback draws), Simmons says there is only one solution.

"You just have to get guys to the ball," Simmons said. "The only way to defend somebody like him is run to the ball, get to the ball. It's difficult, because anytime you have a quarterback who can scramble, especially when you have man coverage, all you can do is when he runs out of pocket, you have to run to the ball.

"You can do a little spying and things of that nature," Simmons said. "But I don't know if you want to do that the whole game because you're taking someone away from the run or somebody in pass coverage."

The Bengals can also make life easier on themselves by playing the run better than they did in Pittsburgh. One of the reasons the Steelers lead the NFL in rushing is because they rung up 274 yards against the Bengals behind Jerome Bettis' 153 yards.

Bettis probably won't play Sunday because of a groin injury and the Bengals have gone eight straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, but Simmons says, "we can't have those missed tackles. We just didn't play well that day. We had a lot of those MTs."

In the last two weeks, the Bengals' defense has had a chance to flash their top 10 muscles on the same field with the defenses being used as NFL standards in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Simmons, a first-round pick in 1998, remembers when they weren't close.

"We've gotten better athletically," Simmons said. "When I first got here, we didn't have the athletic ability that makes a difference. When I was in college, we had speed. That's what you need because defense is all about getting to the ball. Speed at every position and we've got that now."

But he wonders if the numbers would be closer to the Steelers and Ravens if the offense was having a better year.

"If the offense was scoring 20, 21 pints a game, we'd be on the field less," he said. "Say we're on the field 10 less snaps a game and we're giving up four yards a play, that's another 40 yards or so."

But Simmons isn't pointing fingers. He's just pointing out facts.

"It's all about meeting halfway," Simmons said. "You have to have offense, defense, special teams all play well to get to where we want to be. We're not bitter as a defense. We're just like everybody else. Trying to grow, get better and be No. 1."

The Bengals will get a good idea what that looks like Sunday.

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