Bengals' defense to define opener

9-5-03, 5:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Lewis has brought everything but the kitchen sink to the Bengals during his first offseason, and someone might try to lug one of those in Sunday when Paul Brown Stadium hosts its first Opening Day sellout since the building's first regular-season game with the Browns on Sept. 10, 2000.

Lewis not only brought fans to a stadium that had seen its three smallest crowds ever in the last three home games of last year. But he also brought the team a $250,000 weight-room renovation, extensive off-season conditioning, a nutritionist, an agenda for getting involved in the community, guest lecturers, locker stools, and a stripped-down roster free of big-money hangers-on.

But maybe the most important thing he brought is his defensive philosophy, a manifest that is to be severely tested Sunday when Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan brings to town his perennial points powerhouse, which finished third last season in the NFL for most total yards.

Lewis and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have been hammering at their team during the 1,000 plays of minicamp and another 1,000 in training camp about solid gang tackling, gap integrity, and the incessant bark of "Stay on your feet, stay on your feet. Be an athlete."

With slippery Jake Plummer now their quarterback throwing to three crafty veterans each with more than 500 career catches and AFC Rookie of the Year Clinton Portis their big-play running back behind a savvy offensive line, the Broncos force the Bengals to do all those things if they have a shot.

Defensive end Justin Smith thinks they do because they are, simply, better than last year.

"We're more disciplined. They don't take any

messups," Smith said of Lewis' staff. "Last year, we'd be in the wrong gap or take a wrong angle, and that makes a big difference."

They'll have to be in the right spot Sunday.

"We want to be athletes every game, but that is so important in this game," said tackle John Thornton, one of seven defenders in new spots from last year's Opening Day lineup. "You have to stay on your feet. The offensive line cut blocks, they seem to like to run at the guys getting cut on the backside and Portis cuts it back. So you have to stay up. It's like Marvin says. You can't play on the ground."

While he was in Jacksonville, middle linebacker Kevin Hardy had success stopping the Denver running game, but it takes patience. Particularly with a back like Portis that always seems to make the first guy miss.

"Their offensive line is like a machine. That's how well they play together," Hardy said. "Portis likes to stretch it out and find the hole, and when he does, he hits it fast. You can't always go charging up in there because you might miss him. We've got to play sound because we know they're going to make very few mistakes."

Smith is going to find himself trying to track down Plummer. They don't want to, because he's more dangerous throwing on the run, but if they do, Smith says they can't let him get upfield.

"You need to stay on his up-field shoulder and be aware he will come out and run on you if you don't get so engaged with your tackle," Smith said. "Portis makes a lot of guys miss. He's a spinner when he gets in the hole."

So it's what Lewis has been talking about since he got here. Sound, basic, gang-tackling defense.

He has stayed true to what he wants to do. After a training camp of hosting lecturers on a variety of life skills, Lewis brought in Bengals Hall-of Famer Anthony Munoz Friday to address the team on the field after practice.

"To bring in the most storied Bengal, the most recognizable Bengal, other than Boomer (Esiason), maybe," Lewis tried to drive it home this is why you play games like Sunday.

Munoz played offense. But the defense is definitely playing a leading role in Lewis' debut, and you had to figure it would.

MATCHUPS: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, one of the league's reigning defensive gurus, faces an offensive mastermind in Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan in his head coaching debut.

Bengals QB Jon Kitna, finally entrusted with the confidence of a full minicamp and training camp as the No. 1, faces Broncos QB Jake Plummer, finally entrusted with the offense of a contender. Bengals MLB Kevin Hardy renews his playoff battles with Broncos C Tom Nalen. Bengals WR Chad Johnson tries to keep his good times rolling against Broncos CB Lenny Walls in Walls' first NFL start.

Bengals RB Corey Dillon faces Broncos RB Clinton Portis in a matchup of the establishment against the newcomer. Bengals RB Brandon Bennett has to marshal his special teams against Broncos PR Deltha O'Neal and KR Reuben Droughns. Bengals K Shayne Graham makes his Cincinnati debut on his fifth day on the job against a future Hall-of-Famer in Broncos K Jason Elam.

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LEWIS VS. SHANAHAN _ ** Lewis has had Shanahan's number ever since the Broncos put a 45 spot on the Ravens in 1996, Lewis' first year as a defensive coordinator. In their last two meetings, one in the 2000 playoffs and the other during the 2001 season, Baltimore held one of the NFL's most prolific offenses to totals of one touchdown, 103 rushing yards, and 405 total yards while also generating 10 sacks.

But the question of the day is if Lewis can shut down an offense that has racked up the third most yards in the NFL over the past three seasons with guys named Williams, Hardy, and Roman instead of Siragusa, Ray Lewis, and Woodson.

Lewis' schemes have also had success against Denver quarterback Jake Plummer. In last year's opener, the Redskins held Plummer to 14 of 36 passing for 187 yards, picked him off once, and didn't allow a touchdown pass until the fourth quarter of a 31-23 victory. **

KITNA VS. PLUMMER _ ** Kitna, 30, takes command after his finest season in which he led the Bengals to 300 yards 11 times in racking up the best passer rating of his career with 81.4 in his 12 starts. Plummer, 28, is coming off one of his worst seasons with a 65.7 rating on 18 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, but Shanahan seems to have revived him. In the preseason, Plummer's rating was 90.5 and his yards per attempt was 9.23, up from his 6.39 average during six seasons in Arizona.

Plummer is at his best throwing on the run. Kitna is at his best in the pocket. Both have a rep for making a bad throw that can take their team out of a game. Both have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in their careers, so who ever is on the plus side Sunday probably wins. **

HARDY VS. NALEN:They have been banging on each other since the Jaguars upset the Broncos during Hardy's rookie season of 1996 during the playoffs in which Jacksonville held Denver's elite running game to 126 yards. Hardy knows the Broncos like to cut block on the back side and he'll have to stay on his feet to help the Bengals shut down an offense that has the second most rushing yards in the NFL over the past three seasons.

JOHNSON VS. WALLS:In the last 12 games of last season, Johnson averaged more than five catches and more than 90 yards with his stretch –the-field speed. The 6-4 Walls is the tallest cornerback in the league, but can he get his hips low enough in time to track Johnson's moves?

DILLON VS. PORTIS:Dillon, the 1997 AFC Rookie of the Year as voted by the players, puts his power on the line against the elusive spins of Portis, last year's AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year. Dillon has never gained 1,508 yards like Portis did last year, but Dillon has had seven games better than Portis' career-high of 159, including the NFL-record 278 yards the last time he faced the Broncos.

BENNETT VS. O'NEAL AND DROUGHNS:** As a rookie in 2001, O'Neal finished fourth in the NFL in punt returns and last year was fifth in the AFC. He hasn't looked all that great this preseason (with a long of 11 yards), but the Bengals have been feeling their way around special teams this preseason.

Droughns was third in the AFC in kickoff returns last year (just ahead of Bennett), and the Bengals are still smarting from last week's opening kickoff that got returned by the Colts for a touchdown. Bengals specials teams coach Darrin Simmons is saying you won't see that same coverage team Sunday. **

GRAHAM VS. ELAM:** Graham has been with the Bengals just five days and goes against a guy who has been in Denver longer than Coors. Graham has 19 career field goals compared to Elam's 12 career game-saving or game winning field goals in the fourth quarter or OT. Elam's 261 field goals and 1,193 points lead all active kicker, and he shares the NFL record with Tom Dempsey for the longest field goal of 63 yards in 1998. Graham has a long of 50 and did it twice last year.

**

BY THE NUMBERS:** All the numbers you need for the Bengals-Broncos, including 3 and 163. 3 is the number of touchdowns allowed by a Marvin Lewis defense in the last 12 quarters against a Mike Shanahan-coached offense and a Jake Plummer-led offense. 163 is the number of average passing yards his defense has allowed in those three games, all victories for Lewis in two games with Baltimore and one with Washington.

95th _ The anniversary Sunday of Bengals founder Paul Brown's birth in Norwalk, Ohio.

59 _ Brown's age when he coached his first game for the Bengals.

44 _ Marvin Lewis' age.

405 _ Total yards Lewis' defenses have allowed in last two games against Denver.

407 _ Bengals' rushing yards against the Broncos in their last meeting.

1,000 _ Yards Bengals running back Corey Dillon needs this season to become the fourth player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 in each of his first seven seasons, joining Barry Sanders (10 seasons), Curtis Martin (8), and Eric Dickerson (7).

1,149 – NFL catches for Denver's top four wide receivers.

271 _ NFL catches for the Bengals' top four wide receivers.

30 _ NFL starts for Denver's starting cornerbacks.

133 _ NFL starts for the Bengals' starting cornerbacks.

10 _ Rushing touchdowns by Denver running back Clinton Portis in last season's final six games.

7 _ Rushing touchdowns by the Bengals last season.

21-10 _ The Broncos' record in September since Mike Shanahan arrived in 1995.

6-22 _ The Bengals' September record since 1995.

261 _ Denver kicker Jason Elam's career field goals, which leads all active kickers.

216 _ Total field goals by the last three Bengals' kickers, Doug Pelfrey (153), Neil Rackers (44), Shayne Graham (19).

.433 _ Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's winning percentage in 60 NFL starts.

.366 _ Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer's winning percentage in 82 NFL starts.

Minus 6 _ Kitna's ratio of touchdowns to interceptions (77-83).

Minus 24_ Plummer's ratio of touchdowns to interceptions (90-114).

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