BY GEOFF HOBSON
The class of '98 has an ax to grind at the point of attack this Sunday.
"Since I've been here, we've never beaten Tennessee," said linebacker Takeo Spikes. "We've never beaten Jacksonville. We've never beaten Baltimore. It's about time to mess up their seasons since they've done a pretty good job messing up ours.'
Spikes was the Bengals' first pick in the 1998 Draft and the Bengals are 0-16 vs. the AFC Central's top three ever since.
The Bengals, who already got swept by Baltimore this season, host Jacksonville next week after playing the Titans Sunday. Once upon a time in 1997 with Boomer Esiason at quarterback, the Bengals beat Jacksonville and Tennessee in a 10-day stretch.
Left outside linebacker Steve Foley, a third-round pick in '98, may have as much to say about Sunday's game as anyone. Much of the time on first and second down, Foley will draw tight end Frank Wycheck, the Titans leading receiver.
"He's got good hands, he's a big guy and he knows how to get position on you and he tries to grind you," Foley said. "Embarrass you. You have to be as physical as he is and you have to be smart and play the right technique."
The Bengals like the matchup because of Foley's size (he's 6-3, 260 pounds to Wycheck's 6-3, 250) and the fact they think Foley can run with him.
"I think I can do some things where they might have to alter their game plan," Foley said. "If I can go out and cover him one-on-one, maybe we can force (quarterback Steve) McNair to go to other guys.'
Foley is having a solid year and is probably the defense's most versatile player because he's so effective rushing from an end spot in passing situations.
But he's laboring in the huge shadow of Spikes, on pace for the third best tackling season in Bengals' history.
"I'm not too big on that stuff," said Foley of being noticed. "Whatever success comes. . . step by step." MATCHUPS: Yes, Foley has a big matchup. The problem is, he rushes on passing downs, so people like Bengals safeties Darryl Williams, Chris Carter, Cory Hall also have to contain Titans TE Frank Wycheck. Bengals OLB Takeo Spikes and MLB Adrian Ross have to check Titans RB Eddie George not only in the running game, but also in the passing game. Wouldn't Tennessee like to solve its red-zone problems by isolating Titans WR Carl Pickens against Bengals CBs Tom Carter or Robert Bean?
Bengals RB Corey Dillon tries to dent Titans MLB Randall Godfrey. Bengals FB Nick Williams has to find Titans SS Blaine Bishop at the line of scrimmage in the running game. Bengals QB Scott Mitchell has to solve Titans CB Samari Rolle. WILLIAMS, HALL, CARTER VS. WYCHECK: What worries the Bengals is Wycheck's height on these guys on third down, when Foley is usually rushing. Wycheck is a force on third down, when he has 21 of his 57 catches.
"When he's got a height advantage, McNair finds a way to jam it in there to him," Foley said.
Hall is trying to atone for the Steelers' game, when Pittsburgh tight end Mark Bruener beat him on a pair of third-and-longs for a first down and a touchdown. Receiver Bobby Shaw also got by him for a 45-yard touchdown catch.
ROSS, SPIKES VS. GEORGE: Ross knows Eddie's on his way. In Ross' first start at middle linebacker back on Oct. 8, George had a career-high 36 carries, and Ross thinks some of his 181 yards came because he was lined up in the wrong spot because of his inexperience at the position.
People forget George has 419 yards catching, so Spikes and Ross will cover him at times depending if he goes into the left or right flat.
The Bengals won't soon forget George's 17-yard touchdown catch off a swing screen pass with 4:30 left in last year's opener. That cut Cincinnati's lead to 35-33 and allowed the Titans to come back for winning field goal with eight seconds left.
"That was against a zone and we needed a tackle from a corner and safety and didn't get either one," said coach Dick LeBeau.
PICKENS VS. CARTER, BEAN: Pickens is finally on a team that has more wins (10) than he has catches (8). He hasn't caught a ball since Oct. 1 and has been inactive in three of the last four games, thanks to a nagging hamstring injury and learning a new offense.
But Pickens is supposed to play Sunday for the first time against his former team and even though he's the fourth receiver behind Yancey Thigpen, Chris Sanders and Derrick Mason, you know just by his sheer desire he'll make something happen.
After failing to score a TD despite four trips to and beyond the Philadelphia 26 last week, the Titans could do what the Bengals always did and match up the 6-2 Pickens' size and strength against tiny corners with lobs into the end zone.
DILLON VS. GODFREY: When Dillon popped his 80-yard touchdown run against the Titans earlier this year, Godfrey strayed from his gap on the play and allowed a gaping hole at the line of scrimmage. The Titans' gambling eight-man front will give you chances like that during the game. Not many. So Dillon has to make them count.
WILLIAMS VS. BISHOP: As Bishop goes, so goes the Titans defense. He's the eighth man and Williams has to block him if Dillon is to succeed. But he'll need help from tackles and wide receivers on the back side if the Bengals are to give Dillon room on a crowded line of scrimmage.
MITCHELL VS. ROLLE But let's face it. The only way the Bengals can back the Titans off shadowing Dillon is if Mitchell can exploit one-on-one pass coverage. Easier said than done against Rolle, the NFL's interception co-leader with seven. He helped hold Bengals rookie receiver and fellow Florida State product Peter Warrick to one catch for 10 yards back in October, Washington's Albert Connell to two catches for 33 yards, and Philadelphia's Charles Johnson to four catches for 41 yards last week.
NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need this weekend, such as 7-28. That's the Bengals' road record against non-expansion AFC Central rivals since 1991.
96 _ Former Bengals receiver Carl Pickens' streak of games with a catch snapped Oct. 30 against Washington in Tennessee's 27-21 victory.
88 _ Total NFL catches of the six active Bengals receivers.
263 _ Yards Bengals running back Corey Dillon needs to become the 10th man in NFL history to rush for 5,000 yards in his first four seasons.
46 _ Selection in the 1998 draft the Titans chose Florida State cornerback Samari Rolle, the NFL's current co-interception leader.
43 _ Selection in the 1998 draft the Bengals chose University of Cincinnati cornerback Artrell Hawkins, the club's nickel corner Sunday.
27-20 _ Titans' NFL-best road record since 1995.
12-34 _ Bengals' road record since 1995
6.1 _ Yards per carry Dillon averages at home this year.
3.2 _ Yards per carry Dillon averages on the road this year.
STAT MASTERS** Mark Curnutte and Tom Groeschen of The Cincinnati Enquirer unearthed this stunning stat: The Bengals haven't beat a winning team on the road since edging the 6-5 Steelers, 16-12, on Dec. 2, 1990.
Here's one for you guys. How long ago is that? The Bengals starting right cornerback this Sunday, Robert Bean, was even a teen-ager. He turned 13 the next month. . .
Last week, Dave Lapham, Bengals radio analyst, offered running back Corey Dillon's home and road rushes per attempt this season. It's 6.1 at Paul Brown Stadium and 3.2 on the road. Here's one for you, Lap.
Dillon is about even on grass and turf in the last two years. On the natural stuff he's racking up 1,344 yards on 286 carries for about 4.7 per carry on grass. On turf, he's 219-956 for about 4.3. . .
P.J. Combs of Bengals' public relations dug up this one: In the 29 games since 1999, the Bengals lead the NFL in rushing with 141.3 yards per game, ahead of the Raiders (136.8), the Steelers (133.1), the Broncos (132.1) and the Jaguars (128.4). Since '98, the Bengals are fifth, since '97 they are fifth, and in the 77 games since 1996, they are fifth with 123.3 yards per game. Since '96, the Broncos lead the NFL with 142.3 per game.
TITANS UPDATE: Titans co-sack leader Kenny Holmes will miss Sunday's game with the Bengals after getting arthroscopic knee surgery Friday.
But Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair discarded his protective boot and threw again for the second straight day Friday with all signs pointing to him playing even though he didn't practice.
Also expected to play for the Titans is Carl Pickens, the Bengals' all-time receiver who missed the first game in Cincinnati earlier this year with a hamstring problem. Pickens has just eight catches and is the fourth receiver behind Yancey Thigpen, Chris Sanders and Derrick Mason.
McNair, who sprained his left knee and left ankle last week, also did enough rehab the past two days that club observers believe he'll start against the Bengals. But Titans coach Jeff Fisher says it will be a game-time decision.
Henry Ford, who has one sack this season, gets the start at right defensive end in place of Holmes. Holmes shares the Tennessee sack lead with left end Jevon Kearse, with eight, two of them coming last week against Philadelphia.
Tennessee hopes Holmes can take off this week and next week in Cleveland, but be ready for the season finale at home against the Cowboys.
ROSTER MOVE: The Bengals signed defensive lineman Keith Jackson to the practice squad out of the CFL Friday. The 6-4, 314-pound Jackson, out of Cheyney University, was cut by the Cowboys Aug. 2. He spent five weeks with the B.C. Lions before they released him last month so he could pursue an NFL job.
FRIDAY'S INACTIVES: Bengals: FB Clif Groce, RB Curtis Keaton, OT Mike Doughty, OG Roger Roesler; Titans: DE Kenny Holmes, RB Mike Green, DE Byron Frisch, OT Rod Walker.
WEATHER CALL:** Summer breeze. Game day in Nashville is supposed to be partly sunny with a high temperature of 59.