Bengals not counting Chad yet

10-14-01, 2:40 p.m. Updated:
10-14-01, 6:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson has been cleared, but his coaches want him to show more progress before they decide to play him Sunday against the Titans.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is being cautious after watching him practice Wednesday for the first time since Johnson broke his clavicle a month to the day against the Browns.

"Based on today, I'm not sure he's ready to go yet or not," Bratkowski said. "I think we have to look at him hard. We've got two more days to watch him, but after today I'm not sure."

Johnson is hoping he'll be ready to play at least on third downs. But trainer Paul Sparling, who has been saying it's a six-week injury, would also like to see more.

"He can't show favoritism and he has to use

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more than one arm to catch the ball," Sparling said. "Once he sees himself on film, he'll see what he needs to do."

Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian suffered a similar injury in college and thinks the battle is now mental because Johnson's left collarbone appears to be sound.

"You feel a little twinge and it's some scar tissue or some calcification and you have to fight through it," Mooshagian said. "Structurally, I think he's fine. It's going to come down to how he handles it mentally and he'll be good with it."

Johnson is vowing he'll pick up right where he left off. He broke his left collarbone on his career-high fifth catch, a sliding grab that converted a third down on the Bengals' clinching touchdown drive during the 24-14 victory over Cleveland.

"Nothing has changed," said Johnson before Wednesday's practice. "Put me in the fire a little bit."

With Darnay Scott also back after missing all but a handful of early plays last week with a concussion, the Bengals have both speed receivers for the first time since the victory over the Browns.

The Bengals' wideouts already have more catches of 20 yards or more than they had all last year. Even without Scott and Johnson against the Jaguars, they had five of what they call "Big Play" catches. That gives them 17, two better than last year and just four behind the 21 "Big Plays," put up by Scott, wide receiver Carl Pickens and quarterback Jeff Blake in 1999.

But they're still looking for that first 50-yard pass since Scott caught a 52-yard touchdown in Cinergy Field's last game in 1999, 27 games ago.

"I haven't gone vertical yet," said Johnson, whose longest catch is 20 yards. "I'm sure it's going to come. We haven't done it yet. It might have happened in the three games that I missed."

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MCNAIR STATUS:** Titans coach Jeff Fisher won't know until Thursday if quarterback Steve McNair can grip a ball with his sore, swollen thumb and he's questionable. But McNair always seems to be questionable against the Bengals and then ends up beating them Sunday.

He's got a 7-2 record against the Bengals with 15 of his 72 career touchdown passes, his most against anyone. And Fisher remembers McNair having a similar injury recently in which couldn't grip the ball until pre-game and still played. McNair said Wednesday he plans to play.

Of course, the Bengals may want McNair to play because as good as he's been against Cincinnati, backup Neil O'Donnell has owned them with a 105.6 passer rating in 11 games.

When O'Donnell arrived for one season in Cincinnati in 1998, he had a 9-1 record against them as a starter with 20 touchdown passes and three interceptions. When he came off the bench last year in the Titans' 35-3 win in Nashville, he completed all six of his passes for 93 yards.

NICK WILLIAMS RETURNS: Fullback Nick Willams returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since ripping up his anterior cruciate knee ligament in a May 6 minicamp workout and couldn't be happier.

He planned to do only individual drills, but ended up running about 15 to 20 plays in the team sessions that included pass routes and runs.

"The only thing that was really off is my timing and I expected that," Williams said. "But I've got no swelling, no

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pain. I was able to cut and I didn't get tired. If somebody went down, I could go in and play. I know could do that."

With Williams on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), the Bengals have three weeks from Wednesday to decide if they will put him on the 53-man roster or shelve him for the year on injured reserve. They could also cut him, but that won't happen.

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SOUND BYTE:** Titans coach Jeff Fisher on why Tennessee hasn't lost to the Bengals since Cincinnati running back Corey Dillon set the NFL's single-game rookie rushing record (since broken) against his team on Dec. 4 1997:

"That was the last time Boomer Esiason played quarterback for them, too. I'm not the only one that's said that."

THIS AND THAT: OLB Takeo Spikes (groin) didn't practice Wednesday, won't Thursday, but will probably go Friday and is probable. . .LG Matt O'Dwyer (knee) is the only Bengal definitely out. . .

A clarificaton: Nov. 12 was the last day a team could raise the salary of a player for this season and have it count aganst the 2001 salary cap. Teams can still put pro-rated bonuses into the '01 cap until the season's last week.

FISHER RUNS REVERSE: Titans coach Jeff Fisher said he was misquoted two months ago about Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal not always blocking the right guy, but always doing it 100 miles per hour when he played for Fisher in Tennessee the past two seasons.

Fisher had a hard time convincing the Cincinnati media he was misquoted since it was the same group of writers who quoted him back on Sept. 12. But for whatever reason, Fisher was much more gracious toward Neal on this conference call while admitting Titans Pro Bowl running back and Eddie George and his 2.8 yards per carry miss Neal's blocking.

Neal, who expressed offense this week, shrugged when he heard Fisher's new comments.

"See," Neal said. "I told you Coach Fish and I are cool."

"Lorenzo did for Eddie what he's doing for their offense and Corey (Dillon)," Fisher said. "He's saying, 'Hey, follow me. I'll show you where you have to go.'

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"Lorenzo may not have always blocked the right guy, but he's going to block somebody and hit them hard," Fisher said. "I was surprised (Jaguars cornerback) Fernando Bryant got up from his block last weekend. Lorenzo got him on a crack-back block. It was called back because of a receiver in motion. That's how he plays. He'll set the tempo early and maintain it for the whole game."

George, who averaged 1,406 yards the past two seasons running behind Neal, is on pace to rush for 888 yards and his first sub-1,000-yard season.

" You're going to have to look hard around the league to find somebody that has more respect than I do for Lorenzo Neal," Fisher said. " I knew exactly what he was going to do the day he walked into that locker room. There's no question we miss him."

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