Bengals Pack them in

6-2-04, 6:15 p.m. Updated:
6-20-04, 8 p.m.

GEOFF HOBSON

Before working the line like Kerry and Bush only hope they can in this battleground state, Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson strolled up to one of the Paul Brown Stadium ticket windows Wednesday and startled the customers with the proclamation, "All tickets half off."

He was kidding , of course, but all Bengaldom was as serious could be Wednesday in producing the biggest one day ticket sale since its club went to the Super Bowl 16 years ago.

On Thursday, the team announced it sold nearly 10 times as many Ticket Packs Wednesday as it did on the first day of Ticket Pack sales in 2003. And, the number of Ticket Packs sold Wednesday surpassed the total number of Ticket Pack sales generated in 2002.

There were no specific numbers to the response for the four two-game ticket packages that include the first two prime-time telecasts in PBS history. But there was plenty of tangible evidence, ranging from the crowd of 150 along the plaza that greeted ticket sellers at 9 a.m. and the early indications that the tickets sold in the first two hours beat last year's entire first day of sales.

The wait on the plaza for tickets was as long as two hours, but it was interspersed with such moments as head coach Marvin Lewis shaking hands with the customers before Wednesday's practice, director of business development Troy Blackburn dispatching bottles of water to those waiting, and Johnson shaking hands with everyone standing outside in line.

"We're waiting in line to see you play," said one fan," and when Johnson nodded, another asked, "Hey Chad, how long is the wait?"

Johnson turned and raised his arms and said, "It's worth it."

Brandon Rau, 23, and Nick Simpson, 22, of Amelia, might not have been so sure until Johnson showed up.

"He's the man. This makes me feel better about standing out here. He's awesome," Simpson said.

Rau, who works third shift at 3M as a pressman, got off a 12-hour stint at 7 a.m., but there he was fighting the noon day sun in a SevenDust T-Shirt.

"When we couldn't get through on the phone, we decided to come down," Rau said.

The club had its Automatic Call Distribution system as well as an estimated 21 sales representatives working the phones that never stopped.

"There's no question that we were prepared, it's just that the sheer volume of calls takes time," said ticket manager Tim Kelly. "The response has been fabulous. It's really great to see and we really appreciate the fans' enthusiasm and support. Preparing packages takes a little bit longer than single-game tickets, but all we can ask is for people to have patience, stay in line, or stay on hold, and we'll be with you as soon as possible."

Wednesday's response puts the Bengals ahead of last year's pace, when they set a franchise attendance record of 479,488, which included five sellouts and the four largest crowds in club history.

The four two-game packages are:

PACK D: Nov. 28 vs. the Cleveland Browns, and Dec. 19 vs. the Buffalo Bills in a reunion game against former Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes and former Bengals head coach Sam Wyche, now the Bills quarterbacks coach.

Single game tickets for the pre-season games also went on sale Wednesday. Fans may purchase Ticket Packs and pre-season single game tickets by calling the Bengals Ticket Hotline. In Greater Cincinnati, call (513) 621-TDTD (8383). Outside of the local Cincinnati area, call toll free at (866) 621-TDTD (8383).

CUTS: The Bengals cut their roster to 87 players Friday when they released veteran guard Alex Sulfsted, along with two rookie free agents in Arizona inside linebacker Joe Siofele and Minnesota-Morris tight end Michael Walker. Along with their four NFL Europe exemptions, the Bengals must be down to 84 players when they report to training camp July 30.

Sulfsted, 26, ended the third stint with his hometown team. A Lebanon, Ohio, native who attended Mariemont High School and played at Miami of Ohio, Sulfsted signed Dec. 9 last season following left tackle Levi Jones' arthroscopic knee surgery. He is a third-year player with 14 career games and three starts, all with the Redskins in 2002.

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INJURY UPDATE:** The Bengals completed their last on-field coaching session Thursday before next weekend's mandatory minicamp, when it looks like they should have virtually everybody healthy. Wide receiver Peter Warrick, who has rested his knee the past two weeks, says he's ready to go. Right tackle Willie Anderson, who tweaked his back and sat out this week, says he should be ready, and wide receiver Patrick Johnson indicated he could be ready after resting some sore muscles. Running back Chris Perry (hamstring) also might return. At the very least, everyone is expected to be ready for the first day of training camp July 31.

STEINBACH AND THE TOOL: Back when it wasn't a high school term of derision, Dave Lapham was called the class "Tool," for his ability to do any job along the basin of the Bengals offensive line. Now, after watching Eric Steinbach work as the backup left tackle Lapham is passing the screwdriver to Eric Steinbach, the next candidate to play all five line positions if needed.

"With, his movement in space and athleticism, he can be as good a left tackle as he is a left guard," says Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst who played all five positions in the same game twice.

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander also thinks Steinbach could play all five spots, but right now his player is more worried about playing left tackle. At the moment, Steinbach looks smooth enough to be the first option if anything happens to Levi Jones for any amount of time.

But he doesn't feel smooth.

"I've got to work on the angles. There is so much room out there compared to guard. It's all about angles and depth," Steinbach says. "I've got time to work on it. Its technique and a lot of guys who don't have the athleticism are still good because they have the technique."

Steinbach showed both at left guard last season in a rookie season that keeps getting more and more impressive as people watch him work with two healthy arms this season. He's had only one, but the impact of the Tommy John surgery that repaired the damaged ligament in his elbow is already showing up.

"I think he's ready for a big year now that he can do things with that arm and punch," Alexander says. "Remember, he had the same thing his last year in college, so he's doing things he hasn't been able to do for a long time. Think about what he'll be able to do punching with two hands."

Lapham shakes his head in admiration. He had an elbow dislocated against the Packers and it got shoved back together, but his foes wasted no time exploiting the injury.

"That tells me how good his feet are," Lapham says. "For him to be able to compensate with his outside arm and play as effectively as he did last year, that tells me he's something special."

Lapham calls it playing like a one-arm paper hanger. Steinbach, who says he can still feel it's not as strong as it has to be, calls it frustrating.

"It hurts your ability to separate from the guy," Steinbach says. "If your hands are in, you're giving him that much more space to beat you. If you can get your hands out and get a good punch, you can separate yourself and that gives you more time. The strength still isn't there, but definitely by training camp. (The surgery was) only four months ago."

Lapham always thought the two toughest positions on the line for him were "playing center right over a guy you could smell his bad breath and you have to snap the ball properly and then execute the run block, and getting the proper technique and timing against a speed rusher at left tackle."

But he thinks Steinbach can do it because he's smart and you're talking about a 6-6, 300-pound guy that played basketball and track, and one season as a first baseman in high school.

"I think Victor Leyva is another guy that could play all five spots," says Lapham of the backup right guard and tackle. "You basically just have to take care of the little things and make sure remember which side you're on."

**

AYERS IT OUT:** One of the best feel-good stories in awhile ended earlier this week when the Bengals cut free agent running back Nick Ayers. But it still feels good because Ayers made the gut-wrenching decision to land a career this fall instead of a dream. He showed up for work as usual at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, but told running backs coach Jim Anderson he had been thinking about going back to school for the last week or so.

On Tuesday night, Ayers had no regrets.

"I don't think I was wasting anyone's time, but if it was going to be sooner or later, I would prefer it to be sooner," said Ayers, the local product from Cincinnati's Glen Este High School and Georgetown College. "I mean, I can count. They're only going to keep four (running backs) and I may have an opportunity to get started in business right after I graduate. I went for it. It was a thrill. But I felt now was time that I had to make a decision."

Ayers, who watched the Bengals practice in training camp at Georgetown during a career he became the NAIA school's all-time touchdown leader, has about a semester left and he plans to pursue a career in pharmaceutical sales.

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