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Bengals turn to Curtis

8-30-02, 6:20 a.m.


"Sports Illustrated," which last wrote a kind word about the Bengals in the William Henry Harrison administration, eked out a form of praise in this week's season preview issue calling their linebackers "probably the best trio in the NFL."

But you don't have to get on the cover for "SI," to jinx you. After saying left outside linebacker Steve Foley "is finally coming into his own," he dislocated his right shoulder diving for a Michael Vick pass in Thursday night's pre-season finale and is out for the season.

The blow, which hurts them the most in the team speed department, ended a curious preseason for the Bengals' up-and-coming ninth-rated defense in the NFL last season. Drew Bledsoe put up big numbers on the first unit in the opener, Saints running back Deuce McAllister gored them last Saturday night, and Falcons running back Warrick Dunn outquicked them for a series.

"Am I overly excited the way we played this preseason?" asked middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "No. Am I disappointed? I'm not. We pretty much shut out Indy for a half and last week we had three or four guys missing. We're going to get some people back and our focus back and then we'll talk about it after the San Diego game."

Now the Bengals have to put that "deepest corps in the NFL," theory to work with six-year veteran Canute Curtis getting the call the rest of the way. Talk about breaks. Curtis, in the last year of his contract with four NFL starts, has turned down offers by the

Bengals to sign an extension. Riall Johnson, last year's sixth-round pick, looked to be headed to the waiver wire because of the depth on the deepest position on the team. But it now looks like he's the sixth and final linebacker on the roster, with rookie free-agent Dwayne Levels possibly ticketed to the practice squad.

Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner could be found flogging

himself after Thursday night's game, a 27-14 loss to the Falcons at Paul Brown Stadium. Duffner had been toying with not playing Foley Thursday because of the hip/groin problem that had kept him out of the intrasquad scrimmage and the three pre-season games. But the club decided to get him tuned for the Sept. 8 opener against the Chargers, and it's not like Duffner has nowhere to turn.

Curtis, a sixth-round pick in 1997 who graduated from two years on the practice squad, leads the team in special teams tackles over the past three seasons. He began the comeback against Baltimore last year by ripping away the second-half kickoff, and the last play of Corey Dillon's record 278-yard game in 2000 was Curtis' game-securing sack of Broncos quarterback Brian Griese.

When Foley missed the final four games of last season with a lower back strain, Curtis started a stretch they didn't allow more than 23 points.

"I've been saying it forever that we've got six starters," Duffner said. "You hate to lose a guy like Steve, but we've got a very good football player in Canute. He has made big plays for us in games and he's an excellent pass rusher."

The Bengals also have handyman Adrian Ross who can play that spot. Ross has been playing in the place of right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes since the defensive captain tore his pectoral muscle on the pre-season's second series and had a game-high six tackles against Atlanta.

Spikes is expected back for the opener and Ross thinks he might get some time in Foley's spot in order to give Curtis a blow.

"Since both Canute and I play special teams, we have to figure out how to work that," Ross said. "Losing a guy like Foley is hard because he's a 6-4, 260-pound guy who can run like the wind. He's a good pass rusher and he can cover the tight end. I don't think our depth is going to be a problem. We just have to figure out how to arrange it."

Duffner wasn't pleased with two plays Thursday and he could be heard screaming in the background of the radio broadcast after the last one, which was rookie running back T.J. Duckett's tackle-free, 24-yard touchdown run up the middle against the second unit on third-and-17.

The other one was Dunn's 36-yard screen pass that set up the lone touchdown against the first defense, Dunn's three-yard touchdown run.

"We lost focus. We didn't tackle," Duffner said. "Again, we had some roughing penalties that you just can't have, and another offsides. I don't think we've played badly overall. Tonight we played better and wanted to do something on the first series and we got an interception. But we have to tighten up our focus and discipline on isolated plays."

A closer look at the defense's summer reveals it may not be all bad. The defense was ranked No. 1 in the preseason after the first two weeks and No. 3 heading into Thursday. For all but 12 plays, it hasn't had Spikes and against the Saints none of their starting linebackers played.

Of the 52 points surrendered when the first defense was in the game, 21 points came on two interception returns and a punt return for a touchdown. Two field goals came off short fields because of fumbles. Dunn's touchdown came on a drive that started with a 24-yard punt return, and Duckett's drive began on a 37-yard punt return.

"We have to play better," Duffner said. "We aren't playing with any consistency and we can't have the penalties."

Thursday's stats also were quite good. They corralled quarterback Michael Vick's Olympic speed for two of their four sacks on the night in finishing with 13 sacks for the preseason, and held him to one carry for four yards. His five completions netted him just a 44.9 passing rating, thanks to cornerback Artrell Hawkins' interception on the first drive, and the Falcons averaged just 2.6 yards per rush for the game.

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