BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes played offense this week and passed a message to the quarterback.
Former Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake phoned Spikes this week and told him to tell Akili Smith to keep fighting through it.
"Blake said that he had some good games here last year because he'd been in the system for six, seven years," Spikes said. "And that he had experienced wide receivers, and it's just not the same thing like the guy in Minnesota (Vikings quarterback) Daunte Culpepper. He's got great veterans around him. So Jeff told me to tell Akili not to get down. He's got to give it time."
Spikes thinks he sees a difference in Smith the past few weeks and believes it's a change for the better because it shows he has more understanding of his role. . .more
"Instead of trying to go out there and win the game with a big passing day, he's trying just to do enough right things not to lose the game," Spikes said. "That's what you've got to do in this league. I think he has a better understanding of what an NFL quarterback has to get done if he's going to win."
Spikes said Blake is obviously upbeat about his new job with the 6-3 New Orleans Saints, where he's working on a passing rating of 82.9.
Blake's most wins with the Bengals came in the 8-8 season of 1996, and his best passing rating was his 1995 Pro Bowl season with 82.1. He hasn't finished a season in the 80s since an 80.3 in '96.
"Jeff pretty much just wanted to let me know the same thing," Spikes said. "Not to get discouraged."
The Cowboys are still the Cowboys when it comes to running the ball with Hall-of-Fame running back Emmitt Smith. The running game has been good enough to keep the Cowboys' battered defense in their last two games, overtime losses to Jacksonville and Philadelphia.
Bengals DT Oliver Gibson has to make sure Cowboys C Mark Stepnoski doesn't interfere with the linebackers. If the defensive line can't keep people at scrimmage, Bengals OLB Takeo Spikes will have to contain people like Pro Bowl Cowboys LG Larry Allen. The Cowboys are decimated at receiver, but they are still quick so Bengals CBs Rodney Heath and Tom Carter have to keep their eyes on Cowboys WR Jason Tucker, a former Bengal.
The Bengals, with the NFL's fourth best rushing attack, would like to take advantage of RT Willie Anderson and his 50-pound weight advantage on Cowboys LE Alonzo Spellman. Maybe mobile Bengals QB Akili Smith can run it, too, with Cowboys FS Izell Reese making his first NFL start. Bengals FB Clif Groce has to help slow down speedy Cowboys OLB Dexter Coakley. . .more
GIBSON VS. STEPNOSKI: The way Gibson sees it, the Bengals have to stop the Cowboys' top 10 running game by charging up field instead of sitting back and reading. Like the Eagles did on Opening Day, holding Dallas to 67 yards on 13 carries. Not like an Arizona club that got gouged for 200 yards rushing three weeks ago.
The Bengals need to put up a stingy game against the rush. In the last seven weeks, they've allowed at least four yards per rush six times.
SPIKES VS. ALLEN Spikes was upset with how overanxious he played during last week's game the Ravens rushed for 142 yards. Last year the Cowboys averaged 4.2 yards for their 193 carries behind Allen and LT Flozell Adams.
How good have the Cowboys been possessing the ball? In their last five games, their injury-riddled defense has allowed more than 20 points just once, and that was in a 23-17 overtime loss to Jacksonville.
CARTER, HEATH VS. TUCKER: The speedy Tucker, the Bengals sixth-round pick in 1998, has just four catches for 31 yards. But with Rocket Ismail and Joey Galloway injured for Dallas, he's the kind of out-of- nowhere guy that's killed the Bengals. Just last week, Baltimore's Brandon Stokley caught his first touchdown pass of the season in game he was in only because Travis Taylor was hurt.
The Bengals have to keep an eye on burner James McKnight, whose 18.4 yards per catch average is second in the NFL.
ANDERSON VS. SPELLMAN: In two games against the Cowboys, the Eagles had fair success running behind right tackle Jon Runyan, Anderson's rival on the free-agent market. Spellman is a solid pass rusher playing tackle on passing situations, but the Cowboys should be a little light against the run with the injuries to tackles Chad Hennings and Leon Lett.
AKILI SMITH VS. REESE: Veteran free safety George Teague is out and Reese makes his first NFL start against a mobile quarterback that has hurt Dallas the past two weeks. Jacksonville's Mark Brunell was effective and the Eagles Donovan McNabb rushed three times for 59 yards last week in the fourth quarter and overtime of Philly's 16-13 victory.
GROCE VS. COAKLEY: Coakley is just 5-10, 228 pounds, but he's extremely quick and a good athlete. There are times Groce has to take on fellow Texas A&M alum Dat Nguyen at middle linebacker. Nguyen is productive, but he's also just 5-11, 231 pounds. Sending 6-1, 225-pound running back Corey Dillon at them led by the 5-11, 245-pound Groce should be a Bengals' edge. Groce has missed the last two games with a sprained knee ligament, but practiced this week.
NUMBERS GAME: ** All the numbers you need for this weekend, including 5 and 6. In nine starts for the Saints, Jeff Blake has received five 100-yard rushing games from Ricky Williams. In 66 Bengals' starts, Blake had six individual 100-yard rushing games behind him. .more
28-18 _ The Cowboys' November record since 1990.
16-26 _ The Bengals' November record since 1990.
125 _ Yards running back Corey Dillon gains in a game when the Bengals are 7-0.
166 _ Rushing yards Cowboys allow per game this season.
92 _ Regular-season victories as a starter by Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman since his rookie year in 1989.
62 _ Bengals' regular- season victories since 1989.
62 – Career interceptions by Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau.
67 _ Total of NFL catches by Bengals' receivers.
23 _ Consecutive quarters without a touchdown pass from Bengals quarterback Akili Smith.
0 _ Total of catches of 20 yards or more by Bengals wide receivers in last three games.
1 _ Total of catches of 20 yards or more by Bengals receivers in last seven games.
186 _ Receiving yards by Titans receiver Carl Pickens.
302 _ Receiving yards by Bengals receiver Peter Warrick.
12 _ Years since the Bengals beat an NFC East team on the road, 38-24, Nov. 20, 1988 in Dallas.
297 _ Yards Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith needs to join Walter Payton and Barry Sanders as the only men to rush for 15,000 career yards.
17.5 _ Carries per game Bengals running back Corey Dillon must average in the final seven games to break Pete Johnson's 1981 club record of 274 carries in a season.
LEBEAU LAUDS: There's a drumbeat for Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman to retire because of injuries and ineffectiveness. But Bengals coach Dick LeBeau isn't buying it.
Aikman turns 34 next week and was only ahead of the Bengals' Akili Smith in NFL passing rating before he missed last week's game in Philadelphia because of a bruised back.
LeBeau doesn't think he looks all that much different from the Aikman who completed 10 straight passes at one point in Super Bowl XXX against LeBeau's Steelers' defense. He led the Cowboys to a 27-17 win that day four years ago in completing 15 of 23 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown.
"Aikman's been down to that Super Bowl game and came down on the right side of the score. I believe I was present at the last one," said LeBeau when asked about the people saying Aikman is finished.
"I don't think that's true," LeBeau said. "I see him very much aware of people on the field, which he's always been. He's every bit as accurate as he's been. Their offense has moved the ball well. They get (295) yards a game and could be better."
FRIDAY INACTIVES: Bengals: WR Ron Dugans, LB Canute Curtis, CB Mark Roman, S/LB JoJuan Armour; Cowboys: DT Leon Lett, FS George Teague, DE Aaron Fields.
Bengals LT John Jackson says he could play with the pulled hamstring that shelved him last week. LeBeau says he'll play if healthy and it could be a game-time decision.
RT Willie Anderson didn't practice Thursday with lower back pain, but he worked Friday and is probable.
Dugans, a rookie from Florida State who started the first month of the season, isn't dressing for the first time. But wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian said Friday the move was made not so much because of Dugans, but for special teams purposes.
With Curtis inactive and linebacker Adrian Ross hobbled with a sprained ankle, special teams coach Al Roberts wanted receiver Damon Griffin active. Griffin hasn't dressed the last three games, but they need his flexibility because he can play on three units on special teams.
WEATHER CALL: The Texas State Radio Network is calling for a cloudy and cool day with temperatures in the 50s and possible rain.