Booker sees need

11-11-02, 8:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals' defense is ranked 29th in the NFL against the run and with tackle Oliver Gibson out for the season with a blown Achilles' tendon, there is rising concern.

In the last seven weeks of the season, the Bengals play five running backs on pace to gain at least 1,200 yards. While one of the anchors of the run defense, left end Vaughn Booker, is vowing to come back this week "no matter what," the shape of his sprained left knee, linebacker Takeo Spikes is offering assurances to doubters that both nicked pectoral muscles aren't curtailing his play.

"They aren't a problem. I'm better than I was earlier in the season. People are always trying to find stuff and back you into a corner," said Spikes, who missed all but 12 snaps of the preseason with a slightly torn chest muscle.

"I'm playing the same way I did last year. If the play comes to you, it comes to you. You can't dictate the play at linebacker. If I press trying to make something happen, I'm going to get out of the defensive system and cause more big plays to happen. Just like everybody else on this defense, I'm never going to reach my full potential unless you have everybody else playing well beside you."

Bernard Whittington has played hard in Booker's place the past three games, but he's not built to continually stop the run. In the five total games Booker has missed, the Bengals have allowed an average of

110 yards per game on the ground. In the games he left early with injuries, the Falcons and Steelers rolled up 173 and 211, respectively. He didn't make the trip to Baltimore, but Gibson called him from the plane Sunday night to tell him he was done for the year.

"It's hard to watch," Booker said. "I'm not saying I'm the answer by any means, but I play the run better than I pass rush."

Booker, who turns 35 in February, is most likely playing his last season. He thought he might need another week or two, but with the rushing yards piling up, Gibson going down, and the front four needing an injection, he's going to start slowly this Wednesday in practice and see if he can be ready by Sunday. The outgoing Booker knows he can at least bring his presence.

"I think I can help the team," Booker said. "I know we need a guy who is going to be a leader. Tony (Williams) does his thing, but Tony doesn't say anything. Justin (Smith) does his thing, but he doesn't say anything. . .I try to keep everybody's head on the goal at hand."

Booker is the kind of player who would remind Gibson not to lurch into the neutral zone during key parts of the game, when Gibson has a habit in his desire to get a jump on the snap.

"A lot of our guys are like that," Booker said. "They get caught up so much in the moment that they're trying to cheat the system. I'm like, 'You don't have to cheat if you just do your job. If all 11 of us do our job, we don't have to cheat. Just do your job.'"

Booker calls that getting a "hot head," and trying to do things out of the scheme. Spikes, for one, doesn't see a problem with the scheme against the run, a scheme that has basically the same personnel that finished 11th against the run last year.

They have missed Booker and left outside linebacker Steve Foley, who never played this season with a shoulder dislocation, and they have been hurt by inexperienced safeties.

But No. 11 to No. 29?

"It's not the scheme, we just don't have everybodyfitting up where we're supposed to fit up," Spikes said. "Not everybody is up on the same page as last year. Last year, another guy might have run past (the ball), but the guy right beside was helping him. It's tough because you look forward to stopping the run."

Spikes and middle linebacker Brian Simmons are right where they usually are, 1-2 in tackles, and defensive coordinator Mark Duffner says his linchpins are having "solid seasons."

"I've got no problem with our effort and desire and that's where it begins," Duffner said. "But we have to be more consistent in our technique. We're not overly big, so we have to be technically sound and on some plays we get it and some plays we don't and it's not always the same guys. We know what we have to do the rest of the way and that's stop the run."

It's a convenient transition week because the Bengals are playing Cleveland's lowest-rated running game in the NFL Sunday. But that's the calm before the storm.

Here are the big five running backs the Bengals face in order with their projected season totals:

Dec. 1 Baltimore Jamal Lewis (1,388); Dec. 8 Carlolina's Lamar Smith (1,200); Dec. 15Jacksonville's Fred Taylor (1,372); Dec. 22 New Orleans' Deuce McAllister (1,612); Dec. 29 _ Buffalo's Travis Henry (1,330).

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