8-18-03, 9:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Tennessee comes to Paul Brown Stadium Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. preseason game and former Titan John Thornton knows what that means.
PBS probably won't be sold out and the Titans are coming off another home sellout because the Titans are treated like Elvis in Nashville. The week's developments will be at the center of the glowing local sports pages. Head coach Jeff Fisher, who always has them in the playoffs or close ever since that day in 1994 Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake got him the job by getting Jack Pardee fired with 354 yards, has them poised again.
But Thornton, the Bengals' highly-regarded new tackle who is part of a defense that is suddenly very fast and very stingy in giving up just three yards per rush and less than four yards per play, is glad he's on the Bengals' sideline Saturday. His goal now is to meet the Titans in the playoffs.
He has been at the hub of a first unit that hasn't allowed a touchdown since the preseason's first drive on a short 39-yard jaunt by the Jets, and has allowed fewer than 200 total yards in four quarters of work.
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," Thornton said Monday of Titans week. "It's a different atmosphere. They were sold out, everything is on the front page in the newspaper. It's definitely a different attitude and we'll get that here. This is good for my career. These guys are showing a lot of confidence in me. I'm an important part of this defense, I'm not just a guy that rotates in and out like I was in Tennessee. I appreciate that role and I'm going to play well."
Thornton has regard for Fisher, but he enjoys Marvin Lewis' hands-on candor. Just the other day,
when Thornton wasn't feeling well, Lewis came up to him and said he wasn't playing very fast.
"Marvin sees everything," Thornton said. "I think Marvin is more hands-on. He's more vocal than Jeff. Jeff has a more veteran team and he let his coaches do a lot of the talking. but Marvin is changing a lot of things. He's got his hand in everything.
"I don't know who didn't want me in Tennessee or what the reasons were," Thornton said. "Here, at least the guys are straight up and I appreciate that."
For Thornton, Saturday's game gives his new teammates a chance to measure themselves against a perennial playoff contender coached by a guy with a defensive background not unlike Lewis. But it also gives Thornton a chance to show the Titans why it might have been a good idea to offer him a contract at some point last season.
"They didn't offer. I could still be there, I don't understand that part of it," said Thornton ,who started all 18 games for Tennessee last year, including the AFC title game. "They didn't offer. I'm sure I would have signed it during the season. I could still be there. I don't understand it."
Well, in a way, he does. Titans General Manger Floyd Reese never made any bones about drafting linemen even though Thornton is a second-round pick from 1999 and his 4.5 sacks led all rookie tackles and helped the Titans to the Super Bowl.
But in 2000, Reese drafted Robaire Smith in the sixth round and then drafted Albert Haynesworth in the first round in 2002. He knows that Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn is going to have his picture up on the meeting room wall opposite those of Haynesworth and Smith as he does his weekly defensive line matchups.
"I think I did a lot more things beyond statistics," said Thornton, who sounds and acts twice his age of 26. "Like being a coach on the field, rarely making mistakes. I could play defensive end in a heartbeat. Just different things. Being good in the locker room, helping keep guys together. That's important on a team."
His intangibles are a major reason why the Bengals went all out to get him and why they made sure he took the quickest trip to New England this side of Paul Revere. The Patriots couldn't outbid the Bengals.
"He's been everything we wanted and more," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "He has a high motor and he plays fast. His big asset is his leadership, his approach to the game. The guy's a professional and that's big for us because we 've got a relatively young defense."
Thornton rarely checks his stats, so here it goes. He had one assisted tackle on Saturday night, but he takes pride in the fact that while he was in there, the defense got the Lions off the field on two three-and-out-series, and two with just one first down: "I think I'm a winner."
He thanks Washburn for helping making him one and credits him for teaching him to watch film. He still keeps in touch with his old linemates, such as his fellow '99 rookie, end Jevon Kearse.
"He looks good on film. I've seen him chasing down some guys," Thornton said. "But he does most of his work during the season. He doesn't want to get hurt during the preseason. It looks like he's healthy."
Thornton thinks Saturday is a healthy matchup for his new team. They get to play a physical, ball-control, defensive-oriented team that is on the playoff path the Bengals want to be.
"Power football. I enjoyed the way they did it," Thornton said. "It's just like Marvin tells us. If they don't score, they don't win. You really want to have a good defense. You don't want it to be a liability. That's when we struggled and had the bad seasons in Tennessee. When the defense let up."
Even though it's the preseason, there will be no letting up. Not for Thornton. Not against the Titans.
"It's going to be fun," he said. "The coaches are already asking me some things."