11-22-02, 10:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Matt Schobel is the kid pitcher up from the bushes just starting his second swing through the big leagues. On Sunday, the Bengals rookie tight end again tangos with the Steelers' estimable linebacker tag team of Jason Gildon and Joey Porter in the running game, the first time since Schobel broke into the starting lineup that he has gone against the same team twice.
Schobel calculates somewhere in the last couple of weeks he now officially has more snaps as a NFL tight end than he had in his season-and-a-half career at Texas Christian.
"You figure I played my entire junior year and I missed half of my senior year, and I rotated a lot," Schobel said. "I think I've played more than I ever did in college and I feel pretty good about where I'm going."
Especially since he's come from farther down than point zero. Schobel, who began the
season as an afterthought backup, has become one of the season's few bright spots.
At the beginning of the year, starter Sean Brewer barely played himself when the coaches went to a rookie tackle at tight end.
Now, with Brewer on the shelf for the past two months and Levi Jones anchored at left tackle, Schobel has become the club's one and only true tight end, playing 40 snaps a game and, as tight ends coach John Garrett says, "Now we're running those plays we didn't think we could run because we didn't have a tight end."
The Bengals knew they were getting a guy who had barely blocked and they know with Brewer a question mark they still need to find a blocking tight end.
But they also knew Schobel's athleticism would be an upgrade in the passing game. His 13 catches for 111 yards and a touchdown in 10 games is right where Marco Battaglia was (13-118, no TDs) in his eight games last year and where Tony McGee was (14-148-1) in 10-and-a-half games.
And here's a guy who has done everything but windows. He's lined up in the backfield, he's on punt return and kick return, and he's the backup holder and long snapper.
And, as Schobel breaks down his blocking, he's encouraged. He notes that running back Corey Dillon is on pace for as many (actually more) yards than last year, "so I don't think I've killed us blocking. I'm a good enough athlete where I'm not going to get shook or thrown around. I don't think I'm too far away from being an average blocker for a tight end. I haven't gone out there and whiffed on a block where they've said, 'Oh my God, look what Schobel did.'"
He knows he can't do that Sunday. In his first outing against the Steelers back on Oct. 13, Dillon gained just 57 yards on 17 carries. Of course, it didn't help they were down 17-0 in the first 20 minutes, but Schobel also thinks it will help that he has himself on tape blocking Gildon and Porter.
"Gildon is the best (strong-side) linebacker I've gone against, but both of them have that combination of speed and strength," Schobel said. "Those are the guys that are trouble. The double threat guys. Gildon is very strong."
Garrett calls it a more different and difficult matchup than usual because it's not the standard tight end-defensive end showdown.
"They're stand-up linebackers with long arms and you have to get into them fast because they're on you before you know it," Garrett said. "He knows what to expect now, how they use their hands, and we have techniques to combat them. We'll see if he steps up. The second time around, you've got a lot more confidence. Maybe you shoot your gun and play a little more aggressively."
Schobel has asked Garrett to put together an off-season tape of the league's best blocking tight ends so he can take notes. On Sunday, he'll get another sneak preview of his winter viewing because he thinks the Steelers' Mark Bruener, along with Kyle Brady, is the best.
"He puts people on their back," Schobel said of Bruener. "That's been the biggest adjustment for me is trying to get movement. But I think I'm getting there."
COLEMAN SUSPENDED:** The Bengals suspended backup rookie tackle Reggie Coleman for a week without pay Saturday after the club said he struck fellow rookie offensive lineman Thatcher Szalay after practice Friday. The team said in a press release that Szalay required a dental procedure and won't make the trip for Sunday's game in Pittsburgh.
The Bengals replaced Coleman on the active roster with tight end Tony Stewart after they signed him from Philadelphia's practice squad. The 6-5, 260-pound Stewart is a second-year NFL player who was a fifth-round draft choice of the Eagles in 2001 out of Penn State. He played in three games last season, with one start, and had five receptions for 52 yards and a TD. He was inactive for Philadelphia's 2002 season opener, was waived Sept. 11, and had been on the Eagles practice squad since Sept. 12.
The club thinks Stewart might be able to help them as soon as this season in their bid to use more two tight-end sets. And it's another sign that Sean Brewer is going to be in a roster battle next year after their 2001 third-round draft pick has spent most of his two seasons on injured reserve.
"We're looking for (Stewart) to establish himself as a blocker for us," said Duke Tobin, director of player personnel. "We think he's got good, soft hands and that he can be an all-around tight end. Plus, he's already got some NFL experience."
Coleman and Szalay haven't played in a game this season. Szalay, on the roster for all 10 games, has been inactive for eight games and twice was active but did not play. Coleman has been on the inactive list for seven games since being signed Oct. 1 from the Washington Redskins practice squad.
OTHER MATCHUPS: Speaking of rookies going around a second time, Bengals LT Levi Jones goes against Steelers DE Kimo von Oelhoffen. Bengals QB Jon Kitna must fend off the blitzes of Steelers OLBs Jason Gildon and Joey Porter.
With the Steelers nicked up in the secondary, Bengals WRs Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans find themselves against another Florida State alum in rookie Steelers FS Chris Hope. Bengals CB Kevin Kaesviharn tries to cool down torrid Steelers WR Plaxico Burress. Bengals K Neil Rackers tries to extend his streak against rookie Steelers K Jeff Reed.
JONES VS. KIMO AND CO.:** In his second NFL start against one of the NFL's best defenses back on Oct. 13, Jones only faltered once. But it was a biggie. Porter wheeled around him on the pass rush and knocked the ball away from Kitna for a fumble that turned into a touchdown.
"This is going to be a big gauge for me to see how far I've come and how far I've grown," Jones said. "That play was a changeup. It's something you're aware of and prepare for, but it's changing from mode to mode to mode."
Jones probably faced Porter (seven sacks) only three or four plays that day. He spent about 45 percent of his time against von Oelhoffen, the former Bengal, and the other parts of the game against linebacker Clark Haggans (six sacks) and Porter. Jones even had Gildon over him for a snap.
"They keep throwing those guys at you and no one is really the same," Jones said. "That's part of the learning process."
Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst who played all five offensive line spots during his career, has been impressed with Jones, particularly in the running game. Jones' power game has been bothered by a slew of nagging injuries, but Lapham thinks the 310-pounder can eliminate some of those hurts by bulking up a bit in the weight room during the offseason.
"He's probably, athletically, maybe the best run blocker on the football team," Lapham said. "He's not as powerful as a run blocker as Willie (Anderson), but footwork-wise and athletically, he's very good. I like what he's doing. He's making adjustments in the passing game, he's smart enough, he wants to do well. His body needs a little bit more overall strength, but he's every bit as athletic as you want."
He also pulled off a veteran move when he held Cleveland's Mark Word last week: "I got my weight out in front of me and he beat me inside, but I wasn't about to let him hit Kitna." **
KITNA VS. GILDON, PORTER:** The Steelers are missing their extra defensive backs they use in obvious passing situations in Hank Poteat and Mike Logan, so Pittsburgh probably won't blitz from their secondary. If they're going to get pressure, it's going to have to be from the front seven. Last week, the Titans spread out the Steelers in empty back-field sets and converted 12 of 19 third-down tries, and the week before that the Falcons made three of at least 20 yards.
But Kitna doesn't think that relates much to Sunday's game: "Tennessee is more committed to the spread offense. Our thing is running Corey (Dillon). If we split him out, you guys are going to wonder what the heck is going on."
WARRICK, DUGANS VS. HOPE: The Steelers Hope their rookie can take over for Poteat and Logan by covering people in the slot. The Steelers are ranked 28th in the NFL against the pass and Gildon wasn't pleased after Tennessee strafed the Steelers on third down: "We're doing a lot of different things this year than we did last year. I'm just going to leave it at that."
KAESVIHARN VS. BURRESS: With cornerback Jeff Burris questionable with headaches, Kaesviharn may get the start. Burress burned him for two long touchdowns in the first half of last year's Bengals' win on Dec. 30. But one came when he slipped and he didn't give him much the rest of the way. But the 6-5 Burress has four inches on Kaesviharn and two weeks ago he caught a Steeler-record 253 yards against the Falcons. His 16.5 yards per catch average is sixth in the NFL.
RACKERS VS. REED: Rackers, who has hit six straight field goals, goes against a rookie making his NFL debut. Kickoffs should also be key in this one.
Bengals returner Brandon Bennett has ripped off more than 400 yards the past two weeks, including a touchdown. Last month, Steelers rookie Antwaan Randle El opened the second half with a 99-yard kick return in the Bengals' 34-7 loss to the Steelers.
The Steelers actually thought the Bengals were going to try an on-side kick, so when they moved people up toward the front line, it allowed Randle El to fake a reverse, which opened a bunch of lanes.
"That was the dagger that really got 'em," Randle El said after the game.
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game, including 2, 3, 4, 12, 14, 70. The Bengals haven't beaten a winning team on the road since they won at Pittsburgh, 16-12, on Dec. 2, 1990. Since then, there have been two wars, three presidential inaugurations, four Bengals head coaches, 12 Bengals starting quarterbacks, 14 Super Bowl teams, and about $70 million in signing bonuses for Bengals' first-round draft choices.
9 _ Touchdown passes Bengals QB Jon Kitna has thrown in the last four games.
10 _ Touchdown passes Kitna threw in last year's final 14 games.
6 _ Touchdown passes Bengals QBs Akili Smith and Scott Mitchell threw in 2000.
8 _ Touchdowns Steelers QB Kordell Stewart has accounted for passing and running against the Bengals since 2000.
9 _ Touchdowns Bengals have scored against the Steelers since 2000.
79 _ Yards Bengals running back Corey Dillon needs for 33rd place and George Rogers on the NFL's all-time rushing list.
29 _ Yards Steelers running back Jerome Bettis needs for 11th place and O.J. Simpson on the NFL's all-time rushing list.
66 _ Career sacks by Steelers outside linebacker Jason Gildon.
66 _ Career sacks by Steelers Hall-of-Famer Mean Joe Greene.
80.5 _ Career sacks by Bengals' front seven.
5 _ Steelers and Bengals who have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame since Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh for their last road victory against a team with a winning record in 1990 (Anthony Munoz, Chuck Noll, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth).