Competition on LeBeau's corner

8-14-02, 8:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _

(This look at the cornerbacks is another in a series breaking down the Bengals by position.) **

Top three:Jeff Burris, Artrell Hawkins, Kevin Kaesviharn.

Swing man:** Mark Roman.

In a crowd: Robert Bean, Rodney Heath, Bo Jennings.

Impressive rookies: Reggie Myles, Tierre Sams.

His teammates call Kaesviharn "Little LeBeau," in honor of their head coach, so maybe it's fitting that a Dick LeBeau-coached team has a supply of experienced, veteran corners and promising, fast rookies at his position of cornerback. For the first time, it seems, since LeBeau retired 30 years ago.

With their speed and instincts, rookie free agents Sams and Myles have opened up eyes around here and have made the cornerback competition closer than people thought. Remember, this is a spot where just a few years ago waiver wire pickups walked into starts (hello Ty Howard) and a guy like Heath was able to walk in off the NFL street carrying his video and make the team.

And for the first time in recent memory, they have a veteran in Burris who plays at high level providing leadership to a position that has always been too young for years.

It's as close as this. With the Bengals cramped for space at the beginning of training camp, director of football operations Jim Lippincott assigned Sams and Myles to bunk beds. After a few cuts, Lippincott offered them their own rooms, but they have decided to stay put.

"It doesn't matter where you sleep," Sams said.

Sams, out of Fresno State, and Myles, out of Alabama, are still longshots to make the 53-man roster. But they are making sure that no one falls asleep at the switch in the race to be one of the six cornerbacks.

Or could it be just five? One way to solve the Rudi Johnson-Curtis Keaton dilemma at running back is to keep just nine defensive backs with Roman swinging as the fifth corner and fifth safety.

"No question it's as competitive as it has ever been at that spot since I've been here," said defensive coordinator Mark Duffner, now in his sixth season with the Bengals.

There is still some concern within the club about the position because of the health of Hawkins and Heath. Which is just another reason why keeping only five corners seems unlikely in this age of the Rams. Especially with LeBeau being a 14-year NFL cornerback who is on record saying you need six cornerbacks to make it through.

Even then, the Bengals might find themselves in the rare position of having to let go a corner who has played well for them and contributed

on special teams. The cut may have to come from the group of Bean, Heath and Jennings.

The last time we saw Bean, he was getting strafed in the season finale at Tennessee on two long one-on-one touchdown bombs to Derrick Mason. And Heath wasn't in a much better position as his leg pointed grotesquely the wrong way on the Paul Brown Stadium field after tearing the hamstring off the bone in the Oct. 14 victory over the Browns.

But Bean has showed up as the opportunistic rookie of 2000 and not the tentative sophomore of 2001 as he eases into his third year in the system. And Heath has people breathing easier about his recovery from an injury some thought would finish him. He has showed the same grit that brought him from the street to 23 NFL starts.

"Nobody is saying anything to me, so I must be doing all right," Heath said. "If I'm surprising them, good. You look at our offense and how good our receivers are and I think I've been staying with them."

It's OK for quarterback Akili Smith to say he'll come back from hamstring surgery because he has to do the pretty traditional things. But a cornerback lives in a backpedal, which is all hamstrings.

Yet against the Bills Friday night, Heath was continually around his man and didn't get exposed, which is what the Bengals needed to see.

"We're pleased with how Rodney has responded," said cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle. "The next few games are critical for him, as they are with everybody. We're looking for one or two guys to separate from that group."

But on Friday night, it was hard to separate anyone because the defense got what Coyle figured was 20 fewer snaps than the usual pre-season game because the Bengals had the ball for nearly 40 minutes. Jennings played just 12 snaps, Bean, 10, Myles nine and Sams seven.

Bean's game is also much healthier this year. He watched the Mason tape at home during the offseason and admitted it was his worst game ever. But the road to recovery began when he forgot about it. He said on those two plays, he found himself looking to play the run and got beat by Mason at the line of scrimmage.

"I feel more comfortable with the coverages," Bean said. "I feel better about where to be when we bring pressure and knowing where other teams are going to throw it. When I was a rookie, I played far off. Now I'm playing tighter. If I get my hands on the ball, I think I can do something with it."

Which is what ultimately may give Bean the edge. He was drafted as a special teams demon (five blocked punts and two blocked field goals in two years at Mississippi State) and he jump-started the win over Pittsburgh last year when he ran 10 yards with a fumbled field-goal snap before lateraling it to middle linebacker Brian Simmons for his 56-yard touchdown run.

But Coyle also can't forget Jennings, who played well as a rookie last year and then went to NFL Europe and was Amsterdam's best defensive back this past spring. Bean played well from scrimmage Friday night and Jennings had a good game on special teams.

"Our young players have proven they're quality corners and that they can compete at this level," Coyle said. "I'm anxious to see us play again because the other two young kids do interesting things. Sams is the fastest corner on the team and Myles is a guy who played some safety in college and he's made the transition well."

Coyle coached Sams and his 4.35-bolt in the 40-yard dash at Fresno State and wasn't very surprised he knocked away a fourth-down pass on the Bills' last play of the game. Sams is a flasher who can also be inconsistent at times, and Myles is also learning, but the two rate long looks.

Three guys who will definitely be here are Burris, Hawkins and Kaesviharn as the starters and nickel back, respectively. There was some early camp concern about the posterior cruciate knee ligament Hawkins sprained back in May. He wasn't ready when he tried to go the first week of camp and he was missing his signature speed.

But he has been back to work the past few days and says he feels better about his burst and closing speed, and he should be ready to play Aug. 24 against the Saints.

Kaesviharn freely admits he had his worst night as a pro Friday when Bills wide receiver Eric Moulds beat him on the game's first series for about 50 yards, the last 31 going for a touchdown when Kaesviharn got beat for a first down in front of him and then he missed the tackle.

"I didn't feel comfortable early and it showed," Kaesviharn. "There were a lot of reasons. I overestimated Moulds' speed and I hadn't played in a long time."

That's because last year Kaesviharn went from arena ball, to the XFL, to the Packers' training camp virtually without a break. After finishing the season with three starts and three interceptions, Kaesviharn went back to what he was doing when the Bengals called him off the waiver wire and worked in the learning center at the Sioux Falls, S.D. high school where he teaches.

He started working out full-time in March and when he arrived in May, he found he had a fan in the newly-acquired Burris. Last season, when Burris was playing with the Colts, he found himself looking at Kaesviharn on tape while preparing for the Jets.

"I was saying to myself, 'Who is this No. 34?''' Burris recalled. "He's got quick feet and he's smart. I'm a Kaesviharn fan."

It's a mutual admiration society. When Kaesviharn had the rough opening series, Burris went to talk to him.

"He's always helping me out," Kaesviharn said. "He told me, 'You can play with these guys. You do it every day in practice. Calm down.' He's such a big help for this team, because not only of the way he plays, but because of his leadership. I can only dream about playing as well as he has for as long as he has."

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