BY GEOFF HOBSON
John Copeland knows he hasn't been the player he's supposed to be this season.
He calls his left ankle, "dead." But everything else lives for the dean of the Bengals defense. Copeland has become the gritty symbol of a thirtysomething front line decimated by injury.
"We can't come out of the game," Copeland said. "If all the hurt guys came out, nobody could play. We're all hurt. But we're veterans. No one has gone into the tank and, believe me, I've been on teams here where people have gone into the tank by now."
Heading into training camp, the defensive line's experience and production were at the heart of a defensive makeover. Now injuries have reduced it to playing simply on professionalism, fumes and the smoke and mirrors from line coach Tim Krumrie's rotation.
How tough is it in the trenches? The Bengals dumped $5 million in signing bonuses into left end Vaughn Booker of the Packers and tackle Tom Barndt of the Chiefs during free agency.
But Booker has missed four games, nearly retired after a fainting spell, and is playing with a cyst in his knee that could require offseason surgery shelving him for six weeks.
Barndt has missed the past two games with a bicep that hasn't been right since he tore it and missed all the pre-season games.
Like nose tackle Oliver Gibson says, "We're not putting up the numbers I think we should be putting up," but they've stiffened in the last six quarters as people start to get a little healthier.
Plus, Krumrie, the former nose tackle who never missed a non-strike game in 12 NFL seasons, keeps them out of the tank.
After getting gouged for 107 rushing yards on 20 carries in the first half against Denver, the Bengals held the Broncos to 35 yards rushing on 12 shots in the second half of a 31-21 victory. Then last week in the 12-3 win in Cleveland, the Bengals allowed the Browns 54 yards on 20 carries after letting Cleveland rush for 105 yards Opening Day.
"It's been a long year," Copeland said after Thursday's practice. "Every day I go out there, I don't know how I make it through the day."
If it's not his knee, it's his shoulder. If it's not his shoulder, it's his ankle. Which started the mess back in March, when he needed arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs from his left ankle.
Then throw into the mix that Barndt's injury forced Copeland, at age 30, to move inside the last two weeks after 92 NFL starts at end.
"I don't have that push off my ankle," Copeland said. "I have to play in a more balanced set so I can read the guy more. Instead of going right away. I can feel the pressure on the left side. I can't stay on the guy as long. I have to get off him. The only difference at tackle is things happen quicker closer to the ball."
Still, Copeland is taking the bulk of the snaps, as is Gibson. When Booker, 32, returned to the lineup two weeks ago, Bankston moved from left to right end.
And it's been tough for Bankston, because he's not 100 percent after missing all the pre-season games with knee and thigh problems.
Barndt is no longer practicing with a harness to protect his shoulder and he thinks he might be able to return for some snaps this week against Baltimore after Krumrie sat him down for the last two weeks so he could regain some arm strength. P>**
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So on first and second down, Krumrie tries to rotate Bankston, Barndt and Booker, and spell them at times by picking his spots with Jevon Langford and Glen Steele. On passing downs, he mixes in linebacker Steve Foley and end Reinard Wilson on the outside.
"I came into the season wanting to rotate everyone and then the injuries didn't allow me to do some things," Krumrie said.
"Now some guys are getting back. I'm trying to use them in spots they can succeed. With guys nicked up, they're at their best fresh. I'd rather have a fresh guy playing than on the sidelines not helping."
Booker, Cincinnati's Taft High School product, almost went home for good despite a battery of negative tests after he fainted going back into the huddle Sept. 17 in Jacksonville.
But he found out he missed the game and that his linemates missed him. Booker is the Bengals' version of the .300 hitter who can roll out of bed in January and get three hits.
Booker's knee cyst and sprained knee ligament has limited his practice time. But despite little time on the field in the past month, Booker provided the key play in Sunday's game when he forced Browns left tackle Roman Oben to hold him in then end zone for a safety.
"He's one of these guys who just has that quickness and explosion combined with leverage and long arms," said Barndt, who played with Booker in Kansas City. "He's excited about playing. He loves it and you can see that."
Booker says he knows football is a game of preparation and practice. But he also knows, "I know how to play this game. . .The adrenaline takes over, you hear the fans into it, and my teammates are really looking at me like they want me to be a part of it; to contribute. The rotation is great. We've got unselfish players. You've got guys (like Bankston) who switch positions to get me into the game."
Barndt is frustrated with his production. One Bengal insider said after watching Kansas City tape showing Barndt playing such solid ball, it's hard to believe he's the same guy.
"If I was healthy and playing like crap, that would be one thing," Barndt said. "But I think it's pretty cut and dried. It's hard because I don't like to say much anyway. I'm just thinking about getting healthy and playing like I know I can play."
That could be this week. But if Barndt is in there or not, the focus is on stopping the run again and getting Ravens quarterbacks Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer in passing situations.
"We've got to take away something," Booker said. "We're not the best pass rushing team in the league, so we've got to concentrate on stopping one thing. Make them one dimensional. Take away the run.
"Put them in passing situations and we can minimize what they do to us," Booker said. "If they have to give us the pass look on first and second down, the only thing they can do out of that is a draw. That gives us a chance to come off the ball and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. "
Krumrie isn't looking to ruin a guy's career by playing him hurt. But the only games he missed were in the 1987 players' strike, so he played with more than a few bruises.
"They know that injury is a part of football," Krumrie said. "It's the same thing I was looking for in training camp. I'm looking for 100 percent of what you've got, and these guys are doing the best they can."