Defending the deep past

11-6-02, 8:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Facing more bait than a Maine lobster boat Wednesday, Jeff Blake didn't bite.

Blake, the Ravens quarterback, nibbled a bit when the Cincinnati media asked about his 66-game career as the Bengals starter.

Yes, he said he was unfairly benched late in the 1997 season despite two-and-a-half solid seasons. No, he could care less what Bengals President Mike Brown will think as he watches Blake play Sunday. But, right, he wasn't going to take the bait.

That's OK. The Bengals know exactly what Blake is feeling for this one, his third start with the Ravens.

Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson often went out to eat with Blake and hung out in Blake's last season here in 1999, and he knows that there is probably "a little bad blood," flowing between his friend and the franchise.

"I know what he's thinking right now," Gibson said. "He's thinking, 'I want to embarrass this team.' By the same token, Jeff, we know you. We know once you start to try and do too much, it can backfire."

But the Bengals know Blake can backfire on them, too. For about 50 yards or so. He used to tell right tackle Willie Anderson, "Big Will, best long-ball in the game." Up until last Sunday in Houston, the Bengals had wrestled with the long ball all year and not done well.

But cornerback Artrell Hawkins knows the Bengals haven't seen anything like this since, well, 1999, when they worked against him in practice: That high, arching cannon shot from about 40 to 50 yards that put the Bengals on the map in the mid-90s' and accounted for 15 touchdown passes of 50 yards or more from 1994-99.

"You can tell them and show them the tape, but you have to see it first hand to appreciate the beauty of it. I'm just glad Carl Pickens isn't over there with him," Hawkins said.

"It's like a punt. At times, it' higher than punts," Hawkins said.

"They say on 'NFL Prime Time,' that he's got one of the few ball that leaves the screen and goes above the cameras," Hawkins said. "It's hard to see. It's hard to defend."

Blake doesn't have Pickens, but it looks like he's unearthed another huge talent in third-year receiver Travis Taylor. In the two games Blake has started pinch-hitting for the injured Chris Redman, the 6-1, 200-pound Taylor is emerging as a factor with the biggest and third biggest days of his career.

He's coming off a career day in Atlanta last Sunday with four catches for 127 yards and a touchdown. In the game before that, he had a career-high seven catches for 82 yards against the Steelers.

On Sunday, Taylor hooked up on a patented 64-yard bomb down the sideline, which means Blake must be warming up. Against the Steelers, his longest throw was 18 yards.

The Bengals eventually frowned on Blake's inconsistency, his inability to always make the high-percentage throw, and his decision-making. But there was never a doubt about his talent for scoring quickly and beautifully.

"He throws the deep ball so high that you lose your vision on it," Hawkins said. "Because you have to turn your neck all the way back and still watch the receiver at the same time."

Bengals safeties coach Darren Perry is working overtime with his group going over some basic principles they must use against Blake.

"We're working on getting our head around in time," Perry said. "First you have to see it, and then you have to make a play on it. We have to feel that we have just as much a right to the ball as the receiver. Sometimes he throws it up and lets a guy make a play, like he did with Pickens."

If it sounds like Perry has tried to defend Blake's ball, it's because he has. He was on the field at the apex of Blake's game, when Blake engineered a nationally-televised 27-9 win in Pittsburgh over Perry's Steelers on a Thursday night in 1995. As Perry patrolled free safety, Blake started the scoring with a 47-yard touchdown to Darnay Scott, and made it 24-6 in the third quarter on a 41-pass touchdown pass to Pickens.

"All I know is he had two long ones to Scott and one to Pickens," Perry said. "We can't let him get off like that against us because once he hits one, it kind of feeds off for other stuff, and he gets on a roll. I'm sure he's going to try and repeat some of those things he used with the Bengals when they played the Steelers."

Blake made some big plays against the Steelers' scheme that is modeled on what head coach Dick LeBeau runs in Cincinnati. Blake beat them in Pittsburgh back-to-back in 1998 and 1999 when he hit Scott for TDs from 61 and 76 yards, respectively.

But LeBeau wasn't with the Steelers in '98 and '99. When Blake played Pittsburgh's LeBeau-coached secondary, the Bengals were 2-3 against the Steelers and twice failed to score more than 15 points.

Perry also saw Blake from the other side when they were teammates in New Orleans in 2000. Blake had the Saints headed to the playoffs at 7-3 when he shattered his ankle.

"A veteran guy with good mobility who knows defenses," Perry said. "He got us going. We won about five or six in a row and he was a guy who gave you the big play with his arm and scrambling. When he was throwing it, he had the best deep ball in the game and it still looks like he can get it out there. That's how he made his money, so we know we'll see it."

Gibson, a former Steeler, knows what to expect when you play a game against your old team. Against guys with whom you've broken bread and sweat.

"He'll want to embarrass the team, the franchise, so on and so forth," Gibson said. "For me, it's motivation because I know what happens when you get in Jeff's head. When you hit him and hit him and hit him, which won't be an easy task, he'll start making mistakes."

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