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Defense moves on

10-2-02, 5:35 a.m.


The two things Takeo Spikes misses about Cincinnati are the friendships with his teammates and his fiery relationship with the fans. The two things his teammates miss about him are his friendship and his ability to fire up the fans.

"Call me back. This is 'The Real Deal,'" wide receiver Chad Johnson left on Spikes' voice mail Monday.

Trash talking? Spikes calls it "friendly fire," when his Bills play the Bengals Sunday in Buffalo.

But the Bengals aren't prepared to say their defense misses Spikes. He led them in tackles four of the last five seasons and was at the heart of its best season in more than a decade in 2001. Yet, we may as well be talking about Jim LeClair or Steve Tovar it was so long ago.

New coach. New scheme. New players.

"I don't think we've lost anything," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson before Wednesday's practice. "I think we've added. What one player may lack in a certain area, another player brings something else. I've lost a great friend. I can't say we've lost anything. We still have talented linebackers in Brian Simmons and Kevin Hardy.

"I love Spikes," Gibson said. "I love the way he plays."

Spikes said Wednesday he doesn't know about the changes that head coach Marvin Lewis brought to the Bengals. Just that, "I know what the record is." Spikes turned out to be the first of Lewis' changes when, instead of sticking with a homegrown star despite putting the salary cap out of whack, Lewis traded Spikes' salary-cap room for what amounted to four free-agent starters for a defense that underwent a massive playbook overhaul.

"It's apples and oranges. You can't compare," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins' Spikes' classmate from the draft of 1998. "If (his absence) was glaring, I'm sure there would be more hoopla about it. But he got what he wanted, we got what we wanted. We've played well on defense. I think it was fair and even and we've both moved on. But you can never forget what he meant to us."

The fact that Spikes made it clear he didn't want to be in Cincinnati probably lessened player and fan reaction to his departure, but the loss of a player of

his caliber seems to be strangely muted. Early returns of a fan poll Wednesday showed more than 80 percent agreed with the Bengals' decision to essentially trade Spikes for the cap room and line up with Hardy at middle linebacker, Tory James at cornerback, John Thornton at defensive tackle, and Carl Powell and Duane Clemons splitting time at left end.

When the Bengals defense left Buffalo at the end of last season, it was ranked 17th in the NFL with a No. 13 against the pass and a No. 22 against the rush. When it returns Sunday, the overall league rank is still 17, with a No. 25 rank against the run and a No. 8 rank against the pass.

The inconsistency against the run has been disturbing, but the play of the secondary spearheaded by James and last week's second-half shutout in Cleveland fueled by a sack in each of the last two series has the defense rejuvenated.

"I'd give us an 'I,' for incomplete," said Simmons, another '98 classmate. "We're still learning. Players are still learning about each other, coaches are still learning about players. The encouraging thing is I think every week we're getting better. When you've had as much change as we've had, it's going to take a little time."

Spikes and Simmons were the fire and ice fueling the defense since they were both drafted in the first round in 1998 and led it in production and other ways. They still talk on the phone two to three times a week, and Simmons says their close friendship has remained virtually unchanged.

But the move split up their football relationship and took Simmons from the middle to his more natural outside spot. Simmons has struggled a bit with some physical nicks, and he is taking some time to adjust to that spot and learn the new scheme. Still, he feels it's a move that shows off his best skills.

"He's a great athlete," Simmons said of Spikes. "When you lose him, in a sense, I guess you can say you lost those things that he has. But to say that you lost him doesn't mean the team doesn't have that now.

"Everybody thinks it's about filling a void, but (it's not)," Simmons said. "It's about Kevin Hardy coming in and doing the things that Kevin Hardy does. I don't know if when they signed Hardy they were saying this is his replacement. I don't think they looked at it that way. It's not about replacing a guy specifically. It's not a thing where one guy really matters more than the other 10."

There are just too many differences to judge the impact of losing Spikes. They play more man-to-man now instead of so many fire zones. The defensive backs are playing tighter, as evidenced by 25 passes defensed in the first four games, more than double last year's pace. The addition of Powell, Clemons, and even Thornton has allowed them to rest sack ace Justin Smith on first down earlier in the game, and it can be debated if that paved the way for his fourth-quarter sack. Or if having the lead did that.

"It's two different defenses so it's hard to gauge because there is a different feel," Hawkins said. "We're happy with how everything is going on the defensive side of the ball. We're starting to get in tune from front to back. Kevin is doing a great job. It's just hard to measure. Takeo played great for us and now we're both moving forward."

The defenses are as different as Hardy and Spikes. Hardy, 30, who has been to a Pro Bowl and two AFC championship games, is viewed as a down-hill player who is solid against the run and can put heat on the passer. Spikes, 26, who thinks leaving Cincinnati is going to get him to a Pro Bowl and a championship game, probably plays with more athletic instincts against the run and pass.

But both are gifted leaders.

"One of the differences is I don't have somebody always in my helmet because Takeo was always talking to me," Gibson said. "Kevin is a natural leader and Takeo is a natural leader. Takeo leads more with his pads. He's an emotional player. Kev is more of a stoic player, but they can both be as equally beneficial."

Even though Spikes is gone, the defense feels good about the future even though such a huge part of their past is blocking them Sunday.

"We're still developing," Gibson said.

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