11-30-01, 4:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It's a Draft Room Dream Sunday when Bengals defensive end Justin Smith lines up against Buccaneers left tackle Kenyatta Walker in a faceoff between the two players Cincinnati mulled with the fourth pick in last April's NFL Draft.
After a 50-day holdout, Smith's first 100 days with the club have been more stable than Walker's shaky debut in Tampa Bay's starting lineup. While Smith has two 2.5 sacks to go along with a handful of forced holding calls, Walker has allowed multi-sack games to the Packers and Steelers. And while Smith has fit in with the cowboy boots that have earned him the nickname "Country," Walker has teed off the Bucs veterans with his attitude.
The 270-pound Smith admits he's been caught a few times with his aggressive, up-field style against the run game. When he made his first start in the sixth game of the season, the Bears ran for 203 yards. But foes have averaged just rush yards in the past four games and the brass is pleased with Smith's adjustments.
"Those are the two guys we were looking at and both are going to be good players," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "We're very happy with Justin. I think he's held up pretty well on the run. He's going to be good against the run. He's stronger than a lot of these fast outside rushers and it shows up. He chases like heck. He goes after them no matter where the play is."
He's proven to be a handful rushing the passer when the Bengals have a lead, but since the Bengals haven't had that in the last 145 minutes and 29 seconds,
no one remembers. His last full sack came Oct. 14 against the Browns, although he did share one with Reinard Wilson two weeks ago. Plus, he rumbled 21 yards with his first NFL interception in the Bengals' last win, Oct. 28 in Detroit.
There were three key reasons why the Bengals chose Smith over Walker. When the Bengals couldn't reach a free-agent deal with Bucs end
Chidi Ahanotu hours before the fourth pick, they felt they needed to get a pass rusher. Plus, they were concerned about Walker making the transition from right tackle at Florida to NFL left tackle. And there were questions about Walker's attitude and none about Smith's. Any concerns about Smith's mindset that came from the holdout have been wiped out by his 24-and-7 motor and his I'm-just-a-guy low profile.
Meanwhile in Tampa Bay, Walker has come off as a prima donna to his teammates. On two separate charter flights, he sprawled out in a row of seats he kept to himself. The last time, Pro Bowl safety John Lynch got in Walker's face.
But the Bengals know that doesn't mean Walker won't develop into a solid pass protector two or three years from now once he adjusts to the left side. Exhibit A is the solid job Walker did on the Rams' Grant Wistrom Monday night.
A week after they chose Smith, the Bengals signed veteran left tackle Richmond Webb and have been pleased with his play in a season they are on pace to allow less than 30 sacks for just the third time since the advent of the 16-game schedule. The Bucs have allowed 34, fourth most in the league.
"It's worked out for us," Brown said. "Some of (Smith's problems against the run) are just technique and learning his responsibilities as they unfold. We're happy to have him. He's a NFL starting right end and he's going to get better and better."