11-30-01, 4:45 p.m. Updated:
11-30-01, 8:10 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 (actually 84) 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 92 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."
WEATHER CALL: This is the only game in the NFL when it ever matters. Tampa Bay has never won any of the 20 games in the history of its franchise in which the temperature at kickoff is 39 degrees or below. The Bengals lose the first matchup because the Channel 12 weather gurus are calling for mostly sunny skies with temperatures in the 50s. Winds are out of the west at about 10 to 15 miles per hour.
The last time the Buccaneers played in Cincinnati, they pounded the Bengals 35-0, two days after Christmas in a game that finished well below 39 degrees. But the thermometer hovered around 40 at game time, which is all that counts. By the way, half of the Bucs' six losses last season came under 40 degrees. And they are 6-14 in games between 40 and 50 degrees.
MATCHUPS: The Bengals get to see some folks they entertained during free agency. One player who signed, Bengals LT Richmond Webb goes against one who didn't in Bucs DE Simeon Rice. Bengals WR Peter Warrick tries to bounce back from a fumble recovery and bruised shoulder against another player the Bengals courted in free agency, Bucs CB Ronde Barber.
Bengals LBs Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons take on Bucs RB Warrick Dunn and FB Mike Alstott on the run and the pass. The Bengals were hoping injured LG Matt O'Dwyer could make it back for this one, but it doesn't change the assignment for Bengals C Rich Braham because he has to still help both guards against perennial Pro Bowl Bucs DT Warren Sapp. With Artrell Hawkins doubtful, Bengals CB Mark Roman must muscle in the slot Bucs WR Keyshawn Johnson and his NFC-best 76 catches.
WEBB VS. RICE: After getting beat for two sacks three weeks ago by Tony Brackens, Webb has responded in a run of Jevon Kearse and Courtney Brown (Brown got a half sack last week on a roll-out play) and now he gets Rice coming off a five-year run in which he averaged more than 10 sacks per year in Arizona.
Rice has just three sacks with his new team, but Webb is wary of the 265-pound Rice's speed on the edge. Still, the Bengals ran right at Rice nearly a year to the day last year, when running back Corey Dillon ripped Arizona for 215 yards on the ground. But Rice didn't have Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland next to him, either.
WARRICK VS. BARBER: The Bengals have to get better play from their playmaker as Warrick fights through injuries. To his credit, Warrick returned to practice Thursday after missing last Sunday's second half with a bruised shoulder.
But he's caught just four balls in the last two games and on his last catch, he fumbled away a 22-yarder. The Bengals didn't want to make Barber a $3 million-per-year player and the Bucs did, but only after thinking about it for awhile. And Barber has responded with a terrific year in which he has a career-high six interceptions.
SPIKES, SIMMONS VS. DUNN, ALSTOTT: Spikes and Simmons have been in the middle of the Bengals' defensive resurgence, combining for 8.5 sacks, four turnovers and nearly 200 tackles. They will have to do their best work in pass coverage, where Dunn has nearly half as many catches (40) as he does carries (98). And he's scored two TDs, averages nearly 10 yards through the air, and is second in the NFL with 19 third-down catches.
Dunn gets just three yards per carry in Tampa Bay's run game that is 29th in the NFL. But Alstott has seven rushing touchdowns, a 100-yard game, and leads all NFC backs with eight touchdowns. **
BRAHAM VS. SAPP:** The question is if Sapp will be just as pumped in a 1 p.m. Sunday game in Cincinnati as he was six days before in the high wattage of Monday night. Sapp personally wrecked the Rams with as many plays as Dennis Miller had obscure references: Two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery.
The Bengals had hoped O'Dwyer (knee) could be back, noting their rushing yards have dipped. But it looks like Scott Rehberg makes his third straight start. Braham has to help him and RG Mike Goff against the 303-pound, ultra-quick Sapp. Who is now helped by another first-round pick in McFarland.
"You have to first make sure you find him and account for him because he switches sides," Braham said of Sapp. "Earlier in the year (on passing downs) in an even front, he was to the left. Now he's on the right, so you never know.
"He's tremendous," Braham said. "He's got a lot of tools. He likes to get up field fast, create havoc. He's got good hands. You have to keep him in front of you and use your feet. He's not a guy you can lean on and turn. You have to stay square with him."
Rehberg: "He likes to get the edge on you."
Plus, Braham will have to make sure Tampa Bay's effective line stunts get passed off. Consider they held the Rams' top ranked offense to one touchdown for the first time in 13 games Monday night.
ROMAN VS. JOHNSON: This is no holiday for the 5-11, 185-pound Roman on the 6-4, 212-pound Johnson. Johnson doesn't have a touchdown yet this season, but 50 of his catches have gone for first downs, third in the NFL. Roman came up with his first career interception last week in the Bengals end zone on Cleveland's Kevin Johnson after Johnson beat him on passes of 47 and 33 yards.
"You have to understand that not everything is going to go your way at corner and that he will make some plays on you," Roman said. "But you have to be able to keep coming back and not get down after he beats you." **
IN NICK OF TIME:** The Bengals are banking on Nick Williams' experience and size to get them through their tight end crisis. Marco Battaglia's season-ending appendectomy two weeks ago has left them with one pure tight end in Tony McGee, but McGee thinks Williams' return to the field Sunday allows them to pretty much do what they like to do out of two tight-end sets.
Williams, a fullback playing for the first time since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee on the second day of May minicamp, returns as a part-time tight end.
"It's hard for him learning a new position, but we've got a nice little package that takes advantage of what
he has done and what he can do," McGee said. "It's tough losing Marco because he was having a good year catching the ball and he can do things in the backfield. But Nick is a natural fullback, so he can do those things out of the backfield, and he can be effective running some pass routes that he's used to running. We can do the same things, it's just going to be with different personnel."
Sean Brewer, a third-round pick, hasn't been available to the club all season with a groin pull that didn't heal by the time they cut the roster and had to go on injured reserve. That leaves Brad St. Louis, primarily a long snapper who has played some in triple tight-end sets on the goal line and short yardage.
But they are still pretty much dealing with one tight end until they see what they get physically from Williams and how he handles the position switch. Earlier in the week, Williams wondered if the knee was ready. But he had no doubts Friday.
"I'm finally getting to the point where I can push off without really thinking about it and that's going to be the key to my success," said Williams, who underwent surgery May 24. "I took a few hits on it during the week working on the sled and in practice and I think it's ready."
Which isn't to be underestimated. When Williams got hurt, the thinking was that he'd be out for the year. It's a move they didn't really want to make because they value his blocking and catching. But they had four months to make the call before they cut to the final 53-man roster and put him on the physically unable to perform list when Williams showed them he could be back. He also got an extra week to heal when the second game of the year got postponed.
Even before Battaglia got sick, they had been toying with Williams in his spot at an H-Back.
"The biggest adjustments have been formations and line calls," Williams said. "And that's really been it. Everything else is still pretty much the same."
The 265-pound Williams can give some teams some matchup problems because of his size. For instance, this week, he weighs as much as Bucs right defensive end Simeon Rice.
NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need for this weekend, including 10 and 18. The first is the number of interceptions the Bengals have had in the last four games. The second is the number of interceptions this season for NFC -leading Tampa Bay.
326 _ Points Bengals are on pace to allow in 2001, the lowest since 319 in 1993.
224 _ Points Bengals are on pace to score, fourth fewest in history.
159_ Yards rushing for Corey Dillon in the past three games.
196 _ Yards Tampa Bay has allowed rushing in the last three games.
50 _ First down catches by Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson.
44 _ Team-leading catches by Bengals wide receiver Peter Warrick.
8 _ Victories per year the Bengals averaged with Sam Wyche as head coach from 1984-91.
5.8 _ Victories per year the Bucs averaged with Wyche as head coach from 1992-95.
53.6 _ Yards Dillon averages in the first half.
24.8 _ Yards Dillon averages in the second half.
5 _ Interceptions the Bucs had against Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna in 1999 when Kitna played for Seattle.
8:34 _ How long the Bengals have had the lead since the Nov. 4 bye week.
67 _ NFL catches by the now retired Carl Pickens after singing "This Is It," running into the runway following Tampa Bay's 35-0 win at Cinergy Field that closed out the 1998 season.