Education of a backer

THIS IS THE FIRST INSTALLMENT FROM BENGALS DEFENSIVE CAPTAIN TAKEO SPIKES' DAILY DIARY AS HE PREPARES THIS WEEK FOR SUNDAY'S GAME IN PITTSBURGH AS SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF GEOFF HOBSON OF BENGALS.COM

MONDAY, 11: 15 AM

You know how your back and neck feel after you've been in that car wreck you never saw coming? Maybe somebody hit you from the back, or from the side, and the nagging pain stabs you for a few days?

Try feeling like that every Monday and now you know how Bengals inside linebacker Takeo Spikes feels the day after an NFL game.

"It feels worse than that," Spikes says. "I was in an accident. I got sideswiped on the back door. Driver's side. And I was real sore. Three days before my personal workout (for the pro scouts). It was sore. But not like this. After games."

It's less than 24 hours after the crunching 23-14 loss to the Titans in which the defense played 41 minutes. Spikes is quietly nursing physical (a nagging hip) and emotional (0-5) bruises in a Bengals' locker room gently beginning to stir with the business of the week after the heavy post-game silence of Sunday.

No practice today. Just running and meetings. And an off day tomorrow.

This is Spikes' 37th NFL Monday and the 30th time he's had to deal with a loss. The Bengals' emotional leader still fumes after getting an hour workout with the rest of the team before a lunch break takes him into a series of afternoon meetings.

Rookie running back Curtis Keaton tries to lighten his mood. He exaggerates his admiration of the buckling steel girders Spikes stores in his biceps with a few rubs.

"Feel this," Keaton commands anyone who ventures near.

But the captain isn't appeased.

"The losing bleeps you off," Spikes says. And he says the aggravation never leaves, "until we get a damn win. What can you do but try to win the next game?"

Spikes burns to be the Bengals' first Pro Bowl linebacker since Jim LeClair in the year of Spikes' birth. 1976. But at the moment, he's burning for a chicken sandwich with cheese.

He'll get it because middle linebacker Armegis Spearman _ the only rookie backer - will bring it back to the locker room for him before the noon team meeting. That's what rookies do on Mondays and on Saturdays when the team travels.

That's why you see things like rookie tight end Brad St. Louis grabbing a piece of scrap paper and a pen asking Tony McGee if he'd like fries with that.

But of course, when Spikes was a rookie back in prehistoric 1998. . .

"Spearman's got it easy, man," says Spikes, who was one of four rookie backers then. "Yeah, we had four of us and we took turns by the week. But we had to bring in breakfast every day, too, along with Monday and the plane. Now we get breakfast here, so he gets off easy."

MONDAY, 1:30 PM

Spikes has gone from a team meeting to a defensive meeting to a linebackers meeting. He takes a mini-break to walk down a flight of stairs back into the locker room and runs into Jack Brennan, the Bengals public relations director.

He motions Brennan over to his locker and shows him an old No. 55 Bengals ballcap and Jim LeClair football card that someone sent him in the mail. The fan from Merrillville, Ind., enclosed a letter in which he read of Spikes' desire to make the Pro Bowl on bengals.com.

So he sent Spikes the hat, which has a long-ago autograph on the bill by LeClair. The fan claims it was a hat LeClair wore on the sidelines at games and practices, and came from the collection of a man who knew Bengals founder Paul Brown.

"P.S. I have a football signed only by Pro Bowlers," the fan wrote, "I look forward to you signing it next year."

This is the kind of stuff that keeps Spikes going through 7-30. He carefully puts the hat on the locker shelf and slides the letter underneath.

Hanging below is one of his Auburn jerseys he wore while leading the Tigers to the SEC championship game. Back when "Football News," named Spikes Defensive Player of the Year."

The No. 55 matches the number on LeClair's cap.

MONDAY, 1:45 PM

Welcome to the office of Bengals linebacker coach Mark Duffner. It's not a room for the faint of heart. It's roughly the size of a motel room, dominated by a big video screen and Duffner's intensity and detail.

Duffner doesn't yell, but he barks with the authority of a man who has an 80-40-1 record in 11 seasons as a college head coach.

Duffner is into the second half of the tape review of Sunday's game as he sits at his desk running a red light that acts as a pointer on the screen. His backers are sitting in front of him in lecture-hall chairs, with Spikes in front of the desk.

Spearman, the rookie signal-caller, is sitting in the middle of the front row, calling out each formation before Duffner delves into a critique. Now a backer is trying to tell Duffner why he's uncomfortable with his job in the alignment on the screen.

"There's nothing hard," Duffner says. "Takeo (who is over the weak side) is in this alignment doing this."

"But on the last play. . ." the player begins to say.

"That's not always going to happen. Not even close," Duffner cuts him off. "You deepen a little bit if you have to, but go. I don't want to hear it. That's what I think. OK. Talk to me."

That's Spearman's cue to call the next formation. Spikes isn't saying much, except he likes to tease Adrian Ross a little. With Spearman sitting out Sunday with a sore shoulder, Ross, an outside backer by trade, started in the middle and did well. But that won't stop Ross from getting stung by Spikes' needle.

"Good job Takeo," says Duffner after he runs back one pass play. "Watch how he's leveraging the ball. That's how we want to play it."

"I had to with Ross over there," Spikes says, and the room cackles with laughter. But that dies quickly because they don't want to get another "I don't want to hear it," from Duffner.

But he lets the men cackle over Ross' hit on Titans backup running back Rodney Thomas, which sent Thomas on his back, and his feet back up behind his head.

"That made ESPN last night," Duffner is told, and he says, "I'd like to see it again, too."

Maybe Spikes isn't saying much because the film review confirms what he already knew. He played well, "but it's not the type of game I want to play to get to where I want to be in the end. I need to be more aggressive coming downhill as far as taking on a block."

You can guess Duffner doesn't mind criticizing Spikes. But he knows the captain wears his heart on his sleeve and hates to make mistakes.

"See what I mean here, Takeo?" says Duffner, freezing a frame and lining up the pointer. "If you're here instead of here, you get there quicker."

Pause.

"You're right," Spikes says.

**

MONDAY, 2:40 PM**

Duffner has given Spikes a high grade in this game. A 90. But then, the Bengals expect that solid of play from their potential Pro Bowler. Spikes had a 24-percent contact ratio, which is based on his tackles-to-snaps played. Of 75 plays, Spikes had 15 hits, three assists, one tackle for loss, three quarterback pressures, a mental error (he went the wrong way on a blitz) and a missed tackle.

Duffner already knows what Spikes is thinking because it's what he's thinking: "He can do better and he will do better because he's a worker."

Spikes walks out to his car, digesting the film. He's learning that Pro Bowlers make plays no matter a foe's game plan

"If you look at my other games, I truly think (the Titans) knew if they didn't block me, I do a lot of inside blitzes up the middle and if they don't block me, or try to cut me, they know I'm going to flow down the line and always end up making the tackle," Spikes says.

"I think their offensive coordinator made a point. 'If Spikes comes up in the middle, you make sure if you don't cut him, you make sure you hold his butt so he doesn't get to the play.' They did a good job on it, but it really (bleeps) me off. There were a lot times where you can tell where I usually make the play but somebody threw a leg out one time, or somebody held me by my head."

The head.

Spikes is in the parking lot, but he is really still in Duffner's office watching Titans running back Eddie George shoot through the middle untouched on a five-yard touchdown run. Spikes never loses his cool with an opponent, but this play almost got him mixed up with No. 71 later in the game.

Titans right tackle Fred Miller made room for George by grabbing Spikes by the helmet and throwing him into the backfield. Which is not allowed by the NFL's agreed-upon-rules.

"I pushed him up in the air and I was getting ready to go by him and he caught me by my head," Spikes says. "I can't wait to play them again."

You want to know why guys keep coming back sore on Mondays at 7-30?

"You have got to be good enough to fight through it if you want to become the player you want to be," Spikes says. "I have to realize it while it's going on. So I advise you to look for this week. My hip feels better than it did last week at this time. I had my explosion back at the end of the game."

It would even feel better Wednesday after a day off from football.

"But I'll be thinking about it," Spikes says.

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