9-6-02, 10:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Keep your eye on the opener's best matchups Sunday. Because the quarterbacks and free safeties on both sides will be eyeing each other all day in a violent game of chess.
In his first Bengals' start, nine-year quarterback Gus Frerotte tries to get old rival in nine-year Chargers strong safety Rodney Harrison out of the box with the long ball to free up Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon. On the other side, the Chargers' Drew Brees makes his first NFL start against the Bengals' Mark Roman, a third-year player trying to disguise the young quarterback into mistakes even though he's also making his first NFL start at free safety.
But there's no secret that the Bengals would prefer to put the burden on Brees to beat them. They already got beat by running back LaDainian Tomlinson's 107 yards last year and they don't want to go that route again.
And there's no subterfuge when it comes to the Frerotte-Harrison matchup. Harrison dominated last year's 28-14 win over the Bengals in which he was able to hang around the line of scrimmage long enough to hold Dillon to literally nothing in the second half and just 46 yards for the game.
"That's the huge thing and he's hard to get out of the box," said Frerotte, who has played the Chargers as a former Denver backup.
"What we have to do, hopefully, is go down the field a little bit and make (Harrison) get into coverage more. He won't get out of there unless you beat him deep. We've got to protect and get the pass off because he's also a hard blitzer and a hard tackler. He's the key to their defense because he gets everyone lined up in the right place and he never stops coming at you."
Frerotte and Harrison form the AFC chapter of the mutual admiration society. Harrison has said this week how surprised he is that it has aken Frerotte four years to find a starting job.
"He's a lot of fun to play against," Frerotte said. "He's an old school football player. He has to hit someone. He'll take on the blockers.
"You have to take him the right way," Frerotte said. "You can't get into it with him as a quarterback or receiver. He'll trash talk you a little bit and you just have to get up and go to the next play. If you talk back to him, you're playing his game. He's a really good player and we've got to know where he is."
Frerotte has a pretty good idea where that is and he knows what he has to do. It's why the Bengals signed him to a one-year, $1.4 million deal May 1. His 7.02 career yards per throw gives them, at least on paper, the ability to finally get the detested eighth defender off Dillon's back.
Look for the play-action fake in a bid to get Harrison tentative in the running game,
"I don't know what we have planned," Frerotte said, "but he'll be near the line of scrimmage because he likes to stick his nose in there."
Roman, a converted cornerback doesn't have an M.O. yet. Not like Brees, the former Purdue quarterback the Bengals were set to take in the 2001 NFL Draft before the Chargers took him a pick before in the second round.
"What makes Drew so effective is his experience level," said Bengals rookie kicker Travis Dorsch, Brees' college teammate. "To me, even though he's new to the league, he's not going to kill them with rookie mistakes. He'll run the offense and do what the coaches want. In his last year at Purdue, he added more running to his game and it opened up the passing lanes for him and really helped him."
Bengals cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle, who has helped Roman through the corner-safety transition, spent 10 years as a college defensive coordinator before coming to the Bengals last year and he has high regard for Brees.
"He's a winner. He's the kind of guy who always found a way to make a play on third or fourth down to keep drives alive and win games," Coyle said. "He's got a good arm, he throws it down field, and he's got quick feet."
Besides trying to figure out what Brees does, Roman and strong safety Cory Hall have to make sure they prevent Tomlinson from bouncing outside like he did last year and have to help funnel him to the middle. Coyle likes what Roman has done so far.
"He's a solid tackler and he's got good ball instincts," Coyle said. "He knows when to break on the ball. You could see it during camp as he progressed at the position how confident he was becoming. We expect him to play a solid game."
Brees knows the blitz is coming. But even though this is his first NFL start, Coyle also doesn't expect a lot of mistakes from him.
"He makes good decisions," Coyle said. "I don't expect to see him get too rattled out there."
MATCHUPS:Besides the matchups between the quarterbacks and safeties, here are some other good ones.Bengals outside receivers(take your pick) must get open one-on-one vs.Chargers CBs Alex Molden and Ryan McNeil.*Bengals DTs Oliver Gibson and Tony Williams have to take advantage of their experience vs. Chargers C Corey Raymer, RG Toniu Fonoti, LG Bob Hallen. *
Bengals LG Matt O'Dwyer (310) has a 15-pound edge onChargers RDT Jason Fisk.**Bengals FB Lorenzo Neal has to find Chargers WLB Junior Seau to block. New Bengals K Neil Rackers vs. old Bengals K Neil Rackers. Bengals WR Ron Dugans vs. Chargers PR Tamarick Vanover and Chargers KR Ronney Jenkins.
BENGALS RECEIVERS VS. MOLDEN, MCNEIL:** The Cincinnati wideouts had a miserable time last year in San Diego getting open one-on-one even though Chargers SS Rodney Harrison spent most of his time at the line of scrimmage stuffing the run. The longest catch was 20 yards by Chad Johnson and it took Peter Warrick four catches to get a team-high 31 yards.
Look for the Bengals to keep their outside people (Johnson, Houshmandzadeh, Farmer, Westbrook) rotating and fresh in an effort to stretch the field and wear down the Charger corners. Molden didn't play last year because of an injury and brings seven years of experience. The Bengals couldn't take advantage of rookie Tay Cody's inexperience last year, and he should get some nickel snaps this time.
There also should be some incentive against McNeil, whose comments this week about the Chargers "rattling" the Bengals last year received some play internally. His one claim to fame in the NFL is when he signed with Cleveland a few years ago, he had put in his contract he couldn't be traded to the Bengals. **
GIBSON, WILLIAMS VS. FONOTI, RAYMER, HALLEN:** Fonoti is a highly-regarded rookie taken in the second round. Kent State's Hallen has 31 career starts, and Raymer is a nice player with 58 NFL starts. But they're all playing together for the first time in San Diego and last year the Chargers were a league-low 13-for-26 on third-and-one conversions.
The Bengals got hurt last year by Tomlinson's 107 yards because their outside people let him bounce outside. Gibson and Williams have to stay at home in the middle.
O'DWYER VS. FISK: The Chargers are a little worried about being undersized in the middle, where Fisk arrives from Tennessee. The Chargers always seem to be tough against the run, but after finishing No. 7 in the rush ranking last year they are a bit re-tooled. The Bengals' beefy offensive line needs to establish the run against a rookie outside linebacker in Ben Leber and new middle backer Donnie Edwards, who is just 230 pounds. **
NEAL VS. SEAU:** Seau is 33 and in his 13th brilliant season, and just as dangerous as he was last year when he dominated the Bengals in the second half. Bengals QB Gus Frerotte admiringly calls him "their energy, their motor," and even though he is supposed to be free-lancing less this year, the Bengals prefer to wait and see on that one.
"He looks to be playing more in the system," Frerotte said. "He's amazing. When I was with Denver, we had pass protections just for him. The four linemen were accounted for and then we had to find Junior where ever he was."
And it just won't be Neal who has to find him. At times it will be up to their rookie tight ends, as well as their guards. **
THE NEW RACKERS VS. THE OLD RACKERS:** The old Rackers would approach the ball 1,000 miles an hour because he was so jacked up and it helped him make just 59 percent of his field goals in his first two seasons. After Rackers' hellacious preseason, special teams coach Al Roberts says he has to continue his slow approach to the ball and keep intact the "if-you-miss-one-kick-you-move-on-to-the-next," disposition. Roberts says Rackers is a different guy when it comes to his much steadier outlook.
"The reason slow works for him and not for you and I is because he is really, really fast," Roberts said. "When he slows down a little bit, he's still faster than everybody else."
DUGANS VS. VANOVER, JENKINS: Dugans, the Bengals' best special teamer in recent memory, begins his bid to make the Pro Bowl as a special teamer against the best.
Vanover, out of football the past two years because of legal problems, was one of the NFL's top punt and kick returners under Marty Schottenheimer in Kansas City, where he was named AFC Player of the Week six times. But there's no room for him to return kickoffs because Pro Bowler Ronney Jenkins is there with his NFL-best 26.6-yard average.
The Bengals, who for years have made special teams mistakes a staple, are still haunted by Derrick Mason'sopening bolt for a touchdown in the home loss to Tennessee last year. And they gave up a punt return for a touchdown this past preseason to New Orleans' Michael Lewis. Dugans is the left flyer (on the end) on punt coverage and is also on the end of kick cover.
Roberts admonished reporters this week for referring to Vanover and Jenkins by their last names.
"You mean Mr. Tamarick Vanover and Mr. Ronney Jenkins," Roberts said.
NUMBERS GAME:** Every number you need for Sunday's game, starting with 462 and 221. The 462 is the number of yards Bengals quarterback Gus Frerotte passed for against the Chargers on Nov. 19, 2000. The second number is the passing yards Chargers quarterback Drew Brees has in his NFL career.
462_ Yards Bengals quarterback Gus Frerotte passed for against the Chargers on Nov. 19, 2000.
221 _ Yards Chargers quarterback Drew Brees has in his NFL career.
2,750 _ Yards gained by Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon the past two seasons, second in the NFL behind only Washington's Stephen Davis.
158 _ Once he takes Sunday's first snap against the Falcons, Packers quarterback Brett Favre's consecutive starts, best since the 1970 merger for quarterbacks.
10 _ Starting quarterbacks for the Bengals since Favre's first start on Sept. 27, 1992. (Esiason, Klingler, Schroeder, Blake, O'Donnell, Justin, Smith, Mitchell, Kitna, Frerotte).
158 _ Wins by Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer since he took over for deposed Browns coach Sam Rutigliano Oct. 22, 1984.
112 _ Bengals' wins since Oct. 22, 1984.
1-0 _ Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau's record in openers.
9-6 _ Schottenheimer's record in openers.
6-5 _ Schottenheimer's record against the Bengals. (5-4 in Cleveland, 1-1 in Kansas City).
250 _ Most yards rushing in an opener, by Buffalo running back O.J. Simpson against New England in 1973.
104 _ Most yards rushing by Dillon in an opener, against New England in 2001.
5,080 _ Yards rushing by Dillon the past four seasons, behind only Curtis Martin and Marshall Faulk in the NFL.
15 _ NFL catches by Bengals receivers heading into 2000 opener with Akili Smith the starting quarterback.
413 _ NFL catches by Bengals receivers heading into 2001 opener with Jon Kitna the starting quarterback.
509 _ NFL catches by Bengals receivers heading into 2002 opener with Gus Frerotte the starting quarterback.
54-45 _ Current starting record of 1998 Bengals Opening Day QB Neil O'Donnell.
32-45 _ Current starting record of 1999 Bengals Opening Day QB Jeff Blake.
3-13 _ Current starting record of 2000 Bengals Opening Day QB Akili Smith.
24-24 _ Current starting record of Bengals Opening Day QB Jon Kitna.
25-33-1 _ Current starting record of 2002 Bengals Opening Day QB Gus Frerotte.
SPECIAL LINEUP: The Bengals, who haven't been able to get their special teams straightened out for years, hope they have done it this year. That was one of the reasons they cut veteran cornerbacks Rodney Heath and Robert Bean, kept second-year corner Bo Jennings, and kept veteran running back Brandon Bennett. After watching preseason tape, they felt both Heath and Bean couldn't give them the speed that was needed on cover teams.
You never see the special teams introduced on Opening Day, or rarely any other Sunday for that matter, but here is a fan's guide to the key spots:
Wide receiver Ron Dugans, their best special teamer, is the left flyer (or end) on punt coverage. Jennings is at the right end. Dugans and Bennett are on the outside ends on kick coverage, where Jennings is in the middle. Key tacklers on kick coverage are linebacker Adrian Ross and strong safety JoJuan Armour.
When they punt, rookie free safety Lamont Thompson is the personal protector. That's the man between the line and punter who coordinates the blocking. Dugans, Thompson, Armour and wide receiver Danny Farmer are the big blockers. Brad St. Louis heads into his third season as the punt and field-goal snapper and special teams coach Al Roberts just wrote him a note.
"I told him that nobody knows how well you've snapped in the preseason and during the season until you have a bad one," Roberts said. "So I wrote him a card to congratulate him for that. You can't take it for granted."
They like the way cornerback Artrell Hawkins comes off the edge on field-goal block and the way defensive tackle Oliver Gibson penetrates over center. Along with defensive end Vaughn Booker, who joins them on field-goal block and linebacker Canute Curtis, who protects on punts and kicks, they are pretty much the only starters on special teams. Receivers Peter Warrick and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who play a lot of scrimmage snaps, return punts and kicks, respectively.
Through all of Rackers' misses, and the long returns, Roberts is the man taking all the heat in the papers and on the talk shows. Sometimes he has had the players and sometimes he hasn't. But in his sixth year on the job, Roberts has always had his religion.
"I read my Bible instead of what you write," Roberts said. "If I'm not reading that and I'm listening to the other stuff, then that's on me."