Father got best

9-10-01, 4:25 a.m.

Updated: 9-10-01, 4:05 p.m. Updated:
9-10-01, 7:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Takeo Spikes got a game ball Sunday. But he'll keep it just long enough to get to his ailing father back home in Sandersville, Ga.

Spikes, the Bengals' defensive captain, offered a typical emotional performance at right outside linebacker in Sunday's 23-17 win over the Patriots. Throwing his body around for six tackles, Spikes had to leave the field with a bruised shoulder before coming back and nailing Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe for a key sack on a blitz up the middle on the game's final two-minute drill.

"I think we surprised our fans the way we stayed in there," said Spikes, probable for next week's game in Tennessee. "Everytime they gave us a blow, we came back with two more."

But it was a somber day for Spikes, who missed two days of practice last week to be with his father as he battles a brain tumor.

"It was tough going out there and not seeing him there," Spikes said.

Fellow captain Willie Anderson saw the tears in his friend's eyes and, "I knew he was going to play a big game out there. And I didn't want him to outplay me. And then to play like he did. He didn't win the game himself, but he had a lot on his mind."

Spikes had help from Reinard Wilson, who had a sack in his first start NFL start at defensive end as the Pats ran unsuccessfully at the Bengals' nickel defense; pass rushers Adrian Ross and Steve Foley, who put good pressure on Bledsoe; and tackle Bernard Whittington, who helped stuff Bledsoe on fourth-and-two with 2:28 left in the game with some local knowledge.

Spikes said he was surprised when Bledsoe tried to quarterback sneak it to the Bengals 39. In fact, Bledsoe said it was an audible, that he shouldn't have checked into the sneak, and that he should

have stayed with the original pass call.

"I expected it," said Whittington, who played Bledsoe twice a year during his seven seasons with the Colts. "That's the time when he'll do it. We just stayed in the scheme of the defense, got off the ball, and made the play."

Whittington was next to tackle Oliver Gibson in the middle of the line to help push the pile back as the Bengals held the Pats to 3.2 yards per rush and 68 rushing yards for the game.

The Bengals still had to sweat out a measurement that players said ranged from a thread, to a penny, to the distance between the eye and the nose.

But the Bengals held and the Pats last chance ended, fittingly, when Ross wrapped himself around Bledsoe as he rolled out with about 1:20 left. They didn't call it Ross' second sack of the game, but it was close.

"(Gibson) had contain (on the outside) and I was going underneath the tackle," Ross said. "I just bounced off the guard and went to the play."

Ross said Bledsoe was rolling to his right and the Pats weren't picking up the Bengals' weak-side blitzes. Spikes said the Bengals disguised coverages to aid their pressure and cornerback Tom Carter said the Bengals ran pretty much the same blitzes as last year.

"We've cleaned them up," Carter said. "We've timed them better. You get there half a second late, and teams see it. But we're getting there quicker."

Left end Vaughn Booker, still seeking his first sack in two years as a Bengal, looked like he had at least half a sack when Darryl Williams blitzed from free safety.

"They were concerned about our blitzes and they adjusted by trying to cover the little guys and letting the big guys alone," Booker said. "It was like they thought the linemen would stay on the line. That doesn't make any sense because you'd think you wouldn't want to get your quarterback hit by the big guys. When I got in there, the guy left me. There was nobody on me."

The Bengals' defense is trying to force more turnovers this year, but didn't get any Sunday. They did get off the field on third down, their other top priority. They started the second half with four straight stops on the way a 67-percent rate at 10-for-15. **

MORE GAME BALLS:** It's early. Way early.

But the Bengals gave game balls to some players Monday who are prominent in the NFL stats after one game and before Monday night's game in Denver.

Curtis Keaton leads the AFC in kick returns aided by his 64-yarder and kicker Neil Rackers, who finished dead last in 2000, is third in NFL scoring with 11 points as his three field goals helped put him two points off of Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski's NFL-leading 13 points.

Quarterback Jon Kitna is fifth in AFC passing with a rating of 101.5 after a season the Bengals spent at the bottom. Kitna's rating nearly matches the combined 103.6 of Akili Smith (52.8) and

Scott Mitchell (50.8) finished with last season.

Wide receiver Darnay Scott is fourth in AFC receiving yards with 104 and although running back Corey Dillon didn't get a ball, he's third in AFC rushing (104) and fourth in total yards from scrimmage (136).

Ends Vaughn Booker and Reinard Wilson got the defense's game balls for a unit that finished the day seventh against the rush and 14th overall.

On the other hand, what do stats mean? Rookie punter Nick Harris is last in the AFC with a 32.8-yard average. But he drew raves for pinning the Patriots on their own 6 with 9:17 left in the game, getting off a punt in the face of a huge rush with two minutes left, and holding flawlessly for Rackers. Despite joining the team off waivers the night of the last pre-season game on Aug. 30.

How close are Rackers and Harris already? They planned to go fishing Monday and golfing Tuesday with long snapper Brad St. Louis.

COPELAND SETTLES, LEAVES: The Bengals let go two players Monday quarterback Scott Covington and defensive end John Copeland who have been shaken by the club's recent moves with them. When they released Covington for the second time in two weeks, it paved the way for rookie defensive end Justin Smith to get a roster spot at next Sunday's game in Tennessee. When they reached an injury settlement with Copeland, their No. 1 pick from 1993, agent Tim McGee reiterated his opinion that the Bengals put his client on injured reserve four days before opening the season as a starter in order to avoid paying his full salary.

Covington's return to the Bengals was brief, and not so sweet because it was eight days after he dismissed other teams to be the No. 3 quarterback for the Bengals in the wake of Scott Mitchell's ankle injury in the Aug.30 pre-season finale.

Covington went by the original diagnosis, in which Mitchell was thought to be out about six weeks. But Mitchell improved so rapidly that Covington didn't dress Sunday against the Patriots and Mitchell was No. 3 behind Jon Kitna and Akili Smith.

Browns coach Butch Davis, Covington's college coach at Miami of Florida, had interest in Covington. But when Covington re-signed with the Bengals, the Browns picked up Josh Booty off waivers.

Copeland, who partially tore a hamstring in practice last week, got a second opinion that confirmed the Bengals' finding that he would miss four weeks. But McGee says it's not a significant enough injury to be put on IR and that the Bengals could have held a spot for their starting right end until he was healthy. But the Bengals say it was too long to play short on the roster, particularly since they felt Copeland's roster spot came down to a coin flip. The Bengals could re-sign Copeland after the 10th game of the season, but McGee said his client prefers to look elsewhere once he's healthy. He can sign somewhere else once he can pass a physical.

OFFENSIVE NUMBERS: Remember when the Bengals allowed seven sacks against the Browns in last year's opener and HBO showed the Browns' players saying on the sidelines how the Bengals' offensive line was out of shape?

After helping hold the Patriots to one sack Sunday, right tackle Willie Anderson said the Bengals took offense to the attention the remarks received because they think teams always say such things in the psychological battle.

But Anderson also admitted the club is in better shape, including himself. So are the offense's numbers. It took them four games to score 23 points total last year, it took four games for Corey Dillon to get his first 100-yard game, and it took Danny Farmer until the next-to-last game of the year to become their only 100-yard receiver of the season.

By the way, it's Dillon's earliest 100-yard game ever. He had 113 in the third game in 1999.

"I think the coaches took it for granted we were going to be able to pick up the new protections quickly," said Anderson of the new pass offense. "It's starting to come."

JUSTIN FOR ALL: Wilson made his first start since 1998 and his first ever at right end count with four tackles and a sack, but he knows No. 1 pick Justin Smith is signed and getting ready to play.

"I don't know how soon he'll be able to go or how much he'll play," Wilson said. "I think (Wilson and Jevon Langford) played pretty well. I know they want to get him in there and I think he'll be a good contributor for us."

Spikes welcomes Smith and plays down his 51-day

holdout that wiped out all of training camp and the preseason.

"There's no animosity. I know

people are asking, 'Y'all mad at him?' No. We love him. He's our boy. We'll bring him in and just try to get him off slow. We need the depth and Smith will give us some."

Defensive line coach Tim Krumrie did a nice job rolling people through. When starting right end John Copeland went on injured reserve last week, that was one less guy Krumrie could use as both an end and tackle. So Wilson and tackle Tony Williams took a lot of good snaps and Whittington got some play in both spots.

Wilson said the Pats did a lot of double teaming on the edge to protect their young linemen. He's known for his speed, but people forget Wilson wrestles cattle in the offseason. He used that strength to get his sack on a straight outside rush.

"When I play," Wilson said, "I just want people to know I was there and that I'm going to make something happen some time."

MORE WILLIE: Anderson, the offensive captain, was subdued the week before the opener. And he revealed Sunday he prefers not to talk to the media during the week, which will be a huge blow to the people covering the Bengals daily.

"Brat said something that's going to stick with me for a long time," said Anderson of new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He said, 'The will to prepare

to win has to be greater than the will to want to win.' During the week, I just want to prepare. I'll still talk to you guys after games win or lose."

Anderson and his mates were disappointed there was an announced crowd of 51,521 in the 65,000-seat bowl, although it was a bigger crowd than two of the last four Cinergy Field openers.

But they don't blame the fans for not showing.

"We have to give them reason," Anderson said.

Ross said the crowd that had been silent early was a big boost for the club's last two defensive stands.

"I wish they were like that at the beginning," Ross said. "It was loud out there."

Anderson thinks it will come.

"It's up to us to give them a reason to cheer," Anderson said, "and not to boo. I was disappointed there wasn't a lot of cheering (early). But my thing is when we learn to win, they'll know how to win and learn how to cheer (with the team). It's a learning process. One game at a time.

"I'm sure there will be a little buzz around the city," said Anderson, who thinks people are waiting to see what happens in Tennessee next week.

THIS AND THAT: Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna, who led the NFL in fumbles last year with 17, lost one Sunday for the only turnover of the game when the ball slipped out of his hand as he was about to deliver the ball to a wide-open Peter Warrick.

"The sweat on my hands combined with the fiber and materials they use (on the ball)," Kitna said. "I have small hands anyway."

As for big hands, one of Warrick's seven career-high catches (he also had seven against New England last year) came off a one-handed grab for nine yards, his longest catch of a 38-yard day. . .

There wasn't much grumbling in the Bengals locker room about the replacement officials. Each team was called for three penalties and although some Bengals were pretty sure tight end Jermain Wiggins fumbled on New England's last touchdown (the replay upheld the call), they were relieved they reviewed Bledsoe's 15-yard pass to Bert Emanuel that would have given the Pats a 4rth-and-2 from the New England 39 with 1:23 left. Emanuel trapped it.

"That was inside two minutes, so I didn't have to challenge it," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau. "I would have challenged if it was outside two minutes because I didn't think it was a catch."

Bob Boylston, the replay official, said he becomes "just like the coach," in the last two minutes. "It's his duty to challenge anything reviewable under the rules of instant replay." Boylston said the live feed of the play wasn't conclusive. "We buzzed the field to come review it. And the additional replays came." . . .

According to Butler County records, defensive end Vaughn Booker pleaded not guilty in connection with last week's domestic incident and his wife, Sheila Booker, told the court she won't proceed with the case. There is a 60-day continuance. **

SPECIAL DAY:** Yes, Virginia, the Bengals' special teams finally held up:

_ New kick returner Curtis Keaton ran the Bengals back into the game with a 64-yard return right after the Pats took their first lead.

_Neil Rackers, who missed five of his 11 field-goal tries on Paul Brown's shaky Bermuda grass last year, drilled all three tries Sunday on the new bluegrass. That included his career long 47-yarder.

_Rookie punter Nick Harris deftly held for the field goals after his first full week of practice with the team while maybe making the play of the game

when he got off a 35-yard punt under heavy pressure with two minutes left in the game.

The Patriots brought 10 people and returner Troy Brown didn't drop back until the ball was in the air and he made a fair catch at his 31.

"They brought everybody. I know they brought one more guy than we had blocking," Harris said. "At that point, the punt is secondary. You're just trying to kick it away. If they block it, they win the game."

Harris punted four times for a 32.8-yard average and dropped a beauty on the six-yard line with 9:17 left in the game.

"I thought I was only going to punt once the whole day until the last (10) minutes and that's fine with me," Harris said. "Talk to Rackers. He was 3-for-3."

Harris was just kidding, but Rackers wasn't when he said he felt comfortable with the holds, a job punter Daniel Pope had until they cut him in favor of Harris a week before the opener.

"I know he worked hard at it all week," Rackers said.

Old friend Lee Johnson set the NFL's all-time record for punt yardage on his first try of the season with a 45-yarder for the Patriots. But he just couldn't stay out of the Bengals' record books in his first visit back to Cincinnati since getting cut late in the 1998 season.

Johnson, 39, the Bengals' all-time leading punter, got off a 76-yarder for a touchback early in the fourth quarter. Warrick let it roll into the end zone for the longest punt ever against the Bengals. Dan Pastorini's 74-yarder for Houston held up for 25 seasons.

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