1-6-02, 12:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ The defense has carried the Bengals all season and so why not here in the finale?
Cincinnati's 10th-ranked defense in the NFL pits its streak of nine straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher against Titans running back Eddie George's bid to rush for 1,000 yards in his first six seasons.
George needs 111 yards and Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons didn't blink an eye last week when he said, "He's not going to get it. He's a great back, but we have to take him away and stop the run. If we don't, we're not going to win."
The 16th game played out against a backdrop of questions for next season concerning the coaching staff. No major changes are expected, but the staff may not be set until after the coaches meet with management Monday morning.
But Simmons reflected the confidence of a unit that feels it has turned the corner while putting up the best defensive numbers in more than a decade. But the run defense, ranked 15th in the league, took a shot before
the game when defensive end Vaughn Booker was deactivated with a variety of aches and pains. Bernard Whittington started in place of Booker and figured to play left end in run situations.
End Jevon Langford, who hasn't played since Oct. 21, dressed for just his third game and will probably get some action to spell Whittington and might get a few snaps in the pass-rush defense.
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins didn't start with his low-grade shoulder separation and Robert Bean got the nod. But Hawkins can probably play nickel back and he'll have to. After three-season injuries at cornerback, rookie Bo Jennings is the fourth corner.
If the Bengals hold Tennessee to 296 yards or less, they would hold foes to less than 300 yards per game for the first time since 1983.
But they have to overcome the injuries and two long-time Bengal killers to do it. George has four 100-yard games against Cincinnati and Titans quarterback Steve McNair has 16 touchdown passes against them with just two interceptions.
The snow missed Nashville, but a cold, 35-degreeish rain hit the field about the time of kickoff.