Gibson hopes to keep rush

1-5-02, 7:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Oliver Gibson, the man in the middle of the Bengals' best defense in more than a decade, hopes this isn't the end of the line.

As in the Bengals' ability to generate a pass rush in their nickel package from the defensive end spot, where rookie Justin Smith (7.5) and veteran Reinard Wilson (nine) have combined for 16.5 sacks this season. With Wilson heading into free agency, Gibson knows nine might be missing after Sunday's finale.

At the very least, Gibson hopes there isn't a coaching change at his position with Tim Krumrie. It's believed all the assistant coaches have been asked back and it figures the club wouldn't tinker with a defense ranked 10th in the NFL and kept a struggling offense in every game.

But although Bengals President Mike Brown indicated Dick LeBeau is coming back as head coach as early as three weeks ago after the Baltimore game, the staff isn't set yet because some contracts aren't signed.

"I understand all about free agency because Reinard and I have the same agent," said Gibson of the Miami-based David Levine. "And he'll become even more appealing with a few more (sacks) Sunday. Justin is going to get better, so he can be that 10-sack guy. But we need a seven-, eight-sack guy. We need 16 to 20 sacks between those two guys out there."

The Bengals will try to sign Wilson, but probably not at the $4 million per year he may seek. That's about how much the transition designation would count against their salary cap if they tagged him, so they probably won't do that, either.

If the Bengals can't sign Wilson, the thinking is that a linebackers committee of Steve Foley, Canute Curtis and Adrian Ross has a chance at equaling Wilson's output. What is known is that for the first time since 1984 and for only the second time ever, the Bengals have four players with at least five sacks while coming within one of the team record of 46. Middle linebacker Brian Simmons has 6.5 and Tony Williams, Gibson's partner at defensive tackle, has five.

Gibson, who has three sacks after two seasons with four and 4.5, is furiously still trying to get past Williams at the wire. Williams, a free-agent pickup from the Vikings, has done his work in just a dozen games.

"I've got him in tackles (68-44), but he's got me in sacks," Gibson said. "It's friendly, but it's still a pretty good competition. I want that fifth. I'm tired of just the same old year. I really thought it was going to be a big year for me. I thought I was playing Pro Bowl caliber football.'

So did some other people in Gibson's seventh season and his first after signing a big contract extension. The man they call "OG," still had the fire after initialing a $4 million signing bonus.

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau put Gibson in the group with Simmons, running back Corey Dillon,

outside linebacker Takeo Spikes, fullback Lorenzo Neal and right tackle Willie Anderson as players who should have and might have if the Bengals had a better record.

Gibson also got a Pro Bowl endorsement at the end of the Bengals' 15-14 loss in the Meadowlands three weeks ago. He said Jets center Kevin Mawae told Gibson he was the best he had played against this season.

"I don't know if that was end-of-game BS or not," Gibson said. "It's all about wins and losses, but I feel like I'm earning some respect.

"But think if our record was reversed and we were 10-5, or not even that great," Gibson said. "At the beginning of the season, I was seeing myself on ESPN and it was all about the improved Bengals. You want to be in that situation where people look to you as the man."

It's here where Gibson's candor is a breath of fresh air. He won't lie to you. The lack of attention because of the Bengals' record wears on him. As an interior player, Gibson knows the linebackers are going to get the attention on defense, which is OK.

"But when Takeo only made third (Pro Bowl) alternate, that showed how far we are down on the food chain," Gibson said. "Everyone wants to be respected and recognized in this league. The NFL is about good, hard quality football and it's about money and it's about fame and respect."

Gibson thought he saw that realization begin to hit Williams about a week ago. They were making a lot of plays, but who was noticing as the Bengals lost seven straight? Still, Gibson doesn't want a thing to change on this defense.

"Keep it the same," he said. "We're going to lose some guys, but we'll get some guys."

Meanwhile, Gibson and Williams have to be content Sunday with deciding their own personal sack crown.

By the way, Spikes with four and free safety Darryl Williams with 3.5, join Gibson as guys with a shot to end the season with five sacks. The Bengals have never had five players with five or more sacks.

KEATON WONDERS: It looks like second-year running back Curtis Keaton is going to be deactivated for the third straight game Sunday and he's wondering what's going on after he returned kicks in the first 13 games. He wonders how he can improve while not playing.

"It's a start. I don't think I've scratched the surface of my ability," said Keaton of his return skills. "It's wishful thinking that you can improve and make some changes that are imperative to the team's success if not given the opportunity to do what comes naturally. This will work itself out."

Keaton, a fourth-round pick stacked behind Corey Dillon and Brandon Bennett, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the expansion list. But the Bengals feel they would lose him if they put him on there and he still might be their best returner. Rookie receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh fumbled twice last week, so rookie running back Rudy Johnson, this past year's fourth-round pick, figures to get a look Sunday.

Keaton has been a victim of circumstance, of sorts. The spate of

injuries at tight end has forced the Bengals to dress one more receiver, one more offensive lineman, and one less running back. The fact that the back who hasn't dressed lately is Keaton shows that at the very least, next training camp's roster battle at running back probably comes down to Keaton and Johnson. They will keep an eye on Bennett, who turns 29 next month, but he has shown no signs of slowing down.

"They haven't told me anything," Keaton said. "There's a lot of uncertainty surrounding my situation. The only thing I can do is take care of myself, take care of business and if I play, it's icing on the cake. If I don't play, I have to take it in stride."

The ultra-quick, 5-10, 219-pound Keaton bristles at the perception he's a scatback. The Bengals wonder if he can be physical enough, but he thinks he can. In just five runs from scrimmage this year, he has 48 yards.

His best kick return came on Opening Day, a 64-yarder. His average dipped after that and he's at 21.2 on 42 returns.

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