Hawkins used to the heat

10-11-02, 6:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals weren't supposed to lose like this and the secondary wasn't supposed to play like that. But after deciding to return to Cincinnati as a free agent this past offseason, cornerback Artrell Hawkins is dealing with the stunning nature of both.

"I think everyone just assumed we'd go into the bye week with at least four wins," Hawkins said this week during a session with bengals.com on audio. "Is it devastating? No. We're disappointed, but we're not discouraged. I think it will get turned around. I don't think we're dead just yet. I think a lot of people have already buried us. That's typical. This is my fifth year here and pretty much every year except last year when we went into the bye week 4-3, they buried us."

Hawkins could have moved on to this Steelers' team the Bengals play Sunday. He visited his hometown team (he grew up in Johnstown, Pa.), but after playing four years at the University of Cincinnati, he now considers himself a Cincinnati guy more than Western Pennsylvania. Plus, he's a starter here and most likely would have been the Steelers' nickel back.

"I still think it's a good defense. I like the coaches. I think the team is going to get better," Hawkins said. "It started last week on offense and holding the Colts, not giving them that 400-yard game. I think if we can build on this week and continue after the bye week, then, with our division, well be OK."

Things are not OK in the secondary, where they have given up 60-plus pass plays in back-to-back weeks after not giving up a play over 50 yards last season. Hawkins has trouble putting his finger on it.

"Some things you can't explain," Hawkins said. "If you look at the roster and the secondary in particular, the amount of talent in the secondary I don't think was better (last year) than we have right now.

"I think we have a lot more talent in the secondary and (when) we do give up big plays," Hawkins said, "you're kind of wondering what is going on. Sometimes it just happens like that. Every week you watch 'NFL Prime Time,' or something and you see these bombs going off every week. There's a long touchdown somewhere. We were fortunate not to give up any last year. All I can say is it's a competitive league. You can't beat yourself. You can't let guys run free down the field, but you know every now and again the offense is going to make a big play."

The Steelers have popped the big play on the Bengals recently with this crew of receivers Hawkins calls underrated. If it isn't Plaxico Burress muscling for two early touchdowns last year, it's Hines Ward scoring the only touchdown of a 15-0 game on a 77-yarder. He's impressed with the way Tommy Maddox engineered four touchdowns in his first start last week and now they have last year's Mr. Big Play of the draft in Antwaan Randle El.

"They have four guys over there that are proven playmakers," Hawkins said. "Randle El is really explosive. He's got great quickness and for a rookie he really gets in and out of his routes."

Hawkins, who has the secondary's only interception this season, has been a lightning rod for the annual flood of criticism that accompanies the team's record. After getting benched in 2000 ("That was a wakeup call," and, "I had one foot out of the league and one foot in,") Hawkins has become insulated.

"Those years allowed me to grow up and made me stronger as an individual," Hawkins said. "(I) don't look at the newspapers, not looking (at the TV news). You have to have some kind of tunnel vision. You have to be able to see past everything when people say you can't achieve things. The best athletes, the best politicians, the best people in the world, they get fueled by when people say they can't do something. That's kind of how you have to be out there."

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