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8-12-03, 7:30 a.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Sunday's pre-season opener against the Jets served to turn up the heat on several fronts.

The 28-13 loss, marred by some of those SOM (same old mistakes) has unnerved pockets of Bengaldom burned by six straight losing seasons. But take a look at what two coaches with new teams did in last year's pre-season openers.

Marty Schottenheimer's Chargers got beat, 24-17, at lowly Arizona, and a month later made mincemeat of the Bengals in the regular-season opener. Bill Callahan would take his Raiders to the Super Bowl, but first took a 20-6 loss to a bad Dallas team in Oakland's pre-season opener.

You only have to look at last year to know what an opener means. The Bengals beat the Bills, 24-17, in Buffalo, and 142 days later in the same place lost, 27-9, to finish their worst season ever while Buffalo salvaged an 8-8 season after a winless preseason.

But Sunday was ugly enough to set off bells and whistles. Head coach Marvin Lewis is the first to tell you much work needs to be done. His first task is to make sense of the roster scramble that has emerged at the three hottest positions on his depth chart.

The boiling point has been reached at safety, offensive line, and tight end, heading into the home opener this Saturday (7:30 p.m.) against another team with a first-year head coach, Steve Mariucci, whose Detroit team is coming off a victory over the Steelers. **

SAFETIES:** Mark Roman, Marquand Manuel, Rogers Beckett, Kevin Kaesviharn, JoJuan Armour, Lamont Thompson, Deloise Moore.

Any of the first six could start in what has turned into the most even race on the roster. Not much was decided against the Jets, where the safeties had a difficult time showing their abilities against the pass because of the elements. With this Saturday's game

against the throwing Lions in Cincinnati and an indoor date with Peyton Manning's Colts in two weeks, they figure to get plenty of looks in coverage.

The big thing that Roman and Kaesviharn have going for them is they are cornerbacks who don't back down against the run and are probably the best safeties at man-to-man pass coverage. You can keep them on the field no matter what instead of running in different personnel groups. And this is a defense that wants to pretty much line up with the same eleven guys.

Roman, who led all the safeties with four tackles Sunday, and Manuel are the starters, but Kaesviharn and Beckett have impressed them. Kaesviharn may be the most versatile guy on the roster as a corner/ safety who plays gunner and holdup on punts, along with every special teams except field-goal and extra-point protection. Whatever caused Beckett to fall out of favor in San Diego apparently hasn't surfaced here. His brains and his willingness to hit make up for whatever he lacks in coverage, and he's become a big factor in the race.

Thompson and Armour are looking to make plays that wipe away the perception that they are one-dimensional players. Armour, named special teams captain for the opener, is a fine run player who nearly made a play on a pass against the Jets. Thompson, the Pac-10's all-time interceptions leader, is seeking more consistency in the running game, and Sunday's press-box stats didn't list him for a tackle. But they know he has outstanding ability after watching the diving interception he made against Jon Kitna in last weekend's mock game.

Moore is a college free agent from Troy State who has been hampered by hamstring problems.

How many safeties do the keep? Five for special teams purposes? Or just four because Roman and Kaesviharn can both play corner?

TIGHT ENDS: Reggie Kelly, Matt Schobel, Tony Stewart, Sean Brewer, Derek Smith, Brad St. Louis.

Kelly and Stewart are coming off big games against the Jets. Kelly didn't have a catch, but he continues to impress in the running game. Some thought Stewart was the best Bengal on the field with his blocking and team-high four catches for 25 yards.

Schobel didn't play because of a hamstring problem and Brewer is making things interesting because he continues to play well in his absence. He had just one catch for a yard against the Jets, and had a drop, but looked to do well blocking. The fact he is lighter and quicker seems to be showing up in the running game.

And Smith, the Highlands High School and University of Kentucky product, had a big five-yard catch Sunday on fourth-and-two when the Bengals were driving for the tying touchdown late in the game. Smith has shown good hands and there's been some speculation that he has been good enough that he would have been a lock in past training camps as the third tight end.

Smith did what Brewer did in the offseason and became lighter and got in real good shape. And they had to because of the tremendous competition at their spot. St. Louis virtually gets no work in team drills, so he's probably viewed as primarily a long snapper when they cut down.

So do they keep three or four tight ends? It probably depends if they keep one fullback or two. The way rookie Jeremi Johnson played Sunday, you have to figure they keep two fullbacks.


OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters:Willie Anderson, Matt O'Dwyer, Mike Goff, Eric Steinbach, Levi Jones.Backups:** Scott Rehberg, Scott Kooistra, Rich Braham, Victor Leyva, Alex Sulfsted, Thatcher Szalay, Dustin McQuivey, Belton Johnson, Noah Swartz.

The word is that if you're a backup here, you've got a shot at making it because everyone is playing so close to the same level. The free-agent rookies, Johnson, McQuivey, and Swartz, obviously are long shots, but they've also showed why they belong in a NFL camp.

Sulfsted, picked up off waivers from Washington at the start of training camp, is an intriguing guy because he has apparently looked good enough to show them that can back up at left tackle as well as play left guard. Rehberg can also do that, and both contributed to Sunday's sackless performance against the Jets.

Leyva can also play right guard and right tackle and they may hope that Kooistra can one day do the same. Kooistra, a seventh-round pick, apparently looked much more comfortable and sharper at right tackle against the Jets than he did in the scrimmages and mock game.

With the Goff guard-to-center transition still in the early stages, do they stick with the veteran backup center in Braham or the younger one in Szalay? And do they keep nine or 10 linemen on the roster?

They have to sort through all the guys who can play both guard and tackle and go from there. One thing they don't have to sort out is apparently left guard. Steinbach, the second-round pick, drew raves for Sunday's NFL debut by showing his athleticism pulling and moving.

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