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Is No. 44 magic number?

5-3-02, 3:00 a.m.

(Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau made No. 44 famous in Detroit during the 14 seasons he picked off 62 passes. As he prepared to begin his 44th NFL season with Friday night's team meeting at Paul Brown Stadium, No. 44 talked with Geoff Hobson of this week. That's 14 years as a defensive back, 30 years as a coach, and now the second full year as head coach of the Bengals ) **

GH:** When you meet with the team Friday night, what is going to be your message compared to last year?

DL: We're going to talk about winning. Winning on a consistent basis. We talked about that last year, but I think we've got a lot more ammunition in that message based on the end of last year. This time around, we don't have a new offense, we don't have new players on defense, we've got some continuity. **

GH:** You've been talking about flipping last year from 6-10 and going 10-6, 11-5, 12-4.

DL: Absolutely. We've got to get that consistency that tips those three or four games. 11-5 is the safest. That's going to get you in. We're definitely going to talk about playoffs."

GH: With every defensive starter back, with Takeo (Spikes) and Brian (Simmons) both going into the last year of their deals, Corey (Dillon) in his prime, with the schedule seemingly much easier than last year, isn't this the year a move has to be made? **

DL:** Every year is the move to make a move. We all feel a sense of urgency. I think the whole Tri-State area. It would be a special thing for all of us. We have been through some tough times. I think it's doable and we do have that sense of urgency and maybe not for the reasons you alluded to. But I would say just for that standpoint, it's time. We paid our dues. We went through our growing pains here since I've been coaching with a new offense, young receivers, and these things began to pay dividends at the end of the season.

I don't care what people say about our last two games, but that showed growth and showed that we can do what we have to do to make the playoffs. We beat a division champion at home at the end of the game, we went on the road and won at the end of the game and both times we came back from 14 points down. Those are the kind of teams you have to beat and games you have to win.

GH: No matter who the quarterback is, the fact that Jon (Kitna) is back for another year with some people writing off last year's trouble to new players in a new system, isn't that another reason this year is a must?

DL: The most encouraging of that thing is how those guys on offense finished the season. We put up 500 yards on the NFL's No. 1 defense in Pittsburgh and you can say this and you can say that, but they needed to win that game for home-field advantage and we did things to them that no one did all year. It's no secret what we have to do this year. Score more points and do it more consistently. **

GH:** Speaking of the depth chart (where Kitna is No. 1), the most eye-opening thing is second-round pick Lamont Thompson starting at free safety.

DL: I think he's going to have the opportunity to be in that role. That's the reason we drafted him. He can intercept the ball. We have to get more fumbles and interceptions this year and get better field position for our offense than we did last year. The onus is on him and the coaching staff to get him ready. The depth chart in this meeting doesn't mean as much as it will going to training camp and getting ready for the championship season.

There are a lot of unknowns. It's a system that enables us to structure the team and organize practice. As we observe, the depth chart will change. **

GH:** No. 1 pick Levi Jones is behind Richmond Webb at left tackle. John Jackson is at No. 3. Does that mean John (37 years old) is in trouble?

DL: I don't think you should read anything into the depth chart other than the fact John is a veteran who can play both right and left tackle and usually that guy at that spot is a swing guy and John is a swing guy. **

GH:>Can you keep all your tackles with Jones, Webb, Jackson on the left, and Willie Anderson and Jamain Stephens on the right?

DL:** You've heard me say this before. You can't have enough good players and if you've got 12 good DBs, you find a way to keep all of them. There is a general outline at each position of how many you keep, but it's never written in stone.

GH: So all the tackles could make it?

DL: They could, particularly if some of them swing at guard-center stuff.

GH: Jamain could do that.

DL: Jamain would be a solid guard.

GH: Jackson can play both tackles.

DL: I think John has to play both sides and maybe a little bit of guard.

GH: Are you worried about the lack of experience at tight end? The top two guys (Sean Brewer and Matt Schobel) have never taken a snap in the NFL.

DL: My worry is diminished by the fact that we didn't even have any tight ends to worry about for a lot of the time last season. I feel good about the guys we have. But they are prospects and we have to see exactly where they are. **

GH:Can Brew practice with his pulled hamstring?

DL:I would err on the side of safety if he comes in here and it's still ouchy. I would rather see him recover fully than see him have a set back. We've got a lot of field days (18) coming up and I would like to see him get quality time in some of those.

GH:** Nick Williams is an interesting guy as a roster-spot eater. He can be your third tight end and backup fullback.

DL: The most encouraging thing there is whenever we put Nick Williams in a game, he does a pretty good job whatever the role is. The negative has been is that he hasn't been available all the time. But he's been valuable because he's a move tight end for us and I know he's a good, solid fullback because he's done that for us, and he's not a bad ball carrier.

GH: Whatever happens, you'll be faster at tight end than you have been in some time.

DL: We're at the top of the league with speed at that position. **

GH:The signing of Jeff Burris to start at cornerback turned out to be a significant move because it allowed you the luxury of drafting a left tackle in the first round and it gives you the most experienced starting cornerbacks since you came back from Pittsburgh.

DL:** That's true. Re-signing Artrell Hawkins was just as big. We go from having a question mark there last year to two quality veterans. Artrell is coming off his best year for us and he now has four years of quality playing time. Then you take a guy like (rookie) Kevin Kaesviharn and how he played last year and that was encouraging to all of us.

We're looking for him to keep improving and we think we've got a chance to have three pretty dang good corners and that's about as strong as we have been there. Plus, Rodney Heath looks like he's going to make it back (from a torn hamstring) and he's also got a lot of quality experience. Then you've got Mark Roman and Robert Bean and that is six guys who have all played. We haven't had that in a long time.

>GH: Compared to two years ago when you were lining up with rookies and waiver wire pickups.

DL: I will repeat. We are building the depth of this team. You're going to have attrition and moving around nowadays, but we think we've made good progress in these areas.

GH: It's amazing you kept all your defensive players from last year. The lack of turnover alone could put the defense in the top five.

DL: We'll benefit from that, as we will in adding a very good veteran player in Jeff Burris. I think management has to be commended there. They did re-sign Artrell and Reinard (Wilson). They kept us whole. **

GH:** The kicker you just drafted (Travis Dorsch) can also punt. I guess you won't bring in another punter to compete with Nick Harris because you want Dorsch to keep punting while focusing on field goals.

DL: He averaged almost 50 yards a punt last year. That's pretty good. He's got a tremendous leg. I don't know that you put that big of an onus on a first-year player to do both, but I could see a game or two perhaps where he could do both. Assuming he's doing both well. **

GH:** If you had a crunch because of injuries, you could save a spot by putting down Harris on the inactive list right before the game.

DL: It gives us another game day approach that a lot of teams in the league don't have. That's why I want him to stay sharp with the punting.

GH: If I'm not mistaken, this is the 44th NFL season for No. 44. **

DL:** I hate to say this, but I was just trying to count it up the other day. Let's work this out. Write these numbers down, please. Three years in Philadelphia, four in Green Bay, 12 in Cincinnati, five in Pittsburgh and this is, what? My sixth year back here. How many is that?

GH: That's 30 coaching and you had 14 as a player. So 44 for 44.

DL: That means we're going to the Super Bowl.

GH: Last year, Elvis made an appearance in the building when you opened minicamp in an Elvis costume dancing to "Give Me Some Lovin.'" Any such plans this year? **

DL:** They say there is no fool like an old fool. That's my only comment.

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