Kickers leg to end

8-27-02, 6:15 p.m.

Updated: 8-28-02, 7:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The closest race on the Bengals' roster is still boiling hours after head coach Dick LeBeau decided the quarterback derby in favor of Gus Frerotte.

But don't look for the Bengals to keep both field-goal kickers. When they have to lop a dozen players Sunday to get to 53 players, veteran Neil Rackers or rookie Travis Dorsch figures to be on the list.

But the fact neither was cut Monday shows how close the race is. Two days after the third pre-season game in 2000, the Bengals cut veteran Doug Pelfrey to give all the work in the pre-season finale to the rookie Rackers. Yet with Dorsch leading off, they will both kick in Thursday night's finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the Falcons.

"If there was a leader, they both wouldn't be here," said Bengals President Mike Brown during Monday's practice at PBS. "We've been happy with them and we talked about keeping both. But it's very difficult to keep two kickers. The only reason teams do that is if one isn't long enough (for kickoffs or field goals.) But both these guys are long, so you wouldn't need two of them."

Dorsch is of the mindset that he

would think about asking them to release him if the Bengals decided to keep him and Rackers.

"It's similar to the quarterbacks in you want guy who can go out there every week that you can depend on in any situation," Dorsch said. "If (keeping both) is the case, I would almost ask them to release me and let me go on and do something else. I think we've both performed well enough to earn a spot in the league. Whether one of us is here, I think we've earned that"

You won't get any argument from the Bengals. Rackers is 4-for-4 on field goals with a long of 44 and Dorsch is 3-for-3 with a long of 36. Rackers has been longer on kickoffs, but Dorsch has been higher.

"And the coverage has responded to both," said special teams coach Al Roberts. "Pretty even in the games? How about real even? There's hardly any separation. None. So you look for anything. In training camp competitions, on the days they competed, Rackers missed two and Dorsch three. We'll see what happens."

One school of thought is: How can you trust Rackers when he's had great camps and made just 59 percent of his kicks in two regular seasons? And how can you waste the fourth-round pick used to take Dorsch, who has done everything asked?

The other school is: What if Rackers has matured and his tremendous potential is about to blossom, and he just flat out has been better?

"There's no question that Neil has changed and matured," Roberts said. "Travis has really come on after getting settled the first few weeks."

Even Dorsch said, "I don't think I've done anything to lose the job and I don't think I've done anything to win it, either. But I've worked hard and I have no regrets whatever the results."

**

BENGALS CLAIM DT:** The Bengals claimed rookie free-agent defensive tackle Ron Smith off waivers from the Seahawks Tuesday and released their own rookie free agent, linebacker Tito Rodriguez. The 6-3, 308-pound Smith, a Division II all-star at Tennessee's Lane College, is the Bengals' latest bid to find a big-body backup behind Oliver Gibson and Tony Williams.

"He's a guy we saw on tape down at training camp and he looked to have some athleticism and strength," said Jim Lippincott, Bengals director of football operations. "We'll put him in the game Thursday and see how he plays."

With the addition of Smith, the Bengals have nine defensive linemen, one over the traditional limit.

**

LEVI WAITS:** The Bengals have high hopes for No. 1 pick Levi Jones some time this season, but Saturday's game against the Saints has probably convinced them they don't want to rush him into the Opening Day lineup. Jones struggled a bit against New

Orleans' fresh rotation and admitted after the game he didn't play well.

There had been some discussion about starting Jones against the Saints after his dominating performance against the Colts the week before, but head coach Dick LeBeau said 13-year veteran Richmond Webb gets the call at left tackle Thursday night against the Falcons, and they will talk again about who starts the Sept. 8 opener.

"He's on that roller-coaster ride every rookie goes through," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "You've got to remember, too, how well he played in Indianapolis."

SIMMONS IN, SPIKES OUT: After working Monday, middle linebacker Brian Simmons plans to play Thursday with the lower back strain that kept him out of last Saturday's game. But right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes isn't going to play with the pectoral muscle he strained in the pre-season opener.

Still, he hasn't missed many practice snaps the past week in making sure he gets out of the way of contact. On Monday, he was back mixing it up.

"I'm taking a little contact now," Spikes said. "It's more than I could do even three days ago. I'll definitely be back for the opener."

WESTBROOK CAUTIOUS: Wide receiver Michael Westbrook isn't as gung-ho about playing a series or two against the Falcons Thursday as he was when he returned to practice a few weeks ago with the broken left wrist he suffered July 28. Trainer Paul Sparling has been questioning the benefits when weighed against the risks and Westbrook is listening.

"That's the question I'm asking myself," said Westbrook after Monday's

practice. "If I play, do all I do is risk a setback? I just have to make that decision."

The coaches could make it for him and decide to hold him out. Or, he could play a few plays with a partial cast. He does think he'll be ready for the Sept. 8 opener if he doesn't play Thursday despite not playing in any preseason games.

"I'm used to playing football. I've been in this league for seven years, so that's not going to be a problem," Westbrook said. "The only thing is I won't be able to be in there drive after drive after drive. That will come soon."

**

LEYVA EMERGES:** While Jones learns the way of the offensive line in the NFL, his old Arizona State teammate, Victor Leyva, is emerging as a latter day Dave Lapham and Bruce Kozerski, and a current-day Scott Rehberg. He's rapidly becoming a guy you can put virtually anywhere on the line. His development has softened the

blow of a possible season-ending rotator cuff injury to Jamain Stephens, his competition as the backup right guard and right tackle in a tight roster game.

While Stephens has struggled with the injury, Leyva, the fifth-round pick from 2001, has taken a step forward and established himself as a guy they most likely have to keep on the roster come Cutdown Day.

He's coming off an ankle injury that still nags him, but he'll get plenty of time at right tackle behind Willie Anderson Thursday night against the Falcons. He also backs up right guard, and can play center or left guard in a pinch.

"I feel most comfortable at right tackle because that's what I played in college," Leyva said. "I don't like the fact that I'm not in one spot, but I love the fact I can play a couple of positions. It's a little bit exciting that way. I'm just more used to the calls now on the line and that has slowed down the game for me."

Stephens undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder Wednesday morning. If the tear is bad enough, he could be out as long as four months.

With 11 offensive linemen left on the roster, the injury looks to pave the way to keep free-agent guard Thatcher Szalay out of Montana, assuming they keep the traditional 10.

**

STAT HEAVEN:** Despite the 31-23 loss to New Orleans, the Bengals continue to dominate the NFL rankings. They are first in total offense at 434.8 yards per game with Washington a distant second at 398.0. They are also first in sacks allowed (0), with Cleveland in second with two; first in rushing offense (183.0), with Green Bay second at 143.0; first in third-down conversions (52.8%); with Denver second at 47.7, first in time of possession (35:14), with Atlanta second at 33:33; first and second in individual rushing, with Rudi Johnson in the league lead (199 yards) and Curtis Keaton second (174), first in rushing first downs (31), with Denver second at 26, tied for first in yards per rush (5.1).

NEXT-TO-LAST CUTS: The Bengals cut their first draft choice since 1999 when they released Monday seventh-round draft pick Joey Evans, a defensive end from North Carolina.

They also cut two defensive tackles in veteran free-agent Pernell Davis and second-year man Randy Chevrier, clearing the way for long snapper Brad

St. Louis to keep his job and for end Eric Ogbogu to be the eighth defensive lineman (the traditional number) despite his inability to play in the preseason with a calf injury.

Also released Monday was third-year quarterback Scott Covington, cut for the second straight year after not taking a snap in a pre-season game. Rookie free agents Justin Bland, a tackle from Missouri, and Kwazeon Leverette, a receiver from Syracuse, were also cut, as were first-year center Ray Redziniak and first-year receiver Khori Ivy.

The Bengals now have 65 players and plan to make the final 12 cuts this coming Sunday.

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