Knotty roster problems

8-30-02, 8:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The odds are longer than fullback Lorenzo Neal's 128 consecutive games streak that the Bengals can get a decent trade proposal for one of their backup running backs or kickers, or quarterback Akili Smith before this Sunday's final cut to 53 players.

So the fallout of Thursday night's 27-14 loss to Atlanta in the preseason finale at Paul Brown Stadium most likely leaves them with some knotty problems on the roster and depth chart:

After backup quarterback Jon Kitna's nasty 3-for-11 outing with two interceptions and Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau's declaration he doesn't have his QBs ranked, Smith made a pitch to move from No. 3 to behind starter Gus Frerotte.

"I think I did, but the coaches have to make up their mind," said Smith, when asked if he should be considered for the backup job. "If my number is called, I'm ready to play."

If the Bengals had any thoughts of cutting 29-year-old backup running back Brandon Bennett so they can go with just five backs in a youth movement with Curtis Keaton and Rudi Johnson, Bennett probably quashed the idea with his 14-yard touchdown bolt up the middle and 12-yard pirouette out of the grasp of linebacker Keith Brooking. A roster with Bennett, Keaton, and Johnson means two veteran cornerbacks would probably have to get cut.

"I think they should keep all six of us," said Bennett after ripping off 44 yards on his first seven carries and finishing with 42 on eight attempts. "Running backs get pounded during the season and you can never have too many. I think we all do things well that help the team. Curtis is quick, Rudi can get you a first down. I can catch. But I haven't worried about it because it's something I can't control."

Neil Rackers and Travis Dorsch ended their summer-long kicking joust closerthanthis. They each hit an extra point in their only chances to place kick Thursday to finish the pre-season games perfect. But Rackers established himself as the superior kick-off man when he opened the second half driving one five yards deep into the end zone, and Dorsch didn't get his two kickoffs beyond the Falcons 10.

Which fired the imagination of keeping both Rackers (for kickoffs) and Dorsch (for field goals), yet Dorsch and Bengals President Mike Brown doubted it. At least as of Thursday night.

"I don't see it happening with the talent at other positions," Dorsch said. "There are so many guys who deserve to make this ballclub. I don't see them keeping all three (Dorsch, Rackers and punter Nick Harris) of us."

The talent is clearly teeming at running back. Johnson had just 25

yards on 10 carries, but it gave him the Bengals' preseason record with 224 yards. Keaton, who left the game with a bruised knee and is probable for the opener, may be vulnerable because he hasn't flashed on kickoffs. But while T.J. Houshmandzadeh sizzled with 83 yards on three returns, he is seen as just too valuable and brittle to use extensively there.

Johnson is the only back who can carry the ball 25 to 30 times a game if the Bengals needed to rest Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon longer than a week. And then there is Bennett, who showed no signs of the Turf toe that knocked him out of the first two games. All he does is produce in games and while he did surrender the club's first pre-season sack when he couldn't stave off blitzing linebacker Matt Stewart, he did show his versatility in making a 13-yard catch.

"I did what I always want to do when I go into the game," Bennett said. "Flash, compete, do something that gets the crowd going and helps the team."

If six running backs make it, that definitely means two kickers don't make it and probably only five cornerbacks make it. With starters Artrell Hawkins and Jeff Burris, nickel back Kevin Kaesviharn, and swingman Mark Roman appearing to be virtual locks, who makes it out of the group of Rodney Heath, Robert Bean and Bo Jennings?

Want even a tougher call? Rackers has been nothing but sort of sensational on field goals and kickoffs in displaying the talent the Bengals knew he had all along when they picked him in the sixth-round in 2000.

The rookie Dorsch, a fourth-rounder, has also been solid after a shaky early camp and has done nothing to get cut. The dilemma is that Rackers has had good camps before and still has a 59 career percentage. And they just paid Dorsch about a $325,000 bonus. But what if Rackers is ready for stardom and Dorsch is an inconsistent young kicker like Rackers?

"I can't handicap this one," Dorsch said. "I haven't been around long enough to know. Who ever doesn't win this job has a chance to be in the league. I think we've both done that well."

Even the kickoffs have been relatively even with Rackers' distance countered by Dorsch's hang time. But on Thursday, Rackers went long and Dorsch had two popups, one reminiscent of his infield fly in Buffalo that bounced at about the 30.. This one landed at the 13.

"I could sit here and bore you all night with the technicalities," Dorsch said. "I planted a little far away from the ball. . .I got a little too much toe in the ball and I pushed it, got it up in the wind a little bit and it just died. . .The only two kicks I'd like to have back are that one and the one in Buffalo."

In most likely their last day together, Dorsch saluted Rackers, whom kept up his pre-season long policy of not talking to the media.

"Neil had a great camp. He made me better," Dorsch said. "He forced me to be professional at everything I'm doing. He forced me to be perfect on every kick and that's a credit to him. He had to put up with a lot the last couple of years and he came back and battled hard this camp. Who ever wins the job is going to be the biggest fan of the guy who doesn't."

One guy who certainly seemed to have no fans Thursday night was Kitna. Even before Falcons cornerback Fred Weary reached the 50-yard line during his 94-yard touchdown off a Kitna interception late in the first half, the crowd gave it to him. They really serenaded him with the boos when he came out to run the team in the second half, while they greeted Smith warmly.

Both, however, threw two interceptions each, but they couldn't get all the blame. Wide receiver Peter Warrick took the heat for Weary's play when it appeared Kitna threw behind his target on a bootleg pass with linebacker Will Overstreet in his face.

"I should have kept chasing that dude. I should have blocked him longer. That was all on me," Warrick said of Overstreet. "If I had blocked him longer, (Kitna) probably would have had time to see the whole field."

To be fair to Kitna, the second offensive line had problems keeping out the Falcons' first defense and his second interception came on a Hail Mary on the last play of the first half.

Smith took the blame on his first interception when he tried to hit wide receiver Ron Dugans at the Falcons 4 and, "I thought he'd keep going and I tied to force it into a little spot." But on the second one to wide receiver Chad Johnson on his last series of the game, Smith just said, "All I'm going to say is we had some receivers that were tired."

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