BY GEOFF HOBSON
With middle linebacker Brian Simmons out at least 10 to 12 weeks and quite possibly for the season, the Bengals are looking at a three-man rotation in the middle of their defense with veterans Billy Granville, Adrian Ross and free-agent rookie Armegis Spearman.
Simmons, a first-round pick from 1998 bidding for the Pro Bowl, tore cartilage on the outside of his right knee late in the third quarter of today's 24-7 loss to the Browns. The loss of Simmons' speed is a crushing blow for a defense built around its linebackers.
After viewing the film tonight, linebackers coach Mark Duffner said a Cleveland offensive lineman fell on Simmons' knee after he took on the blocking fullback in a running play.
"You can see what we're losing by that one play earlier in the game," said Duffner of Simmons' across-the-field pursuit of Tim Couch that forced the Browns quarterback to fumble. "
"With this kind of tear, we think it's better to go ahead and have it repaired," said Bengals trainer Paul Sparling. "If we took out the cartilage, he could be back sooner, but it would not be good for the long term. His knee would erode pretty quickly."
Granville, a fourth-year player known mainly for special teams and work mainly on goal line and short yardage, wasn't active for today's game. Ross is mainly an outside linebacker. Spearman, out of Mississippi, had one tackle today, but Duffner said he was active. Duffner also said he has no plans to move Takeo Spikes from right outside to the middle.
"He's staying right there," Duffner said. "He's playing well over there."
MCGEE QUESTIONABLE: TE Tony McGee is questionable for next Sunday's game with a sprained foot. Despite the pain, he stepped in front of his teammates before the media came into the locker room and told them they couldn't let happen what has happened the past four years.
"We have to avoid the big slump," said linebacker Takeo Spikes of a team that has gone 5-26 in September and October since 1996. "I think we can. Or else I wouldn't feel like playing."
JONES BENCHED: Bengals left tackle Rod Jones thought he might have been pulled out of the game a little too early in favor of backup John Jackson. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander made the move in the second quarter when defensive end Keith McKenzie kept getting penetration. But Jones, playing in his first game since signing a three-year, $9 million extension, figures to start next week against the Jaguars' Tony Brackens.
"If a guy is having a bad day," Alexander said, "I'm not going to keep him in there until it's too late."
POPE HAILED: The Bengals MVP of their opener? No contest. Punter Daniel Pope. He revived the Bengals in the third quarter by running 22 yards around left end for a first down on fourth-and-14 that put the ball on the Cleveland 33-yard line with 3:09 left in the period and the Bengals trailing, 17-7. Not only that, Pope kicked six times for a 40.7-yard average and his hang time was so effective that only two were returned for a total of eight yards.
Not only that, but Pope had been hatching the fake all week with special teams coach Al Roberts. And it looked like they were the only ones who knew what was going on. Certainly long snapper Brad St. Louis didn't know Pope would run it.
"Watching film up in Coach Roberts' office, we saw their ends were bailing early," said Pope of the Browns running back down the field to block. "They did it last year against Cincinnati and they were doing it in the first half. Marco (tight end Battaglia) said it was wide open. (Tight end Steve) Bush said it was wide open on his side. (Injured running back Michael) Basnight asked me if I could see it and I said no, but I can feel it if there's no one there because I'm concentrating on (catching the snap)."
At halftime, the Bengals figured they would do it when they weren't backed up or when they weren't closer because the Browns would be in a different defense. The only problem was, the Bengals didn't it want it to be more than fourth-and-10 because Pope is already lined up 15 yards behind scrimmage. But he made it with nearly 10 yards to spare.
BLOCKED KICK:** Pope, the holder for kicker Neil Rackers, is confident the rookie won't lose his confidence after getting his 42-yard field goal attempt blocked by the right side of the Cleveland surge. In his last two games and last three field-goal tries, Rackers has missed two and had one blocked. St. Louis and Pope said the operation was good, but some observers wondered if Rackers had either kicked it too low or been too slow. No word if the club is mulling a change. Former Bengals kicker Doug Pelfrey is a possibility for Denver with Jason Elam undergoing an MRI on his back after getting hurt today.
"Neil is going to go through what I went through last year," said Pope, a rookie last year in Kansas City. "He's going to be in situations he's never been in before and I'm going to try and get him through those. I can help him because I've been there. I think he'll be fine. It's just not the physical in this league, it's the mental."
NAME DROPPERS: Bengals' No. 1 pick Peter Warrick had three catches for 80 yards in his debut, but he knows they will be talking about his three drops. One cost the Bengals a chance at a tying touchdown in the second quarter on a third-and-five that would have put the ball inside the Browns' 5 with a catch on the sideline.
"I thought the DB was going to tip it and i was coming up to tackle him," Warrick said. "I just took my eyes off it. . .I was trying to make the big plays, thinking about what I was going to do next."
OLD KENTUCKY AT HOME: Tim Couch 1, Akili Smith 1. They have now beaten each other on their home turf. They downplayed the rivalry all week, but Couch made it clear today he remembered Smith banging his chest at the Browns' sideline after Cincinnati's win in the Dawg Pound last year: "I'm not going to lie. It drove me the whole week long. I didn't say anything, but as a competitor, you want to go out and play hard and compete against those guys. It was just a matter of going out and wanting to beat him bad. Anytime another team lines up against us, we want to beat them convincingly and we were able to do that today."