Middle of it all

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Adrian Ross gets his second straight start at middle linebacker Sunday and he hopes it will be a lot smoother than the last time he started against Tennessee.

That was back on Oct. 8, when Ross made his first start ever at middle linebacker against the Titans. Ross, converted from the outside because of Brian Simmons' knee injury on Opening Day, had a productive day and even made ESPN for his drilling of backup running back Rodney Thomas.

But Ross thinks he's better prepared for this one than the game Eddie George robbed from the Bengals with 181 yards rushing.

"Looking back on that first game against them, I was just learning playing the middle," Ross said. "There were times I wasn't in the right alignment and he'd hit the crease where I was supposed to be.

"They'd take advantage by cutting me off or sending an extra (blocker) over there," Ross said. "They'd have second-and-long, still run it and make it third-and-short."

Linebackers coach Mark Duffner is pretty much rotating Ross with rookie Armegis Spearman, but Ross had to start against the Titans and Steelers back in October when Spearman hurt his shoulder.

Ross earned the start last week, but it was easier for Duffner to give him the majority of snaps because Spearman is struggling with the shoulder again.

"Adrian's been productive and he deserved to play," Duffner said. "He's more down the road in terms of understanding our defense and how it fits with what we're facing."

MCNAIR STATUS: Titans coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesday he'd be surprised if quarterback Steve McNair even practices Friday, the earliest he can see him on the field with his sprained knee and ankle.

He sounded like backup Neil O'Donnell could very well get the call because McNair, "has to have his legs to play," and McNair himself said he won't play if he can't scramble and run.

Bengals coach Dick LeBeau isn't buying it.

"He'll play," LeBeau said. "I've been down this riverboat ride before. He will play, (but) he may not scramble as much as he normally does."

LINE GAMES: Left defensive end Vaughn Booker underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Wednesday and defensive line coach Tim Krumrie is scrambling on a battered front.

Jevon Langford looks to get his first start this season at right end when Michael Bankston moves from right end to take Booker's spot. Langford, a fourth-round pick in 1996, doesn't really understand why he lost his job after spraining his knee in last season's eighth game.

"They told me at the beginning of the year it was practice habits," Langford said. "I'm just trying to play as hard as I can and now I've got another shot."

Langford lost his job at about the same time the Bengals ditched the three-man line and went to a bigger four-man front designed to stop the defense from getting gashed on the run.

LeBeau said Wednesday the Bengals could go back to a three-man front in an emergency, but at the moment will battle with Langford and the other backup end, Glen Steele. Krumrie won't move Copeland from tackle back to end because he already moved him from his long-time end position earlier this year.

JACKSON IMPROVING: LeBeau said left tackle John Jackson isn't ready to start yet with his pulled hamstring, but can back up Rod Jones this Sunday. Jackson, negotiating with the Bengals for a deal next season, was starting before he got hurt.

PRO BOWL TALK: Bengals running back Corey Dillon, second in the AFC in rushing, figures to be one of the three AFC Pro Bowl running backs. Right tackle Willie Anderson figures to get some play with the Bengals' top-ranked running game. But where does that leave outside linebacker Takeo Spikes?

According to press box stats, Spikes has 107 tackles, giving him 100-tackle years in his first three NFL seasons.

LeBeau said Spikes is having a Pro Bowl year and Spikes is hoping fans, players and coaches ignore the Bengals' 3-10 record.

"The record hurts," Spikes said. "I just hope people take into consideration what LeBeau said."

FISHER ON AKILI: Fisher also lived with a quarterback who was the third pick in the draft (1995), and the Titans did the exact opposite with Steve McNair. The Bengals force-fed Akili Smith while McNair sat on the bench for two years.

"From a learning standpoint it was (positive), but it was a negative because it was frustrating to him because you want to play, but we wanted to take our time with Steve," Fisher said.

"It should not be considered a setback for Akili," said Fisher of Smith's benching. "I'm sure he'll get more opportunity to play in the remaining games. He's the quarterback of their future. You need the offseason, you need time spent in systems, you need commitment and familiarity with your receivers. You have to surround your quarterback with good people who he becomes familiar with and trusts."

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ROSTER MOVES:** The Bengals signed Texas fullback Ricky Brown to the practice squad. He was a free agent cut after training camp. His former Texas teammate, offensive lineman Roger Roesler, also a member of the practice squad, is being pursued by other clubs.

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