Mitchell improves

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals' day off is Tuesday. But not this week for their top two quarterbacks.

Scott Mitchell, who starts Sunday if he's healthy, said he feels like there's a 50-50 chance he can go on his injured left knee against the Steelers. Mitchell said it felt much better after undergoing a variety of drills Tuesday for the first time since spraining the MCL last week in the 16-13 loss to the Patriots.

Akili Smith, who starts if Mitchell can't, was also doing all the right things for a guy who has lost his starting job. After an hour-long autograph session at the Bengals Pro Shop, Smith joined some of his teammates at the downtown Cincinnati FreeStore to hand out food.

"It feels like night and day from yesterday," said Mitchell, who can now bend the leg. "If it responds better to (the drills), that's a good sign. If I come in sore and stiff on Wednesday, then it might not be as far along as I hoped."

Mitchell said he couldn't have practiced Tuesday and he winces when he tries to simulate the turn he makes after taking the snap.

Trainer Paul Sparling still lists him as doubtful and remains skeptical Mitchell will be ready.

"Is it getting better? Yes. Could he be able to turn on it? At some point," Sparling said. "But it's highly unlikely by Sunday. We'll see. If anybody can do it, he can because he's doing all the right things."

Mitchell walked on the underwater treadmill for 20 minutes, rode the stationary bike for 10 minutes, and did a series of strength exercises while getting the daily treatment of ice and electrical stimulation.

Meanwhile, Smith met the public.

Smith, who hasn't done interviews since coach Dick LeBeau made the quarterback switch Nov. 13, declined to talk Tuesday.

But he wore the smile of a franchise quarterback when fans asked for a photo with their autograph and wished him good luck against Pittsburgh.

Smith met a handful of Bengals at the FreeStore, where they passed out 40 pounds of food to each person that included a 10-pound turkey, apples, potatoes and canned goods.

Among those joining Smith were running backs Corey Dillon, Brandon Bennett, Clif Groce and Nick Williams, linebackers Adrian Ross and JoJuan Armour, wide receiver Damon Griffin, and cornerback Charles Fisher.

Which one quarterbacks Wednesday's practice is still an open question. Mitchell, who started for the first time in 24 games, knows what happens when you leave the lineup.

In the NFL, you never know when you get back in. David Klingler never did after spraining the knee that gave Jeff Blake a chance. Mitchell himself never got back after getting benched early in each of the last two seasons in Detroit and Baltimore.

"I feel like I'm a good player," Mitchell said. "I know I can do a very good job and you just figure people will assume that. It's not the case. You continually have to show people you can play. You don't realize how few opportunities there are, and how long your opportunity will be. That's kind of where I am right now. I don't know how long it will last and I want to make sure I make the most of it."

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