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Moving tight ends

11-7-02, 5:10 a.m.


Suddenly, there is a lot of buzz at the Bengals' tight end position, which had been deader than a doornail until two weeks ago.

That's when rookie Matt Schobel caught the club's first touchdown pass by a tight end in 21 games. Last week, he caught four balls and came up big on third down.

And on Wednesday, he began to get some help. With Sean Brewer (knee) sidelined for the rest of the year, converted linebacker Chris Edmonds had his first practice as a tight end on the active roster.

The guy who took his spot on the practice squad, Derek Smith, also had an interesting story. On Monday, Smith, out of Highlands High School in nearby Northern Kentucky and the University of Kentucky, had been making $8.75 an hour at a warehouse at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport. On Tuesday, the lifelong Bengals fan was getting fitted for a striped helmet and $4,000 per week.

He's also the first player to be on the Bengals' regular-season roster in some form to be born in the '80s. 1980 to be exact. Which means he was 10 the last time the Bengals

had a winning season. But that hasn't dampened his enthusiasm.

"It's been awhile, but it's your team," Smith said. "You wear the sweatshirts. You're a fan. Everything doesn't work out the way you want. But it's still your hometown team and I wanted that team to do well every week. That's the way I always looked at it."

Smith came out of Kentucky a year early and couldn't hook on with the Colts in this past training camp. His old coach from AAU basketball days is a supervisor of a warehouse for a company that makes skis and in-line skating equipment, and he has been spending his days doing inventory and preparing packages.

"That wasn't a tough call to make when I told them I wouldn't be in and I had a new job," Smith said.

Edmonds' job is the same, but now he's got a chance to do it in a game. Whether he'll be active this week is another question, but it does give the Bengals flexibility they haven't had since Brewer went down with a knee injury in the third game. They've pretty much been working with Schobel as their one traditional tight end and if he went down, they were looking at playing the rest of the game with four wide receivers.

The coaches like Edmonds' quickness and athleticism that have carried over from linebacker to tight end and they think he can eventually give them something in a game this year.

"I'm getting more familiar with the formations, and route running," Edmonds said. "Blocking has been the biggest (adjustment), but not the physical part. I'm used to the hitting and contact, but it's more the footwork and the angles and slowing myself down. It's not like training camp, where the (playbook) stuff keeps coming one thing after another. It's more simplified."

Schobel is also getting more comfortable and is turning into maybe the most pleasant surprise of a disappointing season. He didn't disappoint the home folks last week, where about 150 showed up to watch the victory over the Texans.

"They keep giving me a little more each week," said Schobel, who is from about an hour an away from Reliant Stadium. "Whatever they put on my plate, I'm going to keep eating."

SLANTS AND POSTS: Ravens quarterback Jeff Blake says the Bengals unfairly benched him near the end of the 1997 season, which sets up a pretty good grudge match Sunday in Baltimore. Bengals President Mike Brown said the club was simply trying to get over the hump after a 3-8 start. He also said there was no way the Bengals could match the five-year, $17 million deal

the Saints gave Blake in the first hours of 2000 free agency. Blake turned out to be the first player the Bengals kept in free agency with a sizable deal after just 14 starts. The mid-season contract in 1995 (when the Bengals were 2-3) worked out to about $3 million per year and gave him nearly $4 million in '95.

"He got a good deal," said Brown of his Saints' contract. "Teams were freer in what they were paying out. They didn't have a handle on the system yet. He got a good deal, one we were in no position to match."

With the Bengals expecting Blake to come out jacked up, Brown isn't so sure it matters.

"Only if you guys manage that," Brown said. "I don't think what is said matters a whole heck of a lot. The game is played by the players on Sunday, and they aren't thinking about what you write on Wednesday when they're out there playing on Sunday." . . .

Here's a little numbers game with Blake and Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna. It's a comparison of Kitna's 21 games with the Bengals and Blake's last 21 games with the Bengals in games he threw at least 15 passes:

Blake had a passer rating of 76.4 with 20 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions. He completed 55.2 percent of his 606 passes. A total of 335 were complete for 4,103 yards and an average of 6.8 yards per attempt.

Kitna has hit a higher percentage, but has also turned it over more with a rating of 65.8 that includes 19 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. He has completed 424 of 744 passes for a 56.9 percentage, 5.7 yards per attempt, and 4,274 yards. . .

Word out of Baltimore after Wednesday's practice is that Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister is moving around better on his injured ankle and has lost a bit of his limp, but he didn't practice Wednesday and is listed as questionable. . .

DE Michael McCrary, who has missed the last two games with a knee problem, also didn't practice Wednesday and is listed as questionable. . .MLB Ray Lewis (shoulder) and QB Chris Redman (back) are doubtful. . .

The Bengals moved DE Vaughn Booker (knee) to questionable. . .CB Jeff Burris (hamstring) and OLBs Canute Curtis (shoulder) and Riall Johnson (wrist) are probable. . .

The Bengals filled out their practice squad by signing Central Florida linebacker Tito Rodriguez, a rookie free agent they cut before the regular season started. The Bengals liked his nose for the ball during the pre-season games. Rodriguez, who said he was literally digging ditches for his uncle's landscaping company, was on his way to Buffalo for a workout when the Bengals called this week.

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