10-20-01, 10:00 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
When it comes to virtually unknown Bengals who should be considered for their first Pro Bowl, the list doesn't stop at Takeo Spikes, Willie Anderson, Oliver Gibson, Brian Simmons and Darnay Scott. Now fullback Lorenzo Neal barges in on a lead block.
And Sunday's game gives him a chance to show it against Chicago's fleet corps of linebackers that haven't allowed a run longer than 15 yards and have the Bears' defense seventh in the NFL against the run.
"He's playing the position the best it can be played," said one AFC scout. "In the running game, when he hits you, he jolts you. You move back. Against the blitz, he's been reliable. Real stout."
But the most insightful scouting report comes from his partner in grime in the middle.
"He's fun to watch," said center Rich Braham.
Neal, a Pro Bowl alternate with the Titans last year, has been good enough to have an impact on two teams. Tennessee's high-performing running game has slid to 21st in the NFL for a
team that is 1-3 after a two-year stretch Neal helped them go 26-6. Meanwhile, Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon is on pace (1,315 yards) to become the fifth 1,000-yard runner Neal has blocked for in the last five years as the Bengals went over .500 for the first time in 11 Octobers.
"He's had a major impact on our team both on the field and in the locker room," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He's very aggressive. He takes on two or three people on a play."
The 5-11, 240-pound Neal, 30, isn't always on the field because the Bengals use a lot of spread formations. But good things usually happen when he's in their two-back set. The little things the nine-year veteran has brought to his fifth team has been a perfect fit with the ultimate detail man in running backs coach Jim Anderson.
"Corey and the other guys kid him and call J.A. 'O.C.' for 'Over Coach,' but he's helped my game," Neal said. "He's meticulous. He really prepares you and I think that's why I've been able to have some success doing some things this year."
The addition to the running game has been nice, but Neal picked up enough blitzing linebackers against the Browns last Sunday to contribute to the club's record pace in allowing the least sacks (22) in a season.
"He gets them before they get into the backfield," Braham said. "And I mean, he just steps up and nails them. It looks like he's having fun at what he's doing. That he loves to play football. He puts it on the line."
He's also been a quiet factor on early downs catching the ball out of the backfield. Neal is averaging four yards on his eight catches, which is already half the receptions he had the last two seasons combined.
He would love "to go across the water," to Hawaii and the Pro Bowl, but he figures he can't control it.
"The big thing is winning," Neal said. "If we win, the offense does well and the Lord blesses me by keeping me healthy, everything will take care of itself. You have to win, but that's what you're trying to do anyway."
MATCHUPS: With the Bengals down to four experienced cornerbacks, the matchup of the game looks to be what their relatively small corners can do against the Bears' big, physical receivers.
Bengals CB Mark Roman gets his third NFL start against people like Bears WRs Marcus Robinson and Marty Booker. Bengals DE Justin Smith tries to help with the pass rush in his first NFL start against Bears QB Jim Miller..
The Bengals try to grind it out against a defense that features two players they tried to lure in free agency. Bengals C Rich Braham takes on Bears DT Ted Washington, linchpin of the Bears' seventh-ranked rush defense. With fellow speedster Chad Johnson injured, Bengals WR Darnay Scott tries to stretch it against a secondary that includes Bears CB Walt Harris. Plus, Bengals FB Lorenzo Neal tries to clear out a trio of fast linebackers headed by Pro Bowl Bears MLB Brian Urlacher.
Bengals PR Peter Warrick looks to be turning the corner, while it appears Bears PR R.W. McQuarters is the man on the spot after the release of Glyn Milburn.
ROMAN VS. ROBINSON AND BOOKER: Robinson is 6-3, 215 pounds. Booker goes 5-11, 208 pounds. Throw in first-round pick David Terrell at 6-3, 212 pounds and Dez White at 6-0, 214 pounds, and no wonder the Bengals fear the Bears are going to hammer them with multiple receivers.
After watching the tape of the Bengals struggle on some long passes against the Browns last week, why would the Bears try to establish a running game that only gets them 80 yards a game anyway? Seven of Robinson's 18 catches have come on third down and 63 of Booker's 255 yards (17th in the NFC) came on a touchdown catch.
Cornerback Robert Bean had some problems last week against the Browns when he went in for the injured Rodney Heath, but he was also limited in practice last week with a sore shoulder. The 5-11, 178-pound Bean had more snaps this week in practice and figures to share time with Roman, but the 5-11, 185-pound Roman got the
start because of his play this week in practice, his physical play, and his performance last week in which he had a sack and two passes defensed.
"The big receivers want you to get close to them," said Bengals nickel back Tom Carter, playing his first game against his former team. "They want you to get near them so they can push off you and use their hands to separate. You have to stay close, but shadow them so you can still get a hand in there to make a play. You get on top of them, and they'll jump over you. Ad they're fast enough that they can double move you."
Roman and Bean have some motivation. Roman, a second-round pick from a year ago, says he's not mad at anybody, but says, "I've got a chip on my shoulder," to prove he should be playing. Bean would like to atone for this year's pre-season opener in Chicago. He picked off a pass in the last 20 seconds of the game, but fumbled inside the Bears 10 in a game the Bengals lost in overtime. **
SMITH VS. MILLER:** Notice how the Bengals have struggled against offenses that have mobile quarterbacks (Doug Flutie, Kordell Stewart) and done well against pocket guys like Drew Bledsoe and Elvis Grbac and the semi-pocket Tim Couch? Miller isn't exactly Fran the Scram, but they get him out of pocket enough that he's been sacked just once on his 76 passes.
Carter says one of the keys against the big receivers is not let the quarterback find the target easily: "The big guys like to get the ball in a certain spot. If the quarterback makes the throw, they're going to catch the ball. It's that simple. Even if you have perfect coverage on them, he can turn and shield his body off."
BRAHAM VS. WASHINGTON: Remember when Washington visited Paul Brown Stadium during free agency, and then his agent ripped the Bengals' offer of about $2 million per year for three years? He ended up getting about the same money in Chicago after the Bengals moved on and signed the younger (26 compared to 33) and lighter (295 pounds to the listed 355) Tony Williams.
Although Williams is hurt, both teams have to be pleased. Washington is what he is. He doesn't play on third down, but he's virtually immovable on the run and continues to be a Pro Bowl force in the middle.
"He doesn't get much of a pass rush, but if he catches you leaning, he'll get you in trouble and he's great against the run," Braham said. "It's all leverage. What ever you do, you have to stay low on him."
SCOTT VS. HARRIS: Harris very nearly accepted a four-year deal from Cincinnati and joined Carter, his close friend. But he decided to stay in Chicago for a year and he's responded with a solid season with the help of the improved front seven.
Except for last week's touchdown, Scott has been quiet the last couple of games. But he'll have to step it up without Johnson's speed and draw some double coverage to prevent the Bears' zone (26th in the NFL against the pass) from sitting on the other wideouts. **
NEAL VS. URLACHER:** Neal won't be going just against Urlacher in the running game, but against the outside guys as well in Rosevelt Colvin on the strong side and Warrick Holdman on the weak side.
"They've got a big line that tries to keep you off their linebackers," Neal said. "They're so fast and they're able to flow over the top if you can't get past the line and put the leather to them. They're going to be geared up to stop our run, so you can't let them play with more energy." **
WARRICK VS. MCQUARTERS:** Warrick's 31-yard punt return last week showed signs he's ready to go more north than west. Milburn got axed because of fumbles and McQuarters has returned just three punts this season for a long of nine yards.
BO KNOWS: Rookie cornerback Ligarius Jennings, named for a character from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," has quickly become more than an understudy in the three days since the Bengals signed him off Detroit's practice squad.
In fact, fullback Lorenzo Neal saw a reporter talking to Jennings Friday and he made a point to tap Jennings on the shoulder and say, "This guy's going to be a good player. He breaks on the ball."
It looks like Jennings, a 5-8, 202-pound undrafted free agent from Tennessee State who goes by "Bo," is going to be active Sunday after impressive work on the field and in the classroom. After getting a crash course Wednesday on the sidelines from cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle, the Bengals felt good enough to throw him in
for 15 snaps on Thursday.
With Jennings the fifth corner after Rodney Heath's season-ending hamstring injury, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said the club is preparing to see several four- and five-receiver sets.
"We scouted him before the draft and he played for a half against us in the preseason up in Detroit and played well," LeBeau said. "Then he came here and he looked better in person than on the video. He's got good balance and speed."
He also seems to have the desire. Coyle says Jennings came in 45 minutes early and stayed late each day this week. The instructional tapes that Coyle voiced-over during the summer as take-home work also came in handy. Jennings took four tapes back to the hotel Friday.
"He gets a good break on the ball and seems to have a knack for getting to the right spot," Coyle said. "He shows good instincts and he's picked it up mentally."
One question is his ability to play the ball, but Jennings had a solid college career and he wasn't unknown to the Bengals. In fact, the Bengals called him after the draft in an effort to sign him as a free agent, but the Lions already had a deal with him.
Coyle also worked him out before the draft. Ironically, Jennings worked out at Vanderbilt with Jimmy Williams, a cornerback on the 49ers practice squad that the Bengals also had on their list as a possible replacement for Heath's roster spot.
WEATHER REPORT:** The Channel 12 weather gurus are calling for partly cloudy skies and about 70 degrees. The breeze won't be as strong as last week, at about 10 to 15 miles per hour from the south and southwest.
NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need for the weekend, including the impressive stats of the head coaches.
The Bengals' Dick LeBeau had 62 career interceptions as a cornerback for the Lions. His nine defensive backs have a total of 68. The Bears' Dick Jauron had 26 career interceptions as a safety with the Lions and Bengals. His starting secondary has 24 career interceptions.
2 _The number of October home victories the Bengals can get Sunday for the first time since 1989.
4_ The number of total victories the Bengals can finish with Sunday. That would be the earliest they have won four games since 1992, when they won their fourth game on Nov. 8.
5.4 _ Bengals running back Corey Dillon's yards per carry average in 11 Paul Brown Stadium games.
342 _ Dillon's projected number of carries, breaking by 27 the record he set last year.
12-8 _ Bengals record when Dillon rushes for 100 yards.
87 _ Rushing yards per game allowed by the Bears.
380 _ Alleged weight of Bears defensive tackle Ted Washington.
375 _ Combined weight of Bengals starting cornerbacks Mark Roman and Artrell Hawkins.
5_ Bengals quarterbacks from whom Darnay Scott has caught a touchdown pass: David Klingler, Jeff Blake, Boomer Esiason, Neil O'Donnell, and Jon Kitna.
8 _ Consecutive games in which the Bengals haven't scored a touchdown in the first quarter.
9 _ Total points scored by Bears and Bengals in the first quarter.
37 _ Points scored by the Bengals in the third quarter this year.
41 _ Points scored by the Bengals in the third quarter all last year.