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New starters not so new

9-3-02, 4:55 a.m.


Two of the four new starters on defense have been here before. It's just that their time as Bengals have been so low profile that their first Opening Day starts have caused a stir.

"You don't come near me all year and now you want to talk to me," Canute Curtis admonished a reporter with a smile after Monday's practice.

Meanwhile, Mark Roman, who is expected to be named the starting free safety Wednesday, has made 10 starts at cornerback in his two pro seasons. But none at his high school and college position. That's back in the day he had a bulldog with a bloody piece of meat hanging out of his mouth tattooed on his chest.

"On every secondary I had been we called ourselves the doghouse and it wasn't a bad thing," Roman said. "We

were just trying to be aggressive like dogs, playing in packs and making plays. I'm just trying to get back to my old self."

The Bengals just want Curtis to play the way he has since 1998, when the sixth-rounder from the year before graduated from the practice squad. He has led the team in special teams tackles over the past three seasons and made his first four starts at the end of last season when left outside linebacker Steve Foley hurt his back. Now with Foley out for the year with a dislocated shoulder, reporters are around Curtis'locker.

"I've said that we have the three best starting linebackers in the NFL," Curtis said. "We're going to miss Foley, no question about that. I'm just going to try and fit in and hopefully after (Sunday's) game they'll still say we've got the best group of three linebackers in the league."

Curtis is a guy who quietly has made the most of his time in games. Foley has 9.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in 45 starts. Curtis has three sacks and three forced fumbles in four starts. Foley has averaged a little more than three tackles per his 45 starts, while Curtis averaged five in his four starts during a stretch the Bengals didn't allow more than 23 points.

"I've got big shoes to fill," Curtis said. "Steve's a big guy who can run. I think I can do a little bit of everything. Rush the passer. Cover. There's no question that Foley is a playmaker."

Curtis thinks he'll still be on the punt team, but others are going to have to step in at other special teams spots while he gets the bulk of the snaps in place of Foley. Fellow backup linebackers Armegis Spearman and Riall Johnson are the prime suspects.

Roman's teammates know he's not dogging it and think he can be the guy who made 30 starts at free safety at LSU during his first three years in Baton Rouge. At 5-11, 190 pounds, Roman made a cornerback-like play last week in practice that had cornerback Artrell Hawkins still buzzing this week when he intercepted a fade route, and defensive captain Takeo Spikes can't wait to see the freshman who made 18 tackles against his Auburn Tigers.

"I played a little bit of safety in the penny package, but not very much over here," Roman said of the pros. "It's different than cornerback. I like it. You have to make all the checks and you get more involved in the run game. You can be more aggressive because at corner you're almost always playing off somebody. Now the ball is coming right at you. I'm just trying to re-acquaint myself with the way I played in college."

ROSTER CHANGES: The Bengals usually make a bevy of roster moves on the day after Cutdown Day, but on Monday they just did some housekeeping. Kicker Travis Dorsch switched from No. 2 to No. 10, and fullback Nick Williams officially changed his name with the club. He recently changed his legal name from James Nicolas Williams to James Nicolas Williams Luchey. His family decided to change the name this past year to take the name of their biological grandfather.


PRACTICE SQUAD:** The Bengals signed first-year tight end Chris Edmonds so they can continue his transition from linebacker. Also signed are rookie cornerbacks Reggie Myles and LaVar Glover, defensive lineman Ron Smith, and rookie linebacker Dwayne Levels.

SZALAY MAKES IT: A dozen years after tackle Kirk Scrafford made the Bengals as a rookie free agent, fellow University of Montana offensive lineman Thatcher Szalay repeated the feat.

The 6-4, 303-pound Szalay can play both guard spots and he's also been taking snaps at center. If he has a career like Scrafford, he'll be fine. After backing up Hall-of-Famer Anthony Munoz at left tackle here from 1990-92, he went on to start for some of the 49ers' playoff teams.

"Like I've said all along, even though I made it, a guy in my position is still day-to-day. Maybe in five years, but not until then," Szalay said.

Szalay, who signed a three-year deal with the Bengals after about 22 teams called him following the draft, started every game at left guard for the 15-1 NCAA Division I-AA Grizzlies' offense that averaged 419 yards and 34 points per game.


HAPPY LANDINGS:** The Bengals are happy with their young corners on the practice squad and are probably going to promote them first if they need help this season at that spot, which is a reason they cut veterans Rodney Heath and Robert Bean. But if they were hoping they could recall either for insurance, it doesn't look like it's going to happen. Both were claimed off waivers Monday by opponents the Bengals play back-to-back in December when the Panthers picked up Heath and the Jaguars tapped Bean.

David Levine, Heath's agent, said Monday night that his client is jetting to Carolina in time for a Tuesday 6 a.m. meeting with the coaches. That has all the indications that Heath is probably playing in the nickel package for the NFL's last-ranked defense in 2001. The Panthers were the worst against the run and fourth worst against the pass.

It also means Heath is going to be on the Opening Day roster, which means the Panthers have to pay his $660,000 salary. It was a mild surprise a team picked up Heath at his Bengals' salary instead of waiting to sign him for the minimum as a free agent. But Levine said after the Panthers watched tape from the preseason that they were impressed with his coverage skills.

Bean went to Jacksonville the day after the Jaguars released another former Bengal, wide receiver Darnay Scott.

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