BY GEOFF HOBSON
Welcome to Bengals-Steelers, a cozy little backyard rivalry where everyone knows everybody in this last Cincinnati block party ever in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium.
Perhaps a little too well when it comes to Steelers cornerback Dewayne Washington. He managed to wake up the neighborhood earlier this week with his, "We will destroy Cincinnati," comments.
"We've been talking about Mr. Washington," said Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes.
If the Bengals have a bone to pick with Washington, then their new coach, Dick LeBeau, would love to show his old boss and current Steelers coach Bill Cowher there is life after The Jaw.
Then Steelers nose tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen would love to show the man who beat him out in Cincinnati and the Bengals that he's worthy. But then again, Bengals nose tackle Oliver Gibson would love to show the Steeler brass that drafted him that he's better than what they have now.
And then there's the Bengals' offense, which had a bone to pick with itself Friday. Right tackle Willie Anderson called the NFL's lowest-rated offense together for some brief words on the field.
"What we can control is scoring points and we haven't been doing that," said quarterback Akili Smith, resolving to lift his league-low 44-percent completion rate.
"Our people have been honest about it," Smith said. "Everybody has an idea of what could help. But we have to do it we have to score points."
Anderson wouldn't divulge contents of the session, but there's no secret the key to this Interstate 70 match probably belongs to his defense. Simply because the key is in the ignition of "The Bus." Running back Jerome Bettis is a Greyhound again and no longer just a Metro. . . .
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After two seasons in which he scored just 10 touchdowns and averaged less than four yards per carry, the 260-pound Bettis is smashing again. In the last four games, Bettis is averaging 4.3 yards per pop and has five touchdowns.
Gibson, Bettis' teammate at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, recognizes him.
"He's looking as good as I've ever seen him," Gibson said. "His ability to hit the hole fast and keep moving and his ability to shake and move. I think a lot of big running backs have a tendency to go straight forward if it's not going to be there. But he's cutting and juking on (defensive backs), so evidently he's feeling pretty good.
"From a health aspect, he's got a lot of spring in his step. His contract is up and there's a pretty good rivalry between him and (running back) Ricky Huntley. Jerome had to show them he's the top dog in the yard."
During the last three weeks, the Bengals have let the dogs out to the tune of allowing an average of 179 yards rushing to Baltimore, Miami and Tennessee.
In two of those games, the defense played at least 38:34. And it doesn't help that they will be without defensive end Vaughn Booker (knee) for the fourth straight game, while many of their other defensive linemen have been playing hurt since the beginning of the season.
"We're playing a lot football defensively," Gibson said. "There's no secret the better offense you have, the better running defense you have."
LeBeau had one of the finest defenses of all-time when he coordinated the Steelers' Super Bowl XXX group during the 1995 season. But he's never publicly delved into the reasons why he split with Cowher after the 1996 season and returned to Cincinnati.
There were rumors the assertive Cowher never gave LeBeau his due, but they have been all smiles this week in doling out Hallmark Card greetings.
"You never always see eye-to-eye with the head man. There's always going to be some differences," said Bengals backup tackle John Jackson, the Steelers' Super Bowl left tackle.
"You just have to deal with it," Jackson said. "I don't know what happened. Cowher likes it his way and if you have a difference of opinion, then you won't be there."
Even though LeBeau's not saying anything, the Bengals know he would dearly love to get his first head coaching win in Pittsburgh. "Every game is a big game for Coach right now," Gibson said. "It's the same way if you come from an organization where things may not have gone your way and I'm speaking for myself mostly. You take a little something into it.
"It's a matter of pride and your profession. There's a little something added to it. I'm playing in front of my old coaches and teammates. I'm calling out their names on film and they're calling out my name."
But Gibson knows LeBeau won't call out anybody on the Pittsburgh side: "He's the consummate pro and that's not what professionals do."
The Bengals would like their offense to join the professional ranks. Points have been harder to come by for them than a kind editorial. They have just 37 in five games and only three offensive touchdowns.
Smith's inaccuracy has alarmed the club, but he's confident his mechanics are fine. And he's energized playing a team he knows so well. At least knowing the scheme so well, because the Steelers still play LeBeau's zone blitz.
"I can't telll you why I've been missing them," Smith said. "I think it's a mental thing and not mechanical. I just have to go out there and hit my receivers.
"I feel better because I feel like I'll at least know where these guys are going to be," Smith said. "This is the defense we faced for a month down at Georgetown (College in training camp)."
The fact everybody knows everybody spices it up for, well, everybody.
"I don't want to have a good game," Gibson said. "I plan to have a good game."