Offense taken

8-12-02, 9:30 a.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ In honor of the best offensive show in a pre-season opener since Willie Anderson was a rookie and Bob Dole and Jack Kemp got sacked, this week's one-man glance at the Bengals' roster starts with the offense.

The picture is still muddied at some spots, such as defensive backs and tight ends, so it's still uncertain how many players they will keep at each spot. The starters on the depth chart are listed first. **

QUARTERBACKS: Jon Kitna**

The Way We Were: Akili Smith

Game 2 starter: Gus Frerotte

Iced: Scott Covington.

Despite leading the Bengals to the winning points Friday night, Smith still looks to be running third. But not as distantly as before his six-yard bolt to tight end Sean Brewer sliced through a maze of hands for a touchdown against the Bills.

"It's the best he's looked since he's been here and you can probably say the same thing about Jon," said Jim Lippincott, the club's director of football operations. "And I think you can say Gus is now past the learning-the-system phase. All of them played well and that was encouraging."

All of them showed why they're here. Kitna's knowledge of the system delivered four straight third-down conversions on the way to a score. Frerotte's arm strength produced big plays late in the first half to get the Bengals close, and Smith'athleticism kept the Bills' reserve defense off guard.

Covington has to be talking to himself. He knows he probably isn't going to make it, but he also didn't get any snaps Friday night to showcase himself. Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau wanted to stick with Smith in the second half because he was playing well, and he thought it was important to win the opener. **

RUNNING BACKS: RB Corey Dillon, FB Lorenzo Neal.**

Top backups: RB Brandon Bennett, FB Nick Williams.

Battle royale: Rudi Johnson, RB Curtis Keaton.

Rookies: FB Jason Murray, FB Harold Jackson.

The conventional wisdom is that Johnson and Keaton are fighting for the last spot, but can you afford to get rid of both? Johnson ripped off 100 yards in 14 carries Friday night in the north-south style that makes him so

attractive as the one back besides Dillon who can pound you 25 times on Sunday.

"If you go back and run the tape over, it was even more impressive because you saw what a good contact runner he is," Lippincott said.

But Keaton got 52 yards on 15 carries with his perimeter speed that no one else on the team has.

"They both give you something rare," said Duke Tobin, director of player personnel. "When Curtis gets to the outside, he's very hard to match up with speed-wise."

It's doubtful they would unload Bennett. He is 29, but he's also the most versatile and productive guy on the bench. Johnson's advantage over Keaton is probably his ability to get four yards per shot.

By the way, Williams did a terrific job blocking and was a major reason Johnson got his 100.

Tight ends: Sean Brewer

Debut on deck: Matt Schobel.

Grinding for No. 3: Kirk McMullen, Brad St. Louis, Chris Edmonds.

Brewer and Schobel have to make it and they finally get a look at Schobel Saturday after he missed the scrimmage and the opener with a rib-cage injury. They're breathing easier about Brewer after his three-catch debut (Tony McGee only had more once last year when he had four catches against the Titans) , but his blocking has to improve.

Do they keep three or four? The presence of Williams as an H-Back would indicate three. St. Louis' long snaps are still the quickest in camp, but every time you look around, Edmonds does something impressive that a converted linebacker shouldn't be catching or blocking. **

OFFENSIVE LINE: C Rich Braham, LG Matt O'Dwyer, RG Mike Goff, LT Richmond Webb, RT Willie Anderson.**

Lock rookie: LT Levi Jones.

Locked up?: C Brock Gutierrez, G Scott Rehberg.

In the mix: G-T Victor Leyva, G-T Jamain Stephens.

Getting a look: G Thatcher Szalay.

Numbers game: C Ray Redziniak, T Justin Bland.

Do they keep 10 or 11? With Sunday's release of John Jackson, it appears the battle for backup right tackle comes down to Leyva and Stephens and Lippincott thinks, "both did some good things Friday," yet Stephens has to overcome his inconsistency and the second-year Leyva his inexperience.

Johnson's 100 yards bodes well for Rehberg and Gutierrez. Both signed contract extensions last week and then showed why the club wants them through 2004 because they always seem to produce when called. Plus, with Jackson's departure, Rehberg looks to be the No. 3 left tackle.

Jones had a typical mixed-bag rookie debut with two penalties wrapped in some good moments. Since he played 3.5 quarters (and one quarter with the first unit), it shows they're getting him ready as quickly as possible.

"He did a good job in the running game and that shows up in the stats," Tobin said. "There are things he's going to have to work on in pass protection."

He looks to be a bit overanxious at times on pass blocking and has found himself leaning too far out on the rusher and getting caught inside. **

WIDE RECEIVERS: Peter Warrick, T.J. Houshmandzadeh.**

Consistent camp: Ron Dugans,

Looking for consistency: Chad Johnson.

Back from injury: Danny Farmer.

Free-agent lock: Michael Westbrook.

Catching praise: Khori Ivy.

Rookies on the grind: Michael Slater, Chris Archie, Kwazeon Leverette, Darcey Levy.

The first six are the guys and they really could be hurting if Houshmandzadeh doesn't play Saturday (ankle) because Farmer (hamstring) is back practicing but won't play for another week and the earliest Westbrook (wrist) will be back is Aug. 30.

Warrick looked like a game breaker Friday night with four of his six catches coming on third down, but the regulars are still looking for a big play. The longest catch by a wideout against the Bills was Slater's 21-yarder. **

DEFENSIVE LINE: LE Vaughn Booker, DT Tony Williams, DT Oliver Gibson, RE Justin Smith, Reinard Wilson (pass rusher).**

Returning backups: T-Es Glen Steele and Bernard Whittington..

Key competition: E Eric Ogbogu, E Joey Evans, T Pernell Davis.

Long snapper: Randy Chevrier.

Do they keep eight or nine? Whittington and Steele are the defensive line's answer to Rehberg and Gutierrez. Put them in, and they show up. Steele, in particular, had a good outing Friday night.

But here's the dilemma. They still don't have a big, run-stuffing type in the middle to back up Gibson, which is why they signed the 330-pound Davis. He has looked good at times, but they would like to see more explosion and production when he gets in there. They also want to see more from the seventh-round pick, Evans. Ogbogu, who has missed the scrimmage and opener with a calf strain and is questionable for Saturday, was active and quick before he got hurt at backup left end.

Chevrier is viewed more as a long snapper than a contributor on the line. **

LINEBACKERS: LOLB Steve Foley, MLB Brian Simmons, ROLB Takeo Spikes.**

Returning backups: Adrian Ross, Armegis Spearman, Canute Curtis, Riall Johnson.

Rookies: Dwayne Levels, Tito Rodriguez.

They could keep seven, but the first six are clearly it in what may be the deepest linebacking corps in the NFL. They were reminded again when Curtis played so well for the injured Foley Friday and they will be reminded again when Ross plays for Spikes (pectoral muscle) Saturday. In fact, Simmons could be flanked by Curtis and Ross because Foley is questionable with a hip/groin injury.

"Canute really showed up," Lippincott said. "He's a versatile guy who can cover guys and he can rush."

For the first time in along time, Lippincott had a list of about eight or nine long of guys who played well on special teams. Levels showed up on that one.

SECONDARY: RCB Artrell Hawkins, LCB Jeff Burris, SS Cory Hall, FS Lamont Thompson.

Returning backups: CB Kevin Kaesviharn, CB Robert Bean, CB-S Mark Roman, CB Rodney Heath, CB Bo Jennings, SS JoJuan Armour.

Hot rookies: SS Marquand Manuel, FS Stephon Kelly, CB Reggie Myles, CB Tierre Sams.

Hot rookies like Myles and Sams just may have stepped up into the mix for the fifth and sixth corners Friday night against the returning backups who are searching for consistency, such as Bean and Heath.

They don't expect Kaesviharn to play as badly as he did Friday night, when he looked more like an Arena League export than the starting caliber corner they think he is. Also lending some uncertainty is that Hawkins hasn't dome much lately on his rehabbing PCL sprain. Roman looks to be the guy who can swing between corner and safety.

"Sams and Myles have stood out," Tobin said. "They can run and they've shown they've got the knack to make plays. Stephon Kelly is a guy you can't ignore, either."

Kelly made Lippincott's special teams list, as did Manuel, the third-team strong safety they are really counting on to be a factor.

Like Levi Jones, rookie free safety Lamont Thompson had bouts of inconsistency. The second rounder didn't get in the picture much.

"He's still thinking, like on the fast-flow plays," Lippincott said. "He's still at the stage where he's thinking and not reacting quite yet." **

KICKERS: K Neil Rackers, P Nick Harris.**

Looking for a spot: Travis Dorsch.

No one is giving the job back to Rackers yet, but if he kicks like he did Friday night, does he make it? He nailed his only field-goal try, a 34-yarder, and his kickoffs were solid. The hang time for one of them into the end zone was 3.8 seconds, which is a marked improvement for him.

Dorsch has been routinely logging hang times of at least four seconds, but on Friday night he missed one that only went to the Bills' 32. But since he hasn't tried a field goal in a game yet, you'd have to call it still even.

Rackers hasn't done anything to give the job away. Dorsch is confused about the club asking him not to punt anymore while he concentrates on field goals. Both will be picked up within 10 minutes if they are put on waivers. Stay tuned.

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