Orange vs. Gold

10-5-01, 5:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Oliver Gibson loved what head coach Dick LeBeau called Bengals-Steelers as Cincinnati began preparations for Sunday's game on Wednesday morning.

"An intrasquad scrimmage with different color jerseys," Gibson said. "I know what (Steelers coach Bill) Cowher's pre-game speech is going to be. It's similar to Coach LeBeau, except maybe a little more dramatic:

"Take away the run. Establish who we are. It's our field, our house. They think they can come in and beat us and why do they think they can? Because they have come in and beat us."

So how fitting is it that the heart of the Bengals' run defense is a former Steelers backup nose tackle named Oliver Gibson?

In the 26 games before the Bengals switched to a 4-3 defense and put Gibson in the middle of it, the Bengals gave up 15 100-yard rushing games. In the 25 games since, they have allowed seven.

But the seventh came last week in ugly fashion against the Chargers, when rookie running back LaDainian Tomlinson rung up 80 yards in 12:25 of the third quarter on the way to 107 yards on 21 carries.

Not exactly the best tuneup for the Steelers' second-best rush offense in the NFL. Gibson knows he can't let his good friend, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, get his ninth career 100-yard day against the Bengals if Cincinnati wants a good shot at going 3-1.

"He'll get that strut going if he does because that means he just got a couple of yards," Gibson said. "I don't mind that because it makes the game fun. But I just don't want him getting the yards."

This is more like an intrasquad scrimmage played in a house of mirrors. The Steelers are 1-1 much like the Bengals are 2-1.

They are living on the running game (Pittsburgh is second, Cincinnati 11th in the NFL) and defense (fourth and 13th, respectively) while

waiting for the passing game (29th and 28th) to make some plays.

And like the Bengals in last week's loss in San Diego, the Steelers turned the ball over four times in their Opening Day loss to Jacksonville.

And the teams have more in-laws than the Kennedys.

LeBeau was Cowher's defensive coordinator when

Pittsburgh went to the Super Bowl after the 1995 season. Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski coached the Steelers' receivers the past two seasons. Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis broke in as a secondary coach under LeBeau. Bratkowski and Bengals receivers coach Steve Mooshagian coached with Steelers secondary coach Willy Robinson with the Seahawks and Fresno State, respectively. Steelers strong safety Myron Bell, a former Bengal who got his one start in '98 against Pittsburgh, starts Sunday against the Bengals because of Lee Flowers' injury. Another former Bengal, Kimo von Oelhoffen, is expected to start at defensive end.

And then there is Gibson, the former Steelers reserve now a $3 million per year mainstay for the Bengals.

He has remained close friends with Bettis since his visit to Notre Dame as a high school senior and Gibson met "a fat linebacker with 'All World,' written on the back of his jacket. When we started out, he was No. 1 at linebacker and I was No. 2, or I was No. 1 and he was No. 2."

Gibson is also friends with Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart, but he hasn't forgotten some of their conversations.

"Kordell would say, 'Oliver, you'll never leave here,'" Gibson said. "I said, 'I can start in the NFL,' and he said, 'You love it here,' and I said, 'As a second-teamer? No way.'"

"I kind of didn't appreciate that," Gibson said, "because I think he may have been falling into what the team thought: 'You're just a good backup player.'"

Now Gibson wants to remind his friend how good he is, although he realizes both Stewart and Bettis have a jump on him in their NFL accomplishments.

"I like getting after Kordell because I know how he gets," Gibson said. "He wants to be a big playmaker and he's capable of being it. If you keep hammering him and hitting him, he'll have a tendency to start throwing the ball all over the place. He's proven to be a talented player and you can't give him room."

But the game's biggest matchup is Bettis and his eight career 100-yard games against the Bengals. After watching tape of the 5-10, 221-pound Tomlinson join Fred Taylor and Jamal Lewis as the only players to rush for 100 against the Bengals in the last 13 games, Gibson remained upbeat.

"They gouged us good, but it was just in one quarter," Gibson said. "I don't think we've really fallen that far off the track. The Chargers caught us off balance. They knew we over pursued too hard. They started cutting back. This week, I would think they want to do the same thing. We're probably going to see more of the little guy because he's a little like Tomlinson."

"The little guy," is the 5-8, 210-pound Amos Zereoue, the third-year player who is averaging 7.5 yards on his 13 carries in spelling Bettis. Gibson compares Zereoue's speed and quickness to the abilities of Bengals backup running back Curtis Keaton. After Tomlinson fried the Bengals with his speed to the corner, the East-West Zereoue is another worry to go along with the North-South Bettis and his 255 punishing pounds.

"Jerome is a cut-back runner, too," Gibson said. "We have to cut off the cut-back lanes. We just can't sit there and watch them. The key to stopping Jerome is getting him stopped before he gets started. We have to penetrate in the backfield. We've got to disrupt him because you don't want him rolling down hill."

Bettis, who has been bothered by sore knees in the past, is as healthy as he's been the past couple of seasons. He battered the Bills for 114 yards on 22 carries in last week's 20-3 win on the road and is 54 yards from 10,000 career yards.

"We don't talk much during the season, but I'll see him before the game," Gibson said. "We've got a quiet competition going. Then we'll get together in the offseason. I know his family almost as well as my own. I think that's why all three of us are friends. We all want to be one of the best at what we do."

There are no illusions in an intrasquad scrimmage. And Gibson has no illusions which team will be the best in this one Sunday.

"You have to stop the run to have a chance," Gibson said. "It's the only way."

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