Receivers open in bunch formation as T.J. starts

Updated: 1:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If you think the kicking competition is still at full boil with Opening Day less than a week away, check out the Bengals' scrum at wide receiver.

In the preseason, Ron Dugans had the most yards (166), Chad Johnson the most catches (15), and T.J. Houshmandzadeh the most big plays (14.9 yards per catch), and Danny Farmer and Peter Warrick each caught a touchdown pass.

Now with Michael Westbrook's career 15.5 yards per catch available to the club for the first time on only a limited basis, it looks like the Bengals plan to attack the early season with a committee of six chaired by a rotation until the wideouts begin to separate themselves. On Friday, head coach Dick LeBeau tapped Houshmandzadeh to start at split end and Warrick at flanker, but that is mainly ceremonial in a lineup all are to play.

"We literally have packages in which all six guys are starters," said receivers coach Steve Mooshagian.

Farmer, who has had such a good spring and summer that he could have caught hell in church, probably summed it up best.

"Someone is going to be unhappy. I don't know who it's going to be," said Farmer, who along with Houshmandzadeh and Dugans is gaining favor among management and head coach Dick LeBeau.

"All of us want to be on the field and that's a good thing. I think we've all earned the chance to be out there," Farmer said. "We all have qualities that should put us on the field."

And, at least for Sunday's opener against visiting San Diego, it looks like they will all be out there at some point.

LeBeau recalled Monday how the Bengals threw for 751 yards in the last two victories of 2001.

"When we had our most productive games, we were playing them all," LeBeau said. "I can see that being a possibility. So far, they're all doing OK and that's a good thing. In those last two games, we were rolling them through and they were all fresh and all producing."

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has passed the word. He's got an idea who they are, but he's still waiting for his big-play people to surface consistently.

"There isn't a significance to who is starting, and there probably won't be until the third or fourth week," Bratkowski said after Monday's practice. "We'll rotate through. As the regular season develops and unfolds, the people who consistently make big plays and the guys who hold themselves accountable and are in the places where they should be are going to be the guys who stay on the field."

Which has to be music to the ears of grinders like Houshmandzadeh, Farmer, and Dugans. The last few years, they have quietly made plays and still sat behind big-money players, and high-round draft picks.

Houshmandzadeh, recognized for his brilliant training camp, has had the nod to start in place of Westbrook since the veteran broke his left wrist the third day of camp. It's Houshmandzadeh seemed a bit surprised at how much action he continues to get and wonderered if things would change Wednesday, officially the first day of preparation for the Chargers after Tuesday's day off. Not much did.

"When (Westbrook) comes back, my reps are probably going to get a little lower and Danny's because we all play the same (split end) position," Houshmandzadeh said.

But the Bengals have been delighted with Houshmandzadeh, and they don't want to rush Westbrook physically or mentally in his first year in the system. It looks like they could stick with Houshmandzadeh to start the game and ease in Westbrook.

"We're going to see how things are going to go this week in practice and we're going to make a determination later in the week on Michael," Bratkowski said. "We'll see how he reacts to things that we're trying to do."

Westbrook has said he is at his best when he's getting most of the snaps and thinks he would be able to play a full game by the season's third week. He figures he can take about 50-60 snaps in the opener, but he also says he understands what the Bengals are trying to do. He probably won't get that many just because he has yet to play in a game.

"However they think I can help the team the best," said Westbrook, who plans to wear only a small, light cast to keep his wrist straight. "I'm just trying to get a lot of yards out there with big plays. I know I'll be able to catch. If you see me drop one, write it down because it will be a big surprise."

The Bengals love the way Westbrook has responded to his new surroundings. After hustling to get back on the practice field in less than three weeks after the break, Westbrook has constantly been in Mooshagian's office watching tape at 8:30 a.m. or so before the 9 a.m. team meeting.

"If that's the way it's going to be, the guys who make the plays are going to play, I couldn't be happier," Houshmandzadeh said. "Just give me opportunities and I'll make plays."

It sounds like everyone is going to get a shot, although it depends how often they plan to go four wides. In four wides, Warrick and Dugans can be in the slot, or the three-wide set could have Johnson, Houshmandzadeh and Warrick, or Westbrook, Dugans, and Farmer. Take your pick in the situation of the game.

"We're not like most teams, where the backups are just like the starters because they do the same things," Johnson said. "We're all different and we do what we do well. All of us are above average."

Even the unheralded trio of Houshmandzadeh, Farmer, and Dugans. Between the two of them in a month of training camp, Farmer and Dugans reportedly dropped two "catchable," balls. The biggest obstacle for the three have been nagging injuries, but they are poised and healthy for this opener.

"I'm just waiting to see what happens," Westbrook said, "I think the other five receivers and the coaches are doing that, too."

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