Rookie receivers step up

8-30-03, 2:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ It was fitting that the Bengals' two money men Friday night were named Washington and Hamilton. Both rookie receivers, but they fit the bill for an offense rolling up 504 yards.

You know Washington, as in Kelley, the Bengals' third-round draft pick who is looking less risky every game. You may not know Hamilton, as in Lawrence, a waiver-wire pickup from the Cardinals 10 days into training camp that started impressing the moment he arrived.

But not everyone is sure who is who after quarterbacks Shane Matthews and Carson Palmer combined to rain 360 passing yards on the Colts in a typical pre-season finale clustered in a hodgepodge of players and numbers.

Washington caught his first NFL touchdown on a 52-yard bomb from Matthews early in the second quarter that gave the Bengals a 14-7 lead, and then Hamilton took a flip slant pass from Palmer and bolted 68 yards that put them in position to win with less than eight minutes left in the game until the ensuing two-point conversion failed.

Washington has the roster made as the speed receiver opposite Chad Johnson in the near future. Hamilton's future is much more murky. But in head coach Marvin Lewis' continuing effort to pressure the last few players at each position, he has certainly entered the mix with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Danny Farmer.

"Shane threw me a nice pass and I just took off," said Hamilton, who then had to be told it was Palmer who hit him. Hamilton finished with 121 yards on four catches, including a pair of 21-yarders from Matthews.

"Is that who that was? I wasn't sure," said Matthews, the best quarterback on a field with overall No. 1 draft picks Palmer and Peyton Manning and Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna.

That's the way it goes when both coaches empty their benches in the last game before the regular season to protect their starters and find out about the bottom of their roster one last time.

"I'll tell you, he really turned on the jets on that ball from Carson," Matthews said of Hamilton. "I haven't seen run like that since he got here."

Hamilton, out of Stephen F. Austin, got here Aug. 6 walking on the waiver wire, just three days

after Washington. Washington staged the longest holdout of training camp (a week), but he is rapidly putting that behind him as his 99 yards on six catches attest.

"He's a big, fast guy. A good target. I really think he's going to help us," Matthews said.

It's the second time Washington has raised eyebrows this month. The first came on the eve of the pre-season opener, when he suddenly left the team to get a second medical opinion on his surgically repaired neck and missed the Jets game. The two fused vertebrae in his neck were the major reasons he didn't go in the first round and was there for the asking with the first pick in the third round.

But he has been impressive since he got cleared by his surgeon. The 6-3, 215-pound Washington is strong enough to be a possession receiver, but his speed certainly raised the other eyebrow with the destruction it wrought on Colts cornerback Clifton Crosby.

Matthews found Washington working the coverage for a 12-yard gain and then on the next throw, Washington jerked Crosby on a stutter step, flew past him as Crosby fell down, and got behind him for an easy 52-yard touchdown catch down the right sideline.

"I gave him a double move and I guess that made him fall down," Washington said. "I knew when the play was called in the huddle that I was going to be able to make the kind of play that I think I can help this team with. It's something you always dream about. Scoring a touchdown in the NFL and then being able to dance a little bit."

Washington played at Tennessee with a relentless confidence that some of his teammates in Knoxville apparently took to be arrogance. He flashed that confidence briefly with a dance he admitted was more like a strut, but he was sincere about it and genuinely thrilled with his first pro touchdown catch.

"Not really," said Washington when asked if he choreographed the dance after any he had already seen on TV. "I wanted to do one of my own. It really wasn't a dance, just a little strut."

The 6-3, 204-pound Hamilton has been playing with a strut ever since he arrived and the Bengals, looking for more speed, blocking and special teams aptitude from their second-line receivers, have noticed.

Whether he has done enough to move out Houshmandzadeh or Farmer, or make them go with six receivers is one of the big questions of Sunday's Cutdown Day.

"I'm just looking for a job," Hamilton said. "I know when I get a chance to do something, I've got to do it."

Hamilton's touchdown was out of the Darnay Scott scrapbook. A five-yard route and a 63-yard run, showing the kind of speed Lewis covets on offense and defense.

"There was some room throwing to spots, and in front of guys," Hamilton said. "Carson gave me a great throw in front of me and I was just able to get a running start."

Washington has been hearing the coaches preaching it, and he knows what he has to work on. It was pretty obvious when they were unable to convert on fourth-and-one when running back Ray Jackson got stuffed on the right side at the Colts 35 in the third quarter. One of the sights was Washington standing up, unable to get a piece of anybody.

"I've got to work on my blocking," Washington said. "I want to be an all-around receiver and I have to work on the running game. I don't want to be able to let guys in on my side."

Of course, that's not why they drafted him. They drafted him to go 52 yards in a hurry. With Hamilton, he'll have to wait until Sunday and Monday to find out if and what he's going to do here."

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