Rushing to start

10-17-01, 2:20 p.m.

Updated: 10-18-01, 4:00 a.m

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Current No. 1 pick Justin Smith gets his first NFL start and former No. 1 pick Reinard Wilson isn't surprised or upset that it won't be him starting at right end against the Bears Sunday.

Wilson figures Smith already is ahead of him by a small margin in total snaps, anyway. And they've been playing in the pass-rush package together.

"He's doing pretty well and we're winning," said Wilson, who has started all five games. "They're rolling (linemen) through, so even if you don't start, you're playing a lot snaps. I think that's one of the reasons the rush has been good."

Smith (two sacks) and Wilson (1.5) have nearly a quarter of the club's 13 sacks, which is already half last season's total. They are running ahead of last year's

pass package, in ends Steve Foley and Adrian Ross, but those guys are also getting snaps in the so-called nickel situations.

"We've got more depth there this year," said defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. "We've got more rush guys and guys are staying fresh."

The one big question on the 270-pound Smith was

how he would hold up against the run. Duffner hasn't seen any cracks.

"He's been getting better each week," Duffner said. "He's playing real good football. He's an all-out effort guy with good strength, and he's holding his own. Reinard's playing OK, too."

Wilson, a 1997 first-round pick, probably hasn't seen this many pass-rush chances in his first four years combined.

"This year, we're not down by 15 to 20 points late in the game and just trying to stop the run," Wilson said. "The other team has had to pass because we've had the lead or it's been close and that makes a big difference."

Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson heard about Smith's start and he offered his 315-pound smile.

"If there's one kid on the field who'll be ready, it's him," Gibson said before Wednesday's practice. "His enthusiasm is refreshing. He's like a college kid. He'll say, 'Come on O.G., let's get 'em.' I'm thinking, 'OK, Justin. Just get to the quarterback.'"

Which is what he did Sunday against the Browns in one of the biggest plays of the Bengals' 24-14 victory. With Cincinnati leading, 21-7, early in the fourth quarter and Cleveland nearing the red zone, Smith dumped quarterback Tim Couch for a 12-yard loss for his second sack of the year. And he would have had another if left tackle Roman Oben didn't hold him one player later.

"He had a big, big play against Cleveland for us and I think he's merited that," said Bengals coach Dick LeBeau, who still plans to use Wilson at right end at times. "Reinard's playing good football. Together they give us quickness and aggressiveness and speed on the outside. We like that combination."

Smith took his promotion like everything else in his pro career, starting from the NFL draft as the fourth pick in the country, to his 50-day holdout, to his first NFL sack in San Diego three weeks ago:

In stride.

"It's kind of the next step," Smith said. "I feel the way I was drafted, I have to earn it first, then go in and start, and make an impact. That 's my whole thing. Just coming in and helping them out making an impact. I'm not pleased with (his progress). I'm holding my own pretty good, but I expect a lot out of myself."

So do the Bengals, who agreed with Smith on a contract that escalates according to playing time and sacks. The club was Smith show up more often last Sunday than the Browns' No. 1 draft choice, defensive tackle Gerard Warren, the player picked ahead of Smith whom they also feel will be a top player.

What appears to be separating Smith is his speed around the edge, which seems to have softened the lack of a first training camp.

"The speed of the game is a lot different than college," Smith said. "I was one of the fastest guys in college. Now it's like I'm in the right place. It's totally different.

"In college, you have one or two guys in a game like that," Smith said. "Now everybody moves like that. If you move like that, you'll be fine. But if you can't, then when you come into the (NFL), that's when you get crushed."

NO TV SUNDAY: Despite a busy week of selling tickets, the Bengals didn't sell out Sunday's game against the Bears at Paul Brown Stadium in time Thursday to prevent a local television blackout.

But the game against the Bears still has a chance at being the first back-to-back sellout in PBS history by Sunday's 1 p.m. kickoff.

Tickets are available at $35, $40, and $45 each, and can be obtained by calling the Bengals at 513-621-8383, visiting bengals.com, or visiting the TicketMaster web site at ticketmaster.com.

Tickets also can be bought in person at the Bengals Ticket Office near Gate E at Paul Brown Stadium, or at any area TicketMaster outlet.

NAME DROPPER: Just call new Bengals cornerback Ligarius Jennings, "Bo." Apparently he prefers to go by that name rather than his first name, which he says his father gave him because he played the character in a high school play. Ligarius is one of the conspirators in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

Thankfully, his father was also a football fan and liked watching a Michigan team coached by a guy named Bo. Plus, Bo Jackson is from near Jennings' hometown in Alabama.

THIS AND THAT: After cornerback Rodney Heath met with Dr. Bill Garrett, one of the nation's leading hamstring specialists, it was determined Heath would undergo surgery for his torn hamstring. . .

Ts Willie Anderson and Richmond Webb took off Wednesday's practice to rest general soreness. . .So did WR Peter Warrick, TE Marco Battaglia, DE Vaughn Booker. Most or all are expected back Thursday. . .

OLB Takeo Spikes is also expected back at practice Thursday after his father's funeral in Sandersville, Ga., Tuesday. MLB Brian Simmons, OLB Adrian Ross and DE Reinard Wilson represented the team.

MARKET ON CORNERS: The Bengals go into Sunday's game against the Bears light at cornerback after losing starting left corner Rodney Heath (hamstring) for the year.

Remember when the Bengals nearly nabbed current

Bears' starter Walt Harris? Harris, who turned down a four-year deal from the Bengals after his visit this offseason, signed a one-year deal with his old team for $900,000

"It ended up being very important to us," said Bears coach Dick Jauron of the move. "We needed experience at the position and as it came to pass, it allowed us to make some moves that strengthened us as camp went on. Walt's been a very consistent player for us."

The Bears were able to let go Thomas Smith after he had no interceptions in his first year with the club, and go with Harris, R.W. McQuarters, and Jerry Azumah.

"They gave us three corners that we thought could compete for us," Jauron said.

The additions along the Bears' defensive line in free agents Ted Washington and Keith Traylor, as well as the emergence of third-year linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, have revived Harris' career even though he doesn't have any interceptions. A first-round pick in '96, he's been around the longest with this team when it comes to defensive starters.

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