Separation anxiety

8-07-01, 12:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ If the Bengals' pre-season opener was supposed to provide some separation in their roster fights, the cracks are invisible.

Quarterbacks?

Akili Smith used his legs in Chicago to tighten a race that is looking more and more like a preseason-long marathon instead of a camp sprint won by Jon Kitna.

Wide receivers?

Some of the guys who were supposed to be out of this one, such as Damon Griffin and Malcolm Johnson, have made some of the biggest plays.

Defensive line?

Jevon Langford is treating this camp like a 15-pound heavyweight fight and Glen Steele and Reinard Wilson aren't backing into a corner. And Kevin Henry comes off the canvas Tuesday.

With a bye week on tap after Friday's second pre-season game in Detroit, suffice to say the Lions' game is huge as head coach Dick LeBeau starts looking at dress rehearsals in the coming weeks for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener.

Here is just one man's analysis where the roster stands, keeping in mind that injuries and moves at other positions impact the final sheet.

The number of players next to the position is how many the Bengals might keep at that spot depending on injuries and performance during the next 26 days.

The number next to the player denotes how many years in the NFL.

QUARTERBACKS (3)

Locks: Jon Kitna (5), Scott Mitchell (12), Akili Smith (3); Unlock: Scott Covington (3).

Smith is suddenly back in the game with suddenly decisive play. How huge is Friday for him? If he can put together back-to-back solid outings, it should help his confidence that had been shattered last year by inconsistency.

If he runs like McNair in the running game instead of throwing like McNabb in the passing game, does he still win the job? **

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)

Locks:Chad Johnson (R), Darnay Scott (8), Peter Warrick (2); *Virtual lock: TJ. Houshmandzadeh (R); *Next tier:* RonDugans (2), Danny Farmer (2); Fashing: Chad lummer (2), Damon Griffin (3); Malcolm Johnson (3);Grinding: Craig east (3); Pracice squad material: Ramondo North (R).

The receiver-back debate may come down to who is the best

special teams player for the 10th and last spot.

What more can the 5-9, 185-pound Griffin do? He made a leaping catch in the scrimmage and had a 39-yard kickoff return against the Bears. What he probably has to do is grow three inches, which is why he's still on the bubble.

Houshmandzadeh barely played in Chicago as they kept an eye on his tender hamstring. He should get more of a shot Friday and may return some punts. Farmer may not be a special teams factor, but the Bengals' brass loves the way he rarely drops a ball.

By the way, has any recent Bengals' high-round draft pick had a more impressive debut than Chad Johnson's four catches for 62 yards in Chicago?

Now, now. Alfred Williams' 2.5 sacks in Milwaukee 10 years ago is too old to count.

**RUNNING BACKS (5)

Lock:RB Corey Dillon (5);Virtual lock:* F Lorenzo Neal (9); *Grinding:* RB Brandon Bennett (3), RB Rudi Johnson (R); RB Curtis Keaton (2), RB Michael Basnight (3), FB Clif Groce (5).

It would be pretty tough to cut a veteran like Bennett in favor of two inexperienced guys like Keaton and Johnson. But can you imagine cutting Keaton or Johnson at this point?

Keaton gives them big-time speed and Johnson has been a walking first-down marker everywhere he's been. Which is why they may end up keeping five running backs and five receivers instead of four backs and six receivers.

And is it too early to count out Basnight, who just gains yards? He's a big back and it would have helped his cause if he converted a 3rd-and-1 in Chicago instead of getting dropped for a loss. But he's still very much in the mix.

**TIGHT ENDS: (4)

Locks:Tony McGee (9), Sean Brewer (R), Brad St, Louis (2), Marco Battaglia (6);Practice squad material:** Kirk McMullen (1)

The Bengals are sucking wind here. Battaglia (knee) won't be back until the Aug. 25 home opener and Brewer (hamstring) is doubtful for Friday. Brewer's progress has been slowed by the injury, which gives them one more reason to keep Battaglia besides the fact the offense fits him. He gives them the experience Brewer doesn't have yet if they need a run blocker at fullback in a pinch.

**OFFENSIVE LINE (10):

Locks:T Willie Anderson (6), T Richmond Webb (12), G Matt O'Dwyer (7), G Mike Goff (4), C Rich Braham (8), T John Jackson (14), T Jamain Stephens (6), G-C Victor Leyva (R).Virtual lock:* CG Brock Gutierrez (5); *Looking good:* G Sott Rehberg (5); Ginding: C Rogr Roesler (1); T Mike Doughty (2). Injred: T Freddie Moore (R).

There had been some early concern about Webb, but the seven-time Pro Bowler methodically put them to rest as soon as camp started and played well enough Saturday to bury them for good. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander, who was never one of the ones concerned, said Webb has made great strides in picking up a unique Bengals' running scheme.

But like everyone else, Alexander wasn't pleased with the quarterback pressure the Bears got on third down with a package of stunts.

"They beat us by a week in our installation," Alexander said. "During the season, those are the kind of stunts we pick up in our sleep. But just because you blocked it last year, doesn't mean you'll do it this year unless you practice it and drill it and that's what happens this week."

**DEFENSIVE LINE (8)

Locks:T Oliver Gibson (7), T Tony Williams (5), T Tom Barndt (6), E Justin Smith (R), E Vaughn Booker (8), E John Copeland (9), E-T Bernard Whittington (8);On the bubble:** E-T Glen Steele (4), E Reinard Wilson (5), E Jevon Langford (6) T-E Kevin Henry (9), T Jeff Boyle (R).

Move Whittington up a notch with solid play in the scrimmage and the opener. So it looks like four veterans left for the last spot and three of them (Steele, Wilson, Langford) flashed Saturday night. The other, Henry, is expected to practice Tuesday for the first time since camp started after having arthroscopic elbow surgery three weeks ago.

Steele is highly regarded by the coaches, but isn't known as a pass rusher on the edge. Wilson and Langford have been active getting to the quarterback, so the decision may come down to how soon they can get their pass-rushing rookie end in Smith signed. Don't mark anything in pen at this spot.

Anything.

**LINEBACKERS (7)

Locks:Steve Foley (4), Brian Simmons (4), Takeo Spikes (4), Adrian Ross (4), Armegis Spearman (2), Canute Curtis (5);Near lock:* Rall Johnson (R); *Practice squad material:* Chris Edmonds (R), Rashad Harris (R), Kamal Shakir (R).

Simmons seems to have rebounded nicely from last year's knee surgery and Ross may have been Saturday's most active backer. The only competition here is to see whom the Bengals can reach a contract extension with first. Foley or Ross?

**SECONDARY (9)

Locks:CB Artrell Hawkins (4), CB Rodney Heath (3), CB Tom Carter (9), CB Robert Bean (2); SS Cory Hall (3), SS Tremain Mack (5), FS Chris Carter (5), Darryl Williams (10); *Looking good: C Mark Roman (2); *Grinding:* CB Carlton Gray (9), SS JoJuan Armour (3), CB Kenny Bryant (R), S Jared Lee (R).

This is a spot where they could still very well go with 10 DBs and six of them cornerbacks.

The cornerbacks were barely tested Saturday as the Bears were content to play it close to the vest with swing passes all night. There will be more of a test with Johnnie Morton, Germane Crowell and Grambling rookie Scotty Anderson running routes for the Lions in Pontiac.

Roman, who led the team in tackles against the Bears, is playing like a safety in impressing people with his physical play.

The safety quartet of Hall, Carter, Williams and Mack has been solid. If Armour is to find a spot, he has to show them he has rid himself of his free-wheeling ways and play within the system.

**KICKER (1)

Still Battle Royale:** Neil Rackers (2), Richie Cunningham (4).

The Bengals say Rackers was 2-for-2 in Chicago because they count the 52-yarder that got waved off by penalty. They also consider Cunningham 2-for-2, because besides his 30-yard field goal he hit the tying extra point with 1:53 left in regulation. Cunningham was barely longer on kickoffs against the Bears, but there's not much to choose yet.

**PUNTER (1)

Still Battle Royale II:** Daniel Pope (3), Will Brice (3).

If last week was a dead heat, this week it's a deader heat.

While Pope had a quicker get-off time in Chicago, Brice was longer and higher. Then it was the exact opposite in Monday's practice. They are trying to decide if they will let Brice back into the kick-off competition.

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