4-10-03, 5:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
This weekend's voluntary minicamp is where Brian Simmons feels the first powerful effects of the departure of Takeo Spikes, his friend and pro football soul mate.
Simmons is suddenly the unquestioned leader of his defense through years of service and production. And the move has allowed him to shift from middle linebacker to his natural position in Spikes' old spot on the right outside.
But this is the same old Simmons we have been watching for five seasons. They came together in the first round of 1998, but while Spikes was fire, Simmons remains ice and he won't change his frosty approach.
"I've never been a big holler guy and I'm not going to start now," said the always plain speaking Simmons earlier this week. "I like to think I lead by my actions. Plus, we went out and got some good players who have been to the Pro Bowl and the playoffs. It's not like we don't have capable guys."
The only B.S. in Simmons is his initials. He hasn't played on the outside since his All-American senior season at North Carolina, but ask him if he'll pull out those tapes for a refresher.
"I consider myself an outside linebacker. I know the outside is my better spot," Simmons said. "I feel like I played well in the middle, but I know I can play better on the outside. You either can do it, or you can't. I know I can do it."
The 6-3, 248-pound Simmons has always been one of the fastest players on the team and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is hoping to use his athleticism to exploit matchups against slower linemen and smaller running backs in the pass rush. Simmons set a Bengals' record for inside backers with 6.5 sacks in 2001, but, like everyone else, he slipped to three last season because the Bengals were rarely ahead.
"It's not even necessarily the number of attempts that you get from the middle," Simmons said. "It's being able to get some chances on the edge. I don't have to rush the passer a lot. I like to do both. I like to cover the pass. The bottom line is, you have to find a way to get on the scoreboard. You get down two to three touchdowns and you're at the mercy of the offense. I think I'll be able to use my athletic ability out in space. That's what I know I can do."
The defense is anxiously waiting for the scheme to be installed, but Simmons already has a pretty good idea what Frazier is going to unveil.
"Knowing he's coming from Philly, it's going to be pressure and aggressive," Simmons said. "Getting to the quarterback with coverage on the outside."
In falling from the No. 9 defense to No. 17 last season, the Bengals spent a lot of time looking at each other after some big pays. After talking to Frazier and new linebackers coach Ricky Hunley, Simmons gets the sense the new scheme won't allow that.
"I think it's going to be kind of condensed and a little easier to grasp for the guys," Simmons said. "After the snap of the ball, I don't think there are going to be so many what ifs. Maybe getting back to basics some, and at the end of the day, that's what it's about. Finding the 11 guys that do the best getting to the ball."
ROLL CALL:** There were no attendance figures available as the Bengals prepared to meet Thursday night for an introduction meeting with new head coach Marvin Lewis for the voluntary minicamp. The Bengals will be on the field twice a day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, starting Friday at 10 a.m.
RAIDER TWIST: Incumbent Artrell Hawkins lines up with new free-agent pickup Tory James from Oakland at right cornerback this minicamp and the irony isn't lost on him. James is supposed to beat out Hawkins, but a year ago in March the Raiders were looking at James and Hawkins as they braced for Eric Allen's retirement.
Hawkins said the Raiders offered him more than the three-year, $5.1 million deal he took in Cincinnati, but he has no regrets. Even as he watched Oakland win 13 games, one more than the Bengals have won the last three years. Even as the Raiders went to the Super Bowl.
"It was close, real close. Real tight," said Hawkins as he pondered the decision recently. "I stayed not just because of the familiarity, but other considerations. Starting a new family for one. I feel like I'm here for a reason.
"I don't live my life like that," said Hawkins of possibly second guessing himself. "I could do that with every decision I make. I could have gone out there and got in a car accident. Or I could have got hurt in the second game and been out for the season. I'm glad to be a Bengal. Especially now."
Coach Marvin Lewis said he expected Hawkins would be able to line up this weekend, about two months after arthroscopic surgery to clean up his knee. He says he can't let the James signing affect his play.
"You always need corners," said Hawkins, who comes into the camp with 63 career starts. "One thing I've learned after five years in this league is it's a disadvantage looking over your shoulder. You play it out and it's a may-the-best-man win sort of thing."
GREEN FEES:** Mike Green, the Bengals' new fullback, played a year in Tennessee with the man he is trying to replace in Cincinnati, Lorenzo Neal. The 6-foot, 250-pounder knows there are differences when it comes to blocking, as well as differences between the running backs he is blocking for in the Bengals' Corey Dillon and the Titans' Eddie George.
"I'm not a guy who is going to knock anybody out like Lorenzo could, but I get the job done," Green
said. "You can get in the way of guys and there are some tricks of the trade. I'm not a bruiser like Lorenzo, but I'm shiftier. I can get probably get things done in a different way. I can catch the ball out of the backfield well and I can play running back."
Green was shifty enough to play running back in Barcelona and set NFL Europe's single-season rushing record in 2001 with 1,057 yards on 5.8 yards per carry. But he is a blocking back here after helping George to a 1,000-yard season last year.
"Oh my goodness, Corey Dillon is one of the best backs in the league," Green said earlier this week. "He has it all. He's very strong, he's fast, he's physical. Eddie is a little taller guy and it takes him a little longer to get to the hole (compared) to Corey. You won't have to hold your block real long with Corey. He gets in and out."
This is the way the NFL is. Last week, when he was still with the Titans, Green said the coaches lined him up ahead of Greg Comella at fullback. The next day, he heard he was released because of salary-cap reasons and he was on waivers. The next day he came to Cincinnati, where he is the most experienced fullback (two playoff starts) with the departure of Neal and Nicolas Luchey.
"It's been a roller coaster last couple of days," Green said. "I think I'm in a good situation. I'm coming in with a new coach with a new off-season program. The guys are telling me everything they're doing is new, so it's a good time to be here."