Posted: 9 p.m.
Justin Smith has seen the good (AFC North title), the bad (0-7 after a 4-3 start) and the ugly (2-14), and with four games left at 4-8 and free agency possibly beckoning it never changes for the just-do-it guy from the Show-Me state.
"You look at guys like Kevin Everett, Sean Taylor, David Pollack and this is a brutal, brutal game," Smith said this week. "Why worry about next year when you may be done next week?"
Smith is like everyone else on this defense. They've had a solid, winnable month after a torrent of early-season injuries, but questions hang over the scheme as well as players who have been mainstays the past few seasons.
Guys like free safety Madieu Williams, middle linebacker Landon Johnson, and defensive lineman Bryan Robinson are, like Smith, potential free agents. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal has lost his starting job. Rookie safeties Chinedum Ndukwe and Marvin White are staking their claim for more playing time.
Even if the defense keeps playing well the last month, there is a sense it could look much different next year from a personnel standpoint. Among the biggest questions is if the Bengals will try to keep Smith and if they do, how? A long-term deal (maybe) or another tag (maybe not)?
Smith "I don't worry about it," Smith said. "My job is to play football for the next four games and I think that's what we're going to do. We want to finish strong. At this point, we want to have a non-losing season. .500 is unacceptable, but it is what it is."
This is vintage Smith. No-nonsense frontier stuff, a native of the farming community of Holts Summit, a 20-minute commute from Columbia, Mo. He doesn't mind telling you that he disdains hype and loathes what media types can do to the game.
Smith has been taking heat because as the club's designated franchise player he has only two sacks after averaging seven per his previous six seasons. Besides left end Robert Geathers and his midseason switch to linebacker, Smith may have been the guy most affected with the musical chairs at linebacker because of his responsibilities on the perimeter.
Still, he qualifies as a throwback warrior; a player who has never missed a game because of injury and who continually piles up tackles (he's second on the team) on 90 to 95 percent play time with the motor of your all-time favorite car.
"It's changes (in personnel), things that we're doing, some of our emphasis, but that's fine," Smith said Monday after getting in his usual daily workout even though the players were off. "I've talked to Rob about it. If they want us to do different things for what they need to accommodate for, that's fine. I'll do it.
"If we end the year with not that many sacks, so be it. I'd rather us be a defense on the climb, a defense that's getting better every week like we're getting. If I had 12 sacks right now and we were still giving up 40 points a game, it's almost like, 'Well, you'd be happy then. You're having a great year.' It's media driven. It kind of creates the beast."
Smith, who has played the most games on this defense and has done it with 107 straight, doesn't know where he's going but he knows where he's been. He has enjoyed this mini monthly defensive renaissance after a cards-on-the-table October meeting with the defensive players and coaches because he believes it shows what happens when selfishness can be stowed.
"Everybody was worried. 'We need to get our picks, we need to get our sacks,' linebackers want to have 100 some tackles," Smith said.
"When it got to the point, 'Hey, we're not a good defense right now, we've got tons of guys injured, we have guys coming off other teams that don't know our defense, we need to worry about just being a defense.' And I think we've tried to take all the selfishness out and it's helped us. We're happy when the other guy makes a play."
Smith suggested Monday to a group of reporters that the Bengals are still grappling with coming together as a team. Later he elaborated when he talked about knowing several players on the undefeated Patriots.
"It won't be a good team until our main focus is a 'W,'' not if you play well," Smith said. "Just being honest, if guys have great games and we lose, they're happy. If we win and they have a bad game, they're mad. We're not going to be a good team until offense, defense, special teams, are not happy unless the only thing that happens is to win and we're not there yet."
Smith understands it's not easy. The way the league and TV are set up, making it easy for the individual to stand out, "It's almost promoted, but not knowingly promoted," he said.
"It's a media and public-driven deal. If you get the personal accolades, all this other stuff falls with it and you kind of lose the team aspect," Smith said. "(The Patriots) aren't like that. They're like a high school team. They don't care. They just want to win and we're not to that point."
Smith doesn't exclude the defense because he said, "We're coming along," and the unit is still trying to reach that point. He'd like more wins, but he thinks in the last month the new approach and consistency at linebacker have helped the defense considerably.
"We want to win out," he said, "and we want to keep getting better on defense."
BULGER CLEARED: According to theSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, Rams quarterback Marc Bulger has been cleared to practice Wednesday and unless there are complications he'll start Sunday against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
Bulger passed the neuropsych exam he failed last week after he suffered a concussion Nov. 25 against Seattle.
It's a good thing because backup Gus Frerotte has a sprained throwing shoulder and a partially torn labrum and is expected to miss at least one week, the paper said Tuesday. Cornerback Tye Hill should also be out. The Post-Dispatch reported he has undergone surgery on his thumb and wrist.