BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals quarterback Akili Smith is still looking for that huge win that can turn this season around. He also knows what to expect from Denver's defense that's ranked second in the NFL against the run.
"Eight men in the box, here we go," Smith said Friday. "Stunting, blitzing. They're good."
Smith also knows he has to play better and he says he'll continue to be honest about his play and those around him.
"To be honest, I really feel like I'm letting the whole team down,'" Smith said. "The defense has been playing fabulous. They've kept us in every game. We haven't put up the points. All I'm going to do for my whole career here is tell the truth. . .I'm just as guilty, if not the most guilty (as the rest of the offense)"
Smith took a glance Friday at the way the media handled his comments earlier in the week about receivers not always being in the right spot.
"I'm going to be honest," Smith said. "I'm not playing well and my guys aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing on some plays and we just need to come together and it's as simple as that."
MATCHUPS: ** How does a team who has scored 37 points all season match up against a team who scored 44 points the week before? Very carefully.
Coming off a solid game against Pro Bowl center Dermontti Dawson, Bengals DT Oliver Gibson gets another one against Broncos C Tom Nalen. Bengals ILB Takeo Spikes has to stay on his feet in the face of the cut blocks on the back side from the likes of Broncos RT Matt Lepsis. Bengals RCB Rodney Heath has to use all of his 175 pounds to prevent Broncos WR Rod Smith's 200 pounds from getting away after the catch. With the Broncos stacking their defensive line with blitzes, Bengals TE Tony McGee has a tough assignment getting open against relentless Broncos OLB Bill Romanowski. Bengals Gs Matt O'Dwyer and Mike Goff have to keep Broncos DT Trevor Pryce's long arms off them or he'll add to his sack total that's second in the AFC.
GIBSON VS. NALEN: Nalen has gone to the last three Pro Bowls and started the last one for the AFC. He anchors the NFL's sixth best running game on a line that returns all five starters for the first time in Nalen's seven seasons. But one of them, left guard Mark Schlereth, is out this week.
Teammates like Spikes raved about Gibson's work against Dawson in the 15-0 loss to Pittsburgh in which the Bengals held running back Jerome Bettis to 3.5 yards per carry. They need another effort like that from Gibson to clear holes for the linebackers and try to prevent Denver running back Mike Anderson from duplicating his 4.7-yard average. SPIKES VS. LEPSIS: If the Steelers have a smashmouth running game, Denver has a looselips approach. They finesse you with movement and angles and like to take out the inside backers with cut blocks to spring Anderson from behind the back side. So Spikes says people like himself, Gibson, and middle linebacker Armegis Spearman have to keep their feet and, "have to be perfect on every play. Those three spots, or else they bust a big one."
HEATH VS. ROD SMITH: Smith is leading the NFL with 725 yards – many coming after he breaks tackles _ and is second with 46 catches. The 5-10, 175-pound Heath says he's always going against a big receiver, so he's used to it.
But the 6-0 Tom Carter at left corner for the Bengals, known more as a cover guy than a hitter, also has his hands full in the 6-5 Ed McCaffrey. Heath says it's complicated by the fact Denver is so balanced, with quarterback Brian Griese throwing 217 passes and the Broncos rushing 218 times.
MCGEE VS. ROMANOWSKI: McGee, who had 26 catches last season, already has 14 this year. That's the good news. The bad news is he's the team's second-leading receiver.
O'DWYER, GOFF VS. PRYCE: At 6-5, 294 pounds, Pryce is a heavier version of the slippery, flexible, Gumby-like Alfred Williams, a former pass rusher for the Bengals and Broncos. Pryce's long arms have helped him to seven sacks.
CINCINNATI KIDS: If Vaughn Booker (Taft High) starts Sunday at left end, that puts three Cincinnati schoolboy products in the Bengals starting lineup Sunday. There's left tackle John Jackson (Woodward High) and Heath (Mount Healthy) , but Booker may not start in his first game back in four weeks after a knee injury and fainting episode suffered Sept. 17 in Jacksonville.
It's a particularly big day for Jackson, the 13-year veteran who is finally lining up for his hometown team after 161 starts for the Steelers and Chargers since 1988.
Jackson's wife, Joan, won't be at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday because she's in San Diego getting ready for next week's grand opening of her salon.
But the family's luxury box at the stadium will be filled with the help of the Joan and John Jackson Foundation. A group of 16 from the Cincinnati Boys and Girls club four adults and 12 children are the Jacksons' guests.
"So that makes it even bigger," Jackson said. "It's special for the guys from here. It's where we grew up. It's where we first played football. It's a big day and I know it's important to all of us that we play well."
Coach Dick LeBeau said Booker may start but, "I don't know yet. He's a guy that has to be heavily monitored."
BACKER MANIA: No one wants to hear it at 0-6, but the best story of the season is how college free agents Armegis Spearman and Adrian Ross have filled in for the loss of middle linebacker Brian Simmons. The Bengals wish they were as deep at every position.
"I think we're surprising everybody because we're free agents and we're playing with big names like Brian and (Takeo) Spikes and (Steve) Foley," Ross said. "I just want to show the rest of the nation they made a mistake when they passed when they didn't draft me."
Spearman, a rookie from Mississippi, played well in Games 2-4 despite fighting a shoulder injury. Last week coach Dick LeBeau figured an 80-90 percent Spearman was better than none and suited him up on special teams last week. Ross moved from the outside to the middle in a 10-day crash course and more than held up in the last two games. Still, Spearman, Ross' roommate and fellow unloved, undrafted player, starts if he's healthy.
"It's not a rivalry," Spearman said. "There's always competition. That's what the whole game is about."
It's not a big deal who'll start, because they will both play. They can stop the run and they're improving in coverage.
Three years ago, linebackers coach Mark Duffner journeyed to Colorado State and liked Ross' ability to run and his coach's-son approach to film work, concluding he could make the transition from defensive end.
The Jaguars also wanted to sign him after the '98 draft, but Ross liked Duffner, LeBeau and the fact he was coming in with three drafted rookie linebackers in Spikes, Simmons and Foley.
"I still want to answer the question why people didn't draft me," Ross said. "Can I drop (in pass coverage)? Can I play linebacker? They were always asking, 'Can I?'I guess my college didn't let them know that's what I was."
Duffner made a similar trip to Oxford, Miss, before this year's draft and was taken with Spearman's athleticism. From the fifth round on, Duffner courted Spearman over the phone and in the end lured him away for the same $10,000 bonus the Cowboys offered.
"Both these guys are instinctive ," Duffner said. "What they are is football players They've got a feel for the game. They get into the playbook. They care about it."
Or, as Spearman said when asked if he was surprised how Ross played a new spot, "It's like Duff says. He's supposed to play like that. That's what we expect. We've got a corps of good linebackers and we can do a lot of things, so we have to know all the positions."
Ross had a head start as a kid because his father coached high school and the son started watching film at age 8. Back in Elk Grove, Calif., Ross would go to a high school game on a Friday night and try to play like the star of the game in the Saturday morning Pop Warner game.
He's still trying to imitate guys. While preparing for the Broncos' offense this week, he's seeing a lot of a certain Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker
"I'm watching how Junior Seau comes downhill (on stopping the run)," Ross said.
NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need for the game, including 37 and 41. That first is the number of points the Bengals have scored this season. The second is the number of points the Broncos scored in the first 47:22 of last week's game against the Browns.
7-5 _ Broncos' October road record since 1993.
2-12 _ Bengals' October home record since 1993.
37 _ Points scored by the Bengals this season.
41 _ Points scored by the Broncos last week in the first 47:22 against the Browns.
1 _ Games since 1997 the Broncos have won when their foe had more rushing attempts. It was in Cincinnati two years ago when the Bengals had 10 more runs, but one less touchdown, 33-26.
7 _ John Elway's retired jersey and consecutive wins Denver has over the Bengals.
181 _ Passes Broncos quarterback Brian Griese threw without an interception in streak stopped Oct. 1.
166 _ Passes Bengals quarterback Akili Smith has thrown this year.
144 _ Tackles Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes is on pace to record, seven behind defensive line coach Tim Krumrie's team record in '88 Super Bowl season.
125 _ Bengals are 5-0 when running back Corey Dillon rushes for 125 yards.
DILLON AND ROMO: The controversial Romanowski is to play in his 200th straight game Sunday amid allegations of using banned substances and racial epithets. But he's got the respect of one Bengal. Running back Corey Dillon, who thinks he's been the victim at times of an unfair media, prefers to talk football.
"He's a tough individual who does his job well," Dillon said. "Regardless of what people think of him, you have to respect him as a player and he's a damn good one. I like him as a person and a player. I should know as well as anyone how things can get twisted. I don't know about all the other stuff. You have to respect him as a player."
FRIDAY INACTIVES:** Bengals: C Rich Braham, MLB Brian Simmons, WR Damon Griffin, S/LB JoJuan Armour; Broncos: RB Terrell Davis, WR Chris Cole, LG Mark Schlereth, DT Jerry Johnson.
WEATHER CALL:** The weather gurus at Channel 12-WKRC are calling for mostly sunny skies with a high of 70 degrees on Sunday.