Smith sees stripes in future

11-9-01, 4:45 p.m.

Updated: 11-9-01 6:20 p.m.

Updated:11-9-01, 6:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Jon Kitna got his career jump-started with MVP numbers in the NFL Europe of 1997. Backup Scott Mitchell sharpened his emerging game by setting World League records five years before that. Could a spring fling in another land turn around the career of the Bengals No. 3 quarterback, Akili Smith?

"To be honest I just don't see myself going over there and taking myself away from this system," Smith says about his option of playing in NFL Europe. "If I could be assured I'd be in the same system, I'd really be interested. But I think I'd want to be around here for minicamp."

Bengals President Mike Brown, who reiterated Friday the team hasn't given up on the erstwhile franchise quarterback, says he's a fan of Smith getting more snaps. But the possibility he could be the backup quarterback if the club doesn't re-sign Mitchell has ramifications.

"I don't know that it's something we would rule out at this stage, but I think it's also premature to talk about right now," Brown said of a European trip. "I don't know if he'll be the backup or what, but I also don't know if we want our backup exposed to injury or to be away from camp that long."

If it sounds like Smith is going to be a Bengal next year, that's what he thinks. Brown said Smith's status is "an open issue," but the buzz suggests he'll be back and won't be offered to Houston's expansion draft.

"What I'm pretty much getting is they still want me here," Smith said. "Just by conversation with certain coaches. In my eyes, I'm not a backup. I don't want to be a backup. I don't think I'm a backup. I just have to go on if it's not my year, then maybe next year. It's all I can do."

League owners got word last week that NFL Europe is on for next

year. It's a league that would no doubt love to get a No. 3 draft choice such as Smith. If he went, he'd be Europe's highest drafted player since running back Lawrence Phillips.

Tampa Bay's Joe Hamilton, a seventh-round pick in 2000 who has indicated interest in going this year, is the more typical quarterback that tries Europe. It's the one position that seems to benefit playing in the league. Besides Kitna and Mitchell, other NFL Europe QB grads include Kurt Warner and Jay Fiedler.

Smith won't shut the door because he's been fairly vocal about his concern that he can't improve without playing. But he's also concerned about getting snaps with the team rather than elsewhere.

"That's a lot of football," Smith said. "You'd go right from there to training camp. If it was the same offense, I'd think about it. But right now, I'd have to say probably not."

Brown won't address the possibility of leaving Smith unprotected for Houston's expansion draft. It would be the Bengals one chance to rid themselves of Smith's count under the salary cap stemming from his $10.8 million signing bonus. The Bengals won't cut him after this season because that would be about a $5 million hit in the 2002 cap. But if the Texans take him, Houston absorbs the cap consequences for the rest of his contract.

But Brown isn't talking like a man ready to see Smith go.

"He isn't out of the picture here," Brown said. "He's just waiting for his opportunity. When it comes or how it comes, I can't tell you. When things will be decided is how well he does when gets there. It could be this year or next year. We haven't given up on him and no one should think we have."

**

MATCHUPS:** The Jaguars don't play like a 2-5 team with a high-powered offense and a stingy defense allowing the sixth fewest points in the league with 16.4 per game.

Jags defensive coordinator Gary Moeller, a former Bengals tight ends coach, has been running a lot of blitzes behind zones. So Bengals RB Corey Dillon and FB Lorenzo Neal have to pick up blitzing Jags SLB Kevin Hardy as well as be ready to catch some passes out of the backfield. Bengals WR Peter Warrick has to make hay underneath the zone against Jags CB Jason Craft. In his first game back in Florida since playing 164 for Miami, Bengals LT Richmond Webb duels all-time club sack leader Jags RE Tony Brackens.

Bengals CB Artrell Hawkins has to muscle Jags WR Keenan McCardell in the slot. Whether Bengals RE Justin Smith can keep Jags QB Mark Brunell from escaping the pocket will help determine the secondary's fate against a Pro Bowl passing game. With the return of tackle Tony Williams, Bengals DT Oliver Gibson should get freed up against Jags LG Brad Meester and RG Zach Wiegert.

DILLON, NEAL VS. HARDY: After moving to strong side from weak side, Hardy has 5.5 sacks after getting just three all last season. He's been a disruptive force against this team, but the Bengals survived his strip and fumble recovery against Dillon in Cincinnati's 17-14 win last year.

The backs will not only have to get a body on the 6-4, 250-pound Hardy, but they will have to catch some passes underneath a Jag zone that even some of their own players say is too soft. Dillon is on pace to catch a career-high 40 balls, nine better than 1999, when he missed the season finale against Jacksonville with an injured knee. Neal, who has 10 catches, made "The Sporting News" Pro Bowl team for the first half of the season. **

WARRICK VS. CRAFT:** Jags starting cornerbacks Fernando Bryant and Aaron Beasley are highly regarded and teams have made inroads underneath their coverages in three-receiver sets. In his last three games working out of the slot, Warrick has 17 catches for 12.3 yards per gain, three yards better than his season average.

WEBB VS. BRACKENS: This is Webb's first trip to Jacksonville since the Jags crushed the Dolphins, 62-7, in the playoffs two years ago, when he thinks Brackens had one sack on him. Brackens, who came into the year averaging more than seven sacks for his five seasons, has just one this year after missing the first four games with a knee injury.

Webb doesn't want Brackens to start catching up to his average. Especially since in the last four games, opposing quarterbacks Trent Dilfer, Rob Johnson, Randall Cunningham and Steve McNair have had at least a 91.1 passing rating against the Jags.

HAWKINS VS. MCCARDELL: Jags WR Jimmy Smith gets most of the catches and the yards, but it is the 6-1, 190-pound McCardell who gets the first downs. He goes into the slot when Jacksonville goes three wides, which is where the 5-10, 190-pound Hawkins has to stave him off on third down. McCardell is averaging 11 yards on his eight third-down catches.

"Third down is a big down," Hawkins said. "Keenan does a lot of different things on third down. It's option routes. Up the field, down the field, across the field. He likes to get his hands on you. He can get by you, but you also have to be physical with him because he will be with you."

SMITH VS. BRUNELL: Jags Pro Bowl LT Tony Boselli is out for the year, but Smith's greatest challenge may be confronting the elusive Brunell. Does Smith go all-out and risk losing contain out of the pocket? Or does he rush cautiously so Brunell won't get by him for one of his notorious scrambles?

Bengals coach Dick LeBeau calls Brunell the best QB the Bengals have faced this year and he's clearly the most dangerous. His mobility could be hurt by a bruised quad that kept him out of practice most of this week, but one of his runs this year is a career-long 38 yards.

"You have to get a hand on him," Smith said. "Yeah, you have to be careful, but you've got to stay aggressive. You can't be too tentative."

GIBSON VS. MEESTER, WIEGERT: The happiest guy to see Williams back is the guy next to him in Gibson. Gibson says he's seen more double teams with Williams out of the lineup for the last month. And with the Jags running backs running the ball 25 times combined the last two weeks, Gibson thinks Jacksonville will be wary of Williams' pass-rush skills. Which may leave him one-on-one against the guards with center Jeff Smith helping on Williams.

"His quickness is the thing," Gibson said. "They can't stay on a double-team (on Gibson) that long with Tony there. The tackles are going to have to worry about the ends, so hopefully that helps me. The center may help out on Tony because he's more of a pass-rush threat than I am. Fine with me."

NO HUDDLE: The Bengals, who started the no-huddle offense all those years ago, expect to see a steady dose of it from the Jags Sunday. After Jacksonville fell behind, 7-0, last week to the Titans, the Jags went no-huddle and scored three of the next four times they had the ball on the way to a season-high 24 points. While the Jags defense griped about its scheme, the offense lobbied to use more no-huddle.

Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons, who calls the defense when it is signaled from the sidelines by defensive coordinator Mark Duffner, says the Bengals spent the week preparing for it and shouldn't have much of a problem substituting.

"They use it to mainly try and catch you in the wrong personnel," Simmons said. "But I think we can get off and on in time. We've practiced getting off the field in a hurry. It will just speed up the game.

"Instead of getting in a huddle and making one call, we won't get in a huddle and when I get the defense from Duff I'll relay it to the front while they're in their positions," Simmons said. "Most everyone knows the signals, but I'm not going to take any chances and I'll make the call."

WEATHER REPORT: The weather gurus in Jacksonville are calling for sunny skies with temperatures at about 75 degrees at kickoff. There's just a 20 percent chance of rain. **

NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for this weekend, such as 25 and 27. The first number is how many times the Jaguars running backs carried the ball in the last two games. The second number is Bengals running back Corey Dillon's carries in his last game.

32-59 _ Bengals' record since they last won in Jacksonville on Nov. 26, 1995.

55-36 _ Jags' record since Nov. 26, 1995.

35-11 _ Jags' home record since Nov. 26, 1995.

9-36 _ Bengals' road record since Nov. 26, 1995, the last time they won two straight games on the road.

3-36 _ Bengals' record when Dillon gets less than 22 carries in his 60 career starts. One of the victories came last year against Jacksonville.

16 _ Dillon's average carries in last five games against Jacksonville.

54 _ Dillon's average yards in his two starts in Jacksonville.

6,862 _ Yards rushing the Bengals have since 1998, seventh best in the NFL.

6,866 _ Yards rushing the Jags have since 1998, sixth best in the NFL.

71 _ Career catches for Jags wide receiver Jimmy Smith against Bengals.

86 _ Career catches for Bengals wide receiver Peter Warrick.

THIS AND THAT: Jaguars RB Fred Taylor, who hasn't played in the last five weeks with a groin injury, blew off the media Friday after limited practices Wednesday and Thursday. Taylor didn't take the first few snaps of practice Friday, but it was unclear whether he or quarterback Mark Brunell (quad) got any work. Brunell is expected to play. Taylor is questionable, but Jag observers doubt he'll play and if he does, it won't be much. . . .

Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said DT Tony Williams, out the last three games and most of a fourth with a mid-foot sprain, looks ready to start. . .Don't look for kicker Jaret Holmes to get called off the practice squad this week.

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