5-28-02, 7:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It was a three-day weekend in many parts of Bengaldom Monday. But not in the weight room, where defensive end Justin Smith is quite literally trying to pull his career up into the NFL elite.
"Ten sets of 10," which is how many pullups Smith did Monday to ease into his holiday workout. "I don't lift the most weight, but pullups and dips get me strong for what I have to do on the field."
What Smith wants to do after setting the Bengals' rookie sack record with 8.5 last season (besides going back home to Missouri and settling on a farm following his career) is to never finish with that low a number again. He wants at least 10 each season, "the rest of the way on out," and feels he is "capable," of getting the 15 sacks that led the AFC this past season in the person of Ravens outside linebacker Peter Boulware.
Which is why he has been at Paul Brown Stadium since March, a Rookie of the Year candidate working with the help, the injured guys, and the kids fighting for jobs. Growing a beard and a legacy.
"I was a little disappointed. I wanted to get in double figures," Smith said of his first season. "Of
course, every D-End can say that they had hits on the quarterback, where he barely got it off. You can't count those. Everybody's got them, but I should have been able to get a couple of more for 10.5, 11.5, 12.5. That's my goal. At least double digits as long as I'm playing."
Smith made his debut in the same season the Giants' Michael Strahan set theft record with 22.5 sacks, but he admits with his farmer's no-nonsense common sense that has yet to be plowed by the pros: "I'm not a big watching-the-other-guy guy."
But he took notes.
"That's a ton of sacks," Smith said. "For you to get 22.5 sacks, everything has to click and he's a hell of a pass rusher. I'm not saying I'm going to get 22.5 sacks in a year. I think I'm capable of getting in the 14, 15, 16 range."
Smith's scorching first step and his flannel-shirt work ethic came as advertised with the club's best rookie season since Corey Dillon rushed for 1,129 yards in 1997. But he knows offenses are also taking notes, like the Jets did late in the season and stymied Smith and his tag-team partner on the other end, Reinard Wilson, for no sacks with a maximum protection scheme.
"They were using a running back on each side like wing backs and helping the tackle on both me and Reinard," Smith said of the "chip," blocks designed to help tackles against dangerous ends.
"You go back and look at it and it's frustrating, but I still feel like you have to beat that. I think we both feel that way. They were using play-action and rolling out, which is kind of good in a way because it shows they respect our pass rush and I guess that hasn't happened around here in awhile."
The Jets deployed their max protection after Smith and Wilson combined for eight sacks the previous two weeks against Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. After the 15-14 loss in New York, Wilson got three of the tandem's four sacks in the last three games.
"No surprises," said defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. "Anytime a pass rusher reaches a level of success on the outside, they'll chip the back all day long. We have to continue to take advantage of our strengths and their weaknesses."
Smith figures foes can be weakened by chipping the running back because that's one less option the Bengals have to worry about in the passing game. Plus, double-teaming the perimeter means pass protection is weaker inside, where inside backers Brian Simmons (6.5), Takeo Spikes (six)., and tackle Tony Williams (five) picked off 17.5 of the club-record 48 sacks.
"You can generate pressure from different places, but if you don't generate pressure from the ends in every-down situations, then the other stuff you do doesn't even really matter," Simmons said. "(Smith's) next step to be a dominant pass rusher is to have those second tier of moves that he can use off that speed around the corner. That's going to be the difference between the 8.5 sacks and the 10.5 to 12 sacks. He's going to be using that move off the corner for the next 10 years."
Smith knows there are more things to know and that they will rarely give him the corner anymore. But here's a guy who got 8.5 sacks without a day of training camp because of a holdout that prevented him from reporting until the day before the regular season.
"I'm going to be in a comfortable mode. I won't be feeling so uptight all the time," Smith said. "Coming in relaxed and knowing what I have to do and there is nothing to do but play football is going to make it 10 times easier. Which should pave the way for me to get quite a few sacks."
Smith knows his game is cooped around what he calls his "chicken legs." Small in size but huge in quickness. He does run sprints, but won't pound them until the six weeks before training camp. Yet he has no formula for the legs:
"I think you either have the quickness or you don't. I don't think there are a whole lot of people that can get to the edge as fast as I do."
He'll go overtime in the weight room, but he won't blow you away on the bench press like left guard Matt O'Dwyer does with something like 38 repetitions of a 275-pound bar.
"I can probably do 22, 23 at 275," Smith said. "I did some today, but only to warm up for the week. I'm not the strongest guy, but I'm trying to be strong for what I have to do. I know I'm going to have to slide in there at times and mix it up with the tackles."
Which is why he rolled out of bed and came to Paul Brown Stadium first thing Memorial Day morning. For a guy who works out three hours a day during the offseason on his own just because, it is part habit. But a big part if it is desire, too.
"What else am I going to do?" Smith asked. "The season is only two months away It's time to get ready."
The thing is, Smith was ready in March.