Smith to start

12-14-01, 4:10 P.M.

Updated: 12-14-01, 8:00 p.m.

Updated: 12-15-01, 9:25 a.m.

Updated: 12-15-01, 8:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ Quarterback Akili Smith got his first start in more than a year Sunday here against the Jets.

After throwing a handful of passes in Friday's practice and some after Saturday's walk through at Paul Brown Stadium, Jon Kitna reiterated Saturday he can play with the sprained middle finger on his throwing hand. Kitna was as adamant Saturday as he was Friday, when he said, "All I know is I'm ready to play," Kitna said. "If they're not benching me, I can play."

On Saturday, Kitna said, "It feels the same as it did yesterday. I wouldn't hurt the team. I think I can play."

But the Bengals went with Smith after he got the bulk of the practice snaps during the week. Kitna is the No. 2, with Scott Mitchell No. 3.

The question has never really been answered if Kitna is healthy will he still play despite the Bengals' five-game losing streak. Smith took the bulk of the snaps for the third straight day on Friday, but Kitna worked what LeBeau called "about a tenth of a quarter."

"It was encouraging. There's a chance he could be one or two," LeBeau said Friday. "I feel better about it than a few days ago. . .I thought the further he went, the better he threw.

I'm sure it loosened up for him a little bit. It's probably appropriate to see how it reacts overnight. He probably should do something tomorrow to make sure the thing doesn't stiffen back up on him."

Some Bengals insiders watching Friday practice felt Kitna didn't have much zip on the ball, but LeBeau indicated the decision won't be made public until game time.

"He's able to play, but he's not 100 percent," said trainer Paul Sparling. "The coaches have to decide if that's good enough after not practicing all week."

LeBeau is more definitive about cornerback Artrell Hawkins, putting him back into the starting lineup at right cornerback after missing all but one snap in the past three games with a high ankle sprain.

Either Robert Bean, who had been the starter, or Kevin Kaesviharn will be the nickel back. It looks like only four corners will be available because Bo Jennings (ankle) went to doubtful after Friday's practice.

It doesn't look as promising for another starter in left outside linebacker Steve Foley. Foley sat out practice after aggravating a lower back problem Thursday and is questionable.

But LeBeau is guardedly optimistic about right tackle Willie Anderson even though he didn't practice all week. Center Rich Braham (shoulder) worked some in practice with the first unit, but LeBeau wants to see more strength. Both look to be game-time decisions.

Jets wide receiver Santana Moss didn't practice Friday and probably won't play. Right guard Randy Thomas (ankle) is a go.

PRO BOWL VOTES: So much for having the NFL's top 10 defense. No one on the unit is in the top 10 at their position in fan voting for the Pro Bowl. The most popular Bengal is running back Corey Dillon, running fourth at his spot with 149,517 votes. The next Bengals are tackles Richmond Webb and Willie Anderson, seventh and eighth with 28,856 and 24,797 votes, respectively. Fullback Lorenzo Neal is running behind Tony Richardson, Larry Centers, Richie Anderson, Jon Witman and Marc Edwards. **

DEFENSE EYES MARTIN:** The Bengals' defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in six games during a stretch it hasn't allowed a 300-yard game. They haven't allowed more than 20 points in the last five games and have allowed just three touchdowns in the last three games.

"We have to stick with our formula for success," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "Penetrating, getting off the ball, and running to it. We aren't taking turns making mistakes like we were earlier in the season."

But they haven't faced a back like the Jets' Curtis Martin. Yes, they have stuffed Eddie George and Warrick Dunn, but we're talking about a guy who is seven yards off the NFL rushing lead and one of only three men (Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson) to start his career with seven 1,000-yard seasons.

On a day the Bengals hope Corey Dillon joins Martin as one of six men to gain 1,000 yards in each of their first five seasons, they know they need to keep Martin in check.

"I knew he was good, but I didn't realize how good until I sat down and watched the tape," said Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "I don't

want to say finesse, but you sure can't get a hit on him. He's got more shakes than I thought and that's coming from me not seeing him play. The first guy doesn't always get him and he's tough in the open field."

Spikes and Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson agree that Martin is "an old school runner." Anderson: "Some people might call it an ugly style, but you look up and every game he's got 120, 130 yards."

Gibson says the key for the defensive line is to keep the linebackers free and he'll be looking to fend off Jets center Kevin Mawae from the second level as New York tries to free Martin on the perimeter with counters and some trick plays.

"We want to keep Takeo and Brian (Simmons) free to roam and everyone else pursue to the backside. They cave the corner and that's what Curtis Martin wants."

The Jets aren't shy about using Martin in some trickery. Their only score last week against the Steelers came on Martin's 18-yard option pass to Wayne Chrebet, the second time in as many years they hooked up for a TD.

MATCHUPS: If they are to keep alive their streak of six straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, Bengals ROLB Takeo Spikes must lead the linebackers in sealing off the perimeter to Jets RB Curtis Martin. Bengals DT Oliver Gibson also has to come up big against two-time Pro Bowl Jets C Kevin Mawae.

The Jets' run defense is also on a roll in allowing an average of just 96 yards on the ground in its last six games and it has no doubt viewed Cincinnati's rush struggles. So Bengals RB Corey Dillon has to solve Jets SS Victor Green. Guess what the Bengals have to do to counter it? They have to throw the ball, which means they have to use the speed of Bengals WR Chad Johnson against Jets CB Jamie Henderson in a battle of rookies.

Cincinnati also has to be wary of New York's 17 sacks in the same six-week stretch as Bengals LT Richmond Webb and RT Willie Anderson take on Jets DEs John Abraham, the AFC sack leader, and Shaun Ellis.

Cincinnati's much-maligned special teams are on the spot when the Bengals kick coverage faces old friend and Jets KR Craig Yeast.

**

SPIKES, ET AL VS. MARTIN:** The last time the Bengals gave up a 100-yard rusher, Bears rookie Anthony Thomas took advantage of the Bengals' misalignments and gouged them for 188 yards. If they make the same mistakes against a man quietly grinding to the Hall of Fame, forget it. Martin is just seven yards off the NFL rushing lead with 128 yards per game.

Spikes says the Jets' ability to run counters and cut-backs to the outside is going to put a premium on linebacker and safety play.

"(The linebackers) have to get our fits with our interior line," Spikes said. "The most important guys in this game are the guys on the edge. The backers. The safeties. How we fit up on the edge. They do a lot of stuff on the edge, toss cracks (sweeps), (and) as a secondary and linebackers, we have to fill them right and when you don't, that's when you get gashed."

One edge player, left outside linebacker Steve Foley, might not be available because of a back problem and would probably be replaced by Adrian Ross.

GIBSON VS. MAWAE: The 6-2, 315-pound Gibson has about 25 pounds on the 6-4, 290-pound Mawae and he'll need them because Mawae likes to play it physical. Mawae has struggled in the last two games, allowing 1.5 sacks to Patriots rookie Richard Seymour two weeks ago and getting tagged with a big holding call last week in Pittsburgh. But Gibson knows he's in for a long day.

"He's quick at the point of attack and he tries to get you into a game where he mauls you," Gibson said. "Which is fine, because that's the game I like to play. He's a real quality center like the guy from the Bears (Olin Kreutz), but maybe more of a bruiser."

DILLON VS. GREEN: Jaguars strong safety Donovin Darius closed up shop on Dillon last week by basically playing linebacker at the line of scrimmage, sending Dillon to his fifth straight sub-100-yard game for just the second time in his career.

Since allowing an average of 167 yards on the ground in the first six games, the Jets have shut it down with more eight-man fronts. Plus, the unit has become more comfortable with the 4-3 after years of the 3-4.

With Green roaming more at the line of scrimmage the last six weeks, NFL rush-leader Priest Holmes' 71 yards is the best game against them.

JOHNSON VS. HENDERSON: If Green is going to be in the box, then the Bengals have to make the Jets pay with Johnson down field. Cincinnati has had one pass play for more than 19 yards the past three games and the speedster Johnson has yet to catch a ball over 20.

If he doesn't again Sunday, Green stays put, and so does Dillon. But the Jets have allowed just one touchdown pass in the last six games while intercepting nine. Henderson, who comes on the field in three-receiver sets and plays outside while Ray Mickens slides into the slot, will also probably cover Darnay Scott at times as he seeks his first NFL interception.

WEBB, ANDERSON VS. ABARAHAM, ELLIS: The 6-4, 250-pound Abraham has eight of his AFC-high 11 sacks in the last six games, when Ellis has four of his five. Keeping them off the quarterback is extremely important, particularly if it's going to be Akili Smith. And the Bengals have been solid on that score. Despite having the lead for all of 27:21 in the last five games, the Bengals have allowed just 22 sacks and are tied for seventh in the NFL.

BENGALS KICK COVERAGE VS. YEAST: Yeast always felt the Bengals literally looked down at him because of his 5-7, 165-pound size and now he gets a chance at them not only on kick returns, but also punt returns. This guy didn't become the all-time SEC receiver at Kentucky by not having some competitive juices.

Yeast has come close to busting some kicks in New York. His 24-yard average is fifth best in the AFC and includes a 50-yarder. And the numbers aren't a great matchup for Cincinnati. The Jets' kick receiving team is fourth in the NFL in getting it to their 30.9-yard line. The Bengals' coverage team is last in the NFL in allowing teams back to their own 32.4. **

NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for this weekend, including 75 and 6. If Corey Dillon rushes for 75 yards Sunday, he'll become the sixth player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first five seasons. Jets running back Curtis Martin, one of the five, will be watching.

1981 _ Last year the Bengals beat the Jets in New York.

1979 _ Year Bengals defensive end Justin Smith was born.

10 _ Sacks Smith is on pace to finish his rookie season.

1992 _ Last year a Bengal (Alfred Williams) had double-digit sacks.

316.2 _ Average weekly yards produced by NFL offenses.

6 _ Consecutive games Bengals' defense has allowed less than 300 yards, tying record of 1973 team.

223 _ Yards Jets have averaged in last three games.

21 _ Carries Dillon needs to pass James Brooks (1,344 in eight seasons) into second place on Bengals' all-time list.

79 _ Carries Dillon needs to pass Pete Johnson (1,402 in seven seasons) as the franchise's all-time attempts leader.

38,047 _ Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde's career passing yards, which last week nudged him past fellow New Yorker Boomer Esiason's 37,920 and into ninth place all-time.

3 _ Touchdown passes Bengals quarterback Akili Smith has thrown in his last 14 games.

1 _ Touchdown passes the Jets have allowed in their last six games.

O'DWYER RETURNS: Bengals LG Matt O'Dwyer is a straight shooter, so he won't lie to you when asked if he ever thinks about the four-year, $8 million deal then Jets coach Bill Parcells offered him when he became a free agent after the 1998 season.

The '98 market indicated more, but he never got a better offer and signed with the Bengals in late June of '99, ending a career in New York that began when the Jets took him in the second round of the 1995 draft. His 50 starts included one in the AFC championship game loss to Denver.

"He thought enough of me to offer $8 million," O'Dwyer said of Parcells. "I just held off and things

fell the way they fell. I'm happy in Cincinnati. I had a great four years in New York. The fans are great. The only bad time was my last day there."

O'Dwyer referred to a celebrated fight in a New York-area restaurant-bar shortly after he signed with the Bengals. O'Dwyer and Jets linemen Jason Fabini and Jumbo Elliott were involved in an altercation that got O'Dwyer probation. Elliott recently signed on with the Jets as an assistant offensive line coach.

"That incident is in the past and I've moved on," O'Dwyer said. "It's got nothing to do with this trip. I still keep in touch with those guys and I'll talk to them after the game."

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