BENGALS LINEBACKER TAKEO SPIKES OFFERS ANOTHER INSTALLMENT IN HIS DAILY DIARY OF THIS WEEK'S PREPARATION FOR THE STEELERS GAME AS SEEN BY GEOFF HOBSON OF BENGALS.COM
WEDNESDAY, 8 AM
Back to work after the day off and Spikes is in linebacker coach Mark Duffner's office about half an hour early. He's trying to get a jump on the game plan, on what the coaches have devised against a Steelers' offense that's won two straight games behind the rehabbed "Bus," in running back Jerome Bettis.
He's flipping through tape, for the first time seeing the images that will dominate Duffner's big screen for the next three days. The Steelers' can't-miss yellow-and-black, the very symbol of smashmouth football.
Spikes may be sore from making so many tackles this season that he's on pace to break Tim Krumrie's club record for most in a season, but he looks forward to the physical demands of a Pittsburgh game. That can only mean Bettis, a player for whom he has high regard.
"This is when you come in," Spikes says, "and you find out on Wednesday what the coaches spent all day Tuesday finding out for you."
After a half-hour special teams meeting, the entire team meets in one of the Paul Brown Stadium lecture halls that reminds Spikes of one of those big freshmen introductory classes he had at Auburn
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau begins his third week as the team's sudden head coach following Bruce Coslet's resignation, and today he's on familiar footing.
Spikes listens as LeBeau tells how his coaching career is tied into the two teams, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and he knows exactly what's going to happen Sunday. The Steelers will come right at them. Well-coached, prepared, confident.
Spikes hears the message. The Steelers started out just like them this season. Struggling. They went 0-3 before beating two solid teams in the Jaguars and Jets by finding ways to win in the third and fourth quarters. The Bengals, of course, have been outscored, 58-3, in the second half.
"That's what Pittsburgh has going for them," Spikes says.
The Bengals break into offense and defense as LeBeau switches hats and stands in front of the defense as their fourth-year coordinator. He's the only coordinator the third-year Spikes has ever known and he never wants another. Like most of the guys who played for LeBeau here and in Pittsburgh. They swear by him.
Using an overhead projector and a soothing, measured voice of 42 years in the league as player and coach, LeBeau unveils the general idea of the week's game plan.
"Pretty good game plan," a pleased Spikes will say later. "I like playing Pittsburgh. They're pretty much a bread-and-butter team. It's going to come down to who's the toughest pound-for-pound. Who's going to wear the other down fastest. They're nothing fancy. They say, 'We're going to shove it down your throat, see if you can stop it.' They also throw in the pass when they have to. They have a good mixture."
There's a 10-minute break, maybe time to get a juice and fool with fellow backers Adrian Ross or Canute Curtis about what they did on the day off. Then they break into individual meetings, with the backers going into Duffner's room to get the nuts-and-bolts of LeBeau's game plan.
At about 11:15 AM, they go on the field in sweats to walk through the Xs and Os, the first physical installation of the game plan.
It's lunch time and Spikes is going to flex his muscles as defensive captain. He's the master of the upbeat saying. Short, quick lines of inspiration.
This is a guy who said after the Bengals went 0-3, "If you've got two plants and you water one and fertilize the other with manure, which one is going to grow the best? Damn right. The one with manure, so you've got to go through a lot of it if you're going to grow."
Of course, nobody thought it would smell this badly, and he wants to make sure his quarterback isn't getting too discouraged So Spikes seeks out Akili Smith some time during the walk through and tells him he's got his back. It means so much to Smith that he mentions it in his weekly news conference with the media.
"I've got another saying," Spikes says.. "Experience is the best teacher and the reason is because it's the only time you take the test before you get the lesson. As a team, we can't put a lot of pressure on Akili. You can't expect him to come in and be like Dan Marino. Only a handful of guys have done that."
Spikes is eating chicken breasts and salad in the cafeteria while talking to rookie cornerbacks Mark Roman and Robert Bean. He's telling them their time is coming and to be ready.
"I know as a rookie, sometimes you don't feel like you're getting your shot and as a team captain you've got to keep talking to those guys. I don't care what they do, but I'm just reminding them when they leave here (after practice), don't do anything to hurt the team and to be ready. Their time is coming."
Plus, "I just like to fool with the minds of cornerbacks and see what they're thinking once in awhile."
Many of Spikes' teammates are meeting the media now. But not him. He probably won't meet the mikes again until the Bengals win.
"Every week it's the same thing," Spikes says. "I'm trying to pay attention to what my Mom always told me. If I have nothing good to say, don't say anything. I really don't because every week it's the same thing. We keep coming up short.
"And the media keeps asking the same old questions," Spikes says. "They run up to your face like they're dying for you. Then you flip on the TV and they say, 'Can you believe what Spikes said? That they're close. How can you tell me they're close? They're still 0-3, 0-4. If they're that close, they would have won a game by now.' I keep sounding like a broken record. I keep saying the same thing over and over. Why don't we win? Just look at what I said after the first couple of games and apply it. We're not finishing."
Practice starts at 1 and ends at 3. It's basically a faster-paced installation of the game plan. After the linebackers work against running backs and tight ends in individual passing drills, Spikes gets a break and wanders over to rookie receiver Peter Warrick, also working a two-minute or so breather.
Spikes might not read the papers, but word has gotten around that Warrick is frustrated and wants the ball. Spikes likes to hear that kind of talk and wants to make sure he encourages him.
"I just wanted to let him know about the comments he made. He's right," Spikes says. "He should want the ball. He's not being selfish. He just wants to win. In my mind, there's no reason why on the first series of every game he shouldn't get the ball two or three times."
Spikes loves Warrick's drive. He thinks he's found another guy who wants to succeed as badly as he does. Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, everything. Warrick turned to him and said, "Spikes, I just want to help this team win and I know I can help. I don't care if I get the ball or not. I'm going to come out here every day, practice as hard as I can, and I'm going to make something unbelievable happen."
"That's the thing I like about Pete is that hunger," Spikes says. "That's what separates the good players from the great players."
Spikes, a guy trying to become a great player, has just finished 45 minutes of lifting with the linebackers and linemen. But now he's on his knees in front of his locker rocking back and forth, stretching out his arms with a rolling weight as he tries to work on his sore groin and hip.
"Dog," he says to no one in particular, "this (pain) is still around."
The backers go for the day's final session with Duffner. Spikes has showered and has an ice bag strapped to his shoulder. They're still reviewing Pittsburgh tape and now Duffner is barking out reinforcements. The idea is to be physical. Especially with the 260-pound Bettis.
"You've got to be downhill," Duffner says. "I want you to hit through the guy. You've got to accelerate your feet on contact. You've got to accelerate your feet on contact, men. Don't let the guy get vertical. We have to get up and lock up. We're going to have a chance to make a million hits. Let's be productive."
Spikes likes this time of day. If he didn't quite understand something out on the field, it usually comes alive here on the screen and then Duffner hammers it home with his perpetual detail.
Duffner sends them home, but not before they have to pick up their homework sheets, grade sheets, and a Steelers tape of their formations, tendencies and two of their games.
"Make sure you watch that tape," Duffner says.
Spikes will watch the hour-long tape straight through at his house later tonight, but he admits he gets more out of it in the office because there are less distractions.
The homework won't take that long. It looks like one of those work sheets you get in school, but it's not 2 plus 2. Sometimes Duffner throws a three-part question at them, such as, "If the Steelers come out in this formation, what three plays will they most likely run?" Or, one question is usually, "If it's third-and-10, what formation will they come out in and where do you line up?"
"Me?" Spikes asks when asked what he usually gets for a homework grade. "If it's not a 4.0, it's a 3.9."
WEDNESDAY, 5:10 PM
Spikes is lying on a bench in the training room, getting some electrical stimulation on his hip. He looks across the room and sees defensive end John Copeland wrapped like a mummy in ice bags.
"Damn, Cope," Spikes says. "You're more screwed up than I am."
Then Spikes sees a local sports section at his feet and picks it up.
"First time I've looked at it in two weeks," he says. "I'm just trying to stay positive and not let anything else get in my mind."