BY GEOFF HOBSON
Jamain Stephens is what final preseason games are about. He is a 26-year-old right tackle, a former first-round pick trying to make the final roster of his second team, and he's getting the start Friday night against a Pro Bowl defensive end in Robert Porcher with the NFL's final roster cutdown set for Sunday.
The Bengals should have a good idea if they want to keep Stephens by 10 p.m. Friday. Porcher, who missed the first two preseason games before signing a four-year, $25 million deal, figures to get plenty of snaps. Stephens, playing for the injured Willie Anderson (pulled side muscle), also figures to get plenty of snaps.
"I could go out and not miss a block all night and still fall by the wayside, who knows?" Stephens said. "I can't worry about that. If I go out and have a good game, then I give them some reasons to keep me. If I don't have such a good game, then my situation is more shaky than it is already."
The 6-6, 335-pound Stephens is out to prove the Steelers were right then they made him the 29th pick in the draft in 1996 and wrong when they released him Aug. 2, 1999. The Bengals picked him up on waivers the next day, assumed his bulky salary that reaches $916,000 this season, and lived through his four-game league suspension at the start of the season. But Stephens claims, "I'm not only a different player, but a different person than I was last year.
I've had a turbulent career. I haven't had a lot of success and there's been a lot of negativity printed about me and a a lot of it rightfully so. What I'm going to try and do tomorrow is take it play-by-play with good technique and footwork. I want them to think I'm capable. I want to erase all doubts."
Stephens remembers playing against Porcher in the Steelers' 19-16 loss in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day of 1998, the game of the controversial coin flip to begin overtime. The Steelers rushed for just 85 yards, but Stephens held Porcher sackless in a season he got to the quarterback 11.5 times. Stephens' strength is the running game, which the Bengals have emphasized this week.
"Why not?" Stephens said when asked if he'd like to take the lead. "Put the camera on me and let someone say, 'Some of this stuff I'm hearing about this guy isn't true.' I'm looking at it as a great opportunity."
But it could be all for naught if the Bengals decide to stick with just nine linemen instead of ten and keep an extra defensive player (linebacker Billy Granville?) for special. Or maybe he shows them why they should keep 10 linemen.
WARRICK LEARNING: Rookie receiver Peter Warrick knew the play. It was the third-and-11 from his 45-yard line Saturday night. Quarterback Akili Smith's final pass of the game. Warrick caught it nine yards over the middle and stopped to make a move. The Bears stopped him two yards shy of the first down. He could get away with that at Florida State. Would it have gone for 40 yards in college?
"Nah, 50," joked Warrick. "To be honest with you, I don't think I could have got the first down in college, either. I knew the guy was coming up on my inside fast and I thought I could cut by him. I didn't see it then, but I saw it on film.
I know. I've got to catch it and take the ball upfield right away. Catch it and get the first down."
GUTIERREZ RE-UPS: The Bengals have been pleased with the play of Brock Gutierrez at center in place of the injured Rich Braham and extended his contract for two more years today. Gutierrez, a fourth-year player, is making $472,000 this season and probably got a signing bonus in the $50,000-$75,000 range to make a two-year commitment. Gutierrez, who turns 27 next month, is a free agent out of Central Michigan who started all three preseason games this year as Braham gets his knee ready for the Sept. 10 regular-season opener.
INJURY UPDATE: The Bengals think the cyst in DE Vaughn Booker's knee burst when he practiced Tuesday and is causing discomfort. If it's not better Friday morning, he most likely won't play and will get another magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test to see if it's more serious than that. . .The two game captains from last week, RT Willie Anderson (side muscle) and LB Takeo Spikes (hip/groin) aren't expected to play. CB Artrell Hawkins (foot, wrist, knee), and SS Cory Hall (ankle) are also doubtful. . .Trainer Paul Sparling says the broken navicular bone in RB Michael Basnight's right wrist isn't healing as fast as the one Tremain Mack suffered in the Pro Bowl. Basnight could be back in mid-September, but only with a bulky cast that would severly limit him. If there are no complications, he couldn't wear a more functional cast until Oct. 1: "Since he's a skilled player, the bulky cast would make it very difficult for him to play," Sparling said.
It's a distinct possibility Basnight could go on season-long injured reserve on Sunday.