Tackling injury

12-9-03, 6:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

After allowing two devastating sack-and-fumbles and committing two false starts Sunday, backup left tackle Scott Rehberg courageously stood up in Baltimore and faced the media.

On Monday, his linemates stood up for him when news surfaced that Rehberg could start Sunday against the 49ers at Paul Brown Stadium after starter Levi Jones underwent arthroscopic surgery Monday morning to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.

It's doubtful Jones could play this week, and it's uncertain when, or if, he'll return during the final three games because it's predicated on how the knee responds. But the conventional wisdom is he'll probably be able to play in St. Louis Dec. 21.

On Monday, backup tackles Victor Leyva and Scott Kooistra endorsed Rehberg, a seven-year veteran getting his first extended time at left tackle in a regular-season game in four years. Head coach Marvin Lewis indicated he'd go back to Rehberg, and no one has had as much practice time at that spot as him. But Lewis also said there are other options.

"We all have confidence in him," Leyva said. "Especially if he has a full week of practice. It's going to be concentrated; he'll know which guys he's going to be going against. He'll be fine."

Rehberg didn't walk into anything fine when Jones went down early in the second half. The Bengals were trailing in one of the NFL's loudest stadiums to one of the league's top sack teams. And the linemen were having trouble hearing quarterback Jon Kitna's hoarse voice. On the other side, right guard Mike Goff said there were times he couldn't even hear right tackle Willie Anderson right next to him.

"He came into such a tough situation," Leyva said. "It's one thing looking at plays on paper during the week, but when you have to go out and do it after not getting many reps in practice. . ."

Leyva, a third-year player hampered by an ankle problem this year, has been inactive more than active and has yet to play in a game. He is a leading alternative and did play some left tackle at training camp this year.

But Leyva, who played right tackle his last two seasons at Arizona State, would most likely go only at right tackle. Yet, that would involve moving Anderson from right tackle to left. Anderson hasn't done that since 1997 and it's doubtful they want to affect two positions.

Anderson worked at left tackle extensively only in his rookie season of 1996, and the last time he did it was in '97, when he was moved during the first two games of the season from right tackle to left during the game.

Kooistra, a seventh-round pick, was the starting right tackle at North Carolina State last year and the starting left tackle the year before, and has played some tight end this season. But he'd have to go at right tackle and Lewis isn't wild about playing rookies this late in a playoff run.

"Rehberg is a solid player. He's been the backup left tackle all the way," Kooistra said. "I think it's going to be a different story this week. We're at home."

Lewis classified Jones as "doubtful to out," for Sunday, but said there's a chance he could still play depending a late check on the post-surgery swelling.

Whether Lewis thinks Rehberg's problem can be alleviated by a home game in which the player has five days to prepare and the coaches five days to to game plan to help him remains to be seen.

Left guard Eric Steinbach is one of the most athletic guys on the team, but do you want to move a rookie in that key spot and fill in with a new player at guard? The six sacks allowed by the Bengals Sunday catapulted Baltimore into first place in NFL sacks with 37. The 49ers are right behind the Ravens and Giants (36) with 34.

Goff started at left tackle one game in 1999, when he held Jaguars Pro Bowl sacker Tony Brackens to no sacks and no pressures in the season finale.

One of the reasons the Bengals have been among the league leaders converting third downs (they are fourth this week) are because of the solid play of Anderson and Jones. They have been so good at protecting Kitna one-on-one, the Bengals don't have to keep in tight ends and running backs to help them block, meaning they can get plenty of receivers into the pattern to give Kitna as many options as possible.

But a new tackle this week probably means they have to do what they did in Baltimore when they tried to help Rehberg with other blockers. In fact, Anderson said one of the sacks wasn't entirely Rehberg's fault because the back went the wrong way.

**

PLAYOFF TALK:** At the moment, the Bengals ending the league's longest playoff drought at 12 seasons looks to be a longshot. But defensive tackle John Thornton has been to two AFC title games in his previous four seasons and his advice to his new teammates for the final three games is simple. Take care of your own business and good things are going to happen because anything can happen in the NFL and it usually does.

And here's a bet that the Bengals won't know their fate until near midnight after the season's last game. Or when the Ravens get done playing the Steelers in the Sunday Night finale in Baltimore.

For all practical purposes, the 7-6 Bengals' best chance to get into the playoffs looks to be catching Miami or Denver, both 8-5, for the final Wild Card spot. If Cincinnati and Denver finish tied, the Broncos go because of their Opening Day victory over the Bengals. But while the Bengals finish at home with two teams a combined 11-15, Denver plays at Indianapolis (10-3) and Green Bay (7-6). Both Cincinnati and Denver get Cleveland at home.

The Dolphins could be in trouble after quarterback Jay Fiedler re-injured his knee and is questionable to play against the 10-3 Eagles at home next week. The Dolphins also play the 5-8 Jets at home and the 6-7 Bills in Buffalo. If the Bengals tie with Miami, the next tiebreaker is the AFC record. The Dolphins are 5-5 in the conference, the Bengals 6-5.

With the 8-5 Ravens playing three teams a combined 15 games under .500, and having won three straight at a home field they are 6-1, it's hard to see them giving up that one-game lead over the Bengals in the AFC North. But if the Bengals win out, and the Ravens split with North foes Cleveland (on the road) and Pittsburgh (at home), the Bengals win the division because of the best division record.

The fly in the ointment? Cincinnati's game in St. Louis, where the 10-3 Rams are 12-2 over the last two seasons in the Edward Jones Dome and are unbeaten there this year.

**

MORE PLAYOFF TALK:** How magic is a 10-6 record? And how iffy is a 9-7 record? In the last five years in the AFC, all eight teams that have won 10 games have made the playoffs. In that same time, five of the dozen 9-7 teams made it.

TO TIME: Bengals safety Rogers Beckett, who forced a fumble and intercepted a pass Sunday to account for two of the club's three turnovers, knows all about San Francisco wide receiver Terrell Owens. Owens comes into PBS as the NFC's seventh-leading yardage receiver, 45 shy of 1,000.

While playing for the Chargers, Beckett remembers giving up a 50-yard touchdown pass to him.

"I missed an open-field tackle on him," Beckett said. "He stiff-armed me on the sideline and kept going. I misjudged his speed. He's a big, strong guy, who's fast and his big thing is yards after catch. You've got to make sure you tackle him. If he catches one on you, make sure you get him on the ground and start all over again."

**

ORANGE-SHIRTED:** The NFL's No. 1 draft pick, Carson Palmer, is reconciling himself to the fact that he more than likely won't take a snap in a game his rookie season. Head coach Marvin Lewis moved Palmer back down to the No. 3 quarterback before Sunday's game for the first time since the bye week, but won't say if he'll finish the season that way. Yet Palmer thinks Shane Matthews is going to be the backup for the rest of the year as starter Jon Kitna heads into the last three games of the season tied atop the NFL with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning with 23 touchdown passes.

"I think so," Palmer said. "If something happened, and I'm trying to get my feet wet in a game that has playoff implications, you want to go with a guy like Shane who has been in this league for a long time.

"I thought (not taking a snap) might happen when we started to get hot a couple of weeks ago," Palmer said. "The way Jon has been playing all year, I thought, 'If he does this, I won't get a chance to play.' It's not what I wanted. It's not what I expected. But it's what is happening."

Palmer has nice perspective for a guy who turns 24 in a couple of weeks. He compared it to red-shirting at USC, but added wistfully he'd rather be a college freshman if he had to do it again. Because of that experience, he doesn't think sitting out an entire season is going to diminish his skills.

"I'm still practicing, still going through the reps physically and mentally," Palmer said. "I don't think it's going to affect me that much. The thing that affects me is going into next year with no experience."

The Bengals have no qualms about what the 6-5, 230-pound Palmer can and will do physically. But the mental education continues as he learns how to implement the offense each week against different defenses.

As he said last week, Palmer is grateful for the experience to be playing behind Kitna and watching him run this offense run at the highest level. He thinks it's helpful watching him in every conceivable situation in a season of preserving leads, one-minute drives for victories, and fourth-quarter comebacks.

Like everyone else sitting, though, he misses playing.

"It's not fun," he said. "It's better than not playing being hurt, which I've done before. That (is) even worse."

By the way, Palmer spoke to everyone he could at USC Monday to commiserate about the BCS situation. He admits he doesn't understand a system in which everyone has the Trojans No. 1, but the computer doesn't put them in the national championship game.

"It's not the worst thing that could happen," Palmer said. "They still go to the Rose Bowl and got a shot to play for the national title, which is an amazing opportunity to have. It's not the one they wanted, but it's still the Rose Bowl, it's the Granddaddy of them all."

Palmer, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, watches it awarded this weekend and hopes it goes to Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning.

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