12-19-01, 2:25 P.M.
Updated: 12-20-01, 12:05 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
While Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes took on Ray Lewis and Shannon Sharpe Wednesday with all the verbal brass worthy of a Brian Billick Super Bowl press conference, his unit ducks into Sunday's matchup with the swaggering Ravens in typical anonymity.
Who would have thought heading into 14th game of the season that the Bengals' defense would have allowed the same number of touchdowns, would have yielded an average of just eight more total yards per game and nine more total points, and posted one more sack than Baltimore's elite guard mentioned in the same breath with the '70s Steelers and '80s Bears?
But Spikes, about to claim his third team tackling title in his fourth season, believes his defense has a way to go before reaching the environs of Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
"Just because of the wins," Spikes said. "That's how the great players are measured. By how they did as far as Super Bowl wins and everything like that. We really can't compare that. But I think we can hold our own against any team, any day."
Spikes, an outside linebacker, and middle linebacker Brian Simmons continue to be Fire and Ice of a unit they have led since they were chosen four picks apart in the 1998 first round.
The stylish, single Spikes, who has been in more than sports magazines, has embraced the controversy swirling around him and Billick's twin trash talkers.
It all began last week with Lewis objecting to Steelers running back Jerome Bettis saying Spikes is as good as Lewis and Sharpe saying the comparison is like comparing the hit move, "Titanic," to the bomb, "Dude, Where's My Car?"
Now the Bengals are in Baltimore Sunday, where Spikes said he'll be like "a mad dog in a meat house. It's time to eat."
"I don't really care how (Lewis) took it. In a way, he didn't disrespect me. He was just saying what he felt," Spikes said. "My thing is if, you're the best, you don't have to talk about it. The thing that really got me going was his little sidekick Shannon Sharpe. That disrespected me.
"If he wants to be Steven Spielberg and rate movies or Siskel and Ebert, I'll rate this movie," Spikes said. "I see him as the movie 'Bring It On.' He's nothing but a cheerleader. That's what he does best. Cheerleader. Go by his side and try to find a conversation and rally behind it. That's what he's good at."
Informed of Spikes' comments Wednesday, Sharpe said he wouldn't "spar," with him as the Ravens bite their tongues after talking a little too much before Pittsburgh's 26-21 victory Sunday night.
Simmons, married and reserved, is watching. His movie? Try "Ordinary People."
"Whether I get a story in a magazine, I could care less about that," Simmons said. "As long as the coaches and owners feel like I'm doing my job and I'm playing well, that's all I care about. My check says, 'Mike Brown.'"
How long the Bengals President keeps signing the checks of Spikes and Simmons is starting to become an issue even though their deals don't end until after the '02 season. But with contract extensions that have jacked the annual salaries of Spikes' backup, Adrian Ross, and the other starting backer, Steve Foley, it figures that one or maybe both gets done before the '02 season.
With Ross and injured backup middle linebacker Armegis Spearman in the fold, there has been speculation the Bengals don't need to keep both and can drop mega money on just one linebacker, a position perceived not as pricey as defensive ends and cornerbacks.
Brown insists he wants to keep both.
"They're both the kind of players you want on your team," Brown said. "They're good guys and good players.
But in the salary cap, if you start talking about giving money to one guy, that takes away money from other guys. Honestly, this is a subject we aren't thinking about because there are three games left in the season. I don't really know what the timetable will be."
Which is what Simmons said Wednesday: "It's too far away from that. When the time comes, I'll talk about that. You make your plays and they pay you like you want to be paid."
Of course, it is no surprise that Spikes has dropped more hints. He's been leering at the $7 million per year extension Derrick Brooks signed this past training camp in Tampa Bay. When it was mentioned that the Bengals could sign one of them and slap the ever-restrictive franchise tag on the other, Spikes balked.
" I hope that doesn't happen," Spikes said. "That wouldn't be good."
But his defense is finally good after three seasons no better than finishing 22nd in the league. Now they are 10th. Not to mention third in the AFC Central behind Pittsburgh (1) and Baltimore (5).
"I think its maturation," Spikes said. "(Dick) LeBeau knew what he was doing when he molded us back when we were rookies and now we're playing the way we were molded to play."
Simmons also looks at maturity. The top four linebackers were all rookies in 1998. Three starting linemen arrived each year via free agency, starting with Oliver Gibson in 1999. Two of the cornerbacks were rookies last year and two are rookies now.
"We picked up some good players," Simmons said. "(Rookie end) Justin (Smith) has been playing well and so has (tackle) Tony Williams."
Yes, Ray Lewis is a heck of a middle linebacker. But Simmons, who may be quiet but not asleep, feels he's as good as any in the league. He's been everywhere. He is the team's co-leader with two forced fumbles, second in tackles (113), third in sacks (5.5) and he's got one of the nine interceptions.
"I'm not going to sit here and say anybody in the league is better than me," Simmons said. "I'm not going to say I'm the best. But I feel I'm as good as anybody that plays my position."
Spikes isn't going to take it, either. He's miffed that Lewis would object to Bettis comparing the two.
"If you're the best," Spikes said. "You don't have to bump your gums."
What heats Spikes is all the Raven talk despite Cincinnati's win in September.
"Last I checked, we're 1-0 against the Baltimore Ravens," Spikes said. "Making statements about Jerome must have been insane and he must have had a concussion. . .Hello, we're 1-0. That must mean something. They've got something to prove. They lost last week at home. We're out of the playoffs. They're still right in it for their spot. So all the pressure is on them."
There's no question that Spikes, the best linebacker you never heard of if it's not Simmons, is enjoying the play.
"Being in a small media market like Cincinnati," Spikes said. "(And) for the last week, week and a half my name has been tossed around more so, I wouldn't say more than bin Laden, but it might be up there. So I must be doing something right."
Spikes also couldn't resist a shot at Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac, the man he picked off twice in the Bengals' 21-10 win at Paul Brown Stadium Sept. 23, although one got negated by penalty. The man who upset him during the offseason when he didn't sign with the Bengals because Grbac said he wanted to play for a winner.
"Elvis is my man," Spikes said. "Elvis is my man."