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Third-down showdown

n Sunday's mid-term exam for the Bengals offense in Houston, wide receiver Kevin Walter is to the Texans what T.J. Houshmandzadeh is to Cincinnati.

How good is Houshmandzadeh on third down despite this offensive meltdown? He has converted half of the Bengals' third downs himself with 17 catches, the second most in the NFL. Walter, Houshmandzadeh's understudy in '04 and '05, is sixth with 12 that includes two touchdowns. All of Houshmandzadeh's three TDs have come on third down, also second in the NFL to that notorious blocking tight end Hines Ward's four.

"T.J.'s smart, has good hands, and he's just a football player all the way through," Walter said Thursday from Houston.

Which is how you would describe Walter, the former Bengal who in Housh-like fashion has bided his time and caught 89 balls for 1,093 yards and seven touchdown in his last 21 games.

Not that Walter is better. Merely the type of game is similar. In Houshmandzadeh you're talking about a Pro Bowler with two 1,000-yard seasons and a NFL co-catches title. In his last 21 games he has 146 catches for 1,482 yards and 12 TDs.

It will be recalled that before Walter went to Houston as a restricted free agent after the '05 season, he caught 19 balls for 211 yards that year working behind Chris Henry and Kelley Washington and stayed active for games as one of the club's special-teamers with 10 tackles.

But Chinedum Ndukwe, a second-year safety, has only seen him on film.

"He's definitely a tough-minded player; you can tell he works," Ndukwe said. "He's not afraid to go into traffic. He catches everything. I'm excited to play against him. He blocks. He does everything. I'm surprised he's not here. He'd be looking real good for us right now."

Back in '06, it made no sense for the Bengals to pay Walter a $1.5 million average over four years. Before Washington left after the '06 season as a free agent, before Tab Perry suffered a spate of injuries that limited him to just four games after '05, and before Chris Henry incurred three league suspensions.

"It's amazing when you think what has happened to all those guys," Walter said. "I have no hard feelings. I understood what they had to do and I wouldn't be getting the chance there to start like I am here now. I had learned a lot there and had a great time."

While Andre Johnson leads the NFL with a vintage Chad 105 yards per game (pre '08 model), Walter does the T.J.-stuff in the nooks and crannies. No coincidence, Walter says, because Ocho Cinco and Houshmandzadeh, as well as former receivers coach Hue Jackson, were instrumental in his development.

"T.J. does such a great job getting in and out of his routes and knowing what the defense is going to do," Walter said. "Chad is unbelievable releasing at the top of his routes and getting separation. He keeps his feet parallel and the cornerback doesn't know where he's going. I learned a lot from both of them."

Quarterback Matt Schaub's top two options are Johnson and Owen Daniels' 29 catches and 374 yards that lead all AFC tight ends. But with Andre Davis down with a broken finger, Walter won't be rotating as much Sunday on the other side of Johnson and is going to be on the field plenty.

"Any time you can share the field with a guy like Andre Johnson, it's something," Walter said. "He can run even though he's so big and he can make a big play at any time."

Although Walter's game is more Chad than T.J., Ocho Cinco sent a good part of Wednesday's conference call raving about Walter.

"Taking the skills that Kev learned here with the toughness and all of the pizzazz he already has as a receiver, it's no surprise he would be the starter on any team he was on opposite of whoever the No. 1 is," The Ocho said. "Kev's got to be the hardest working receiver in football, to get where you're at. If y'all get a chance, please tell him I said congratulations on all of the success and tell him that he still has the sexiest body in football, too."

Walter could only laugh.

"Just a great player on the field and a good guy off the field," he said of Ocho Cinco. "Really a good guy to be around and he's fun and he always practices hard. I keep in touch with T.J. more than Chad, but it's always good to see him."

Walter still texts Houshmandzadeh and quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer went to Walter's wedding before the '05 season, but The Ocho and Houshmandzadeh couldn't make it because they were traveling.

"I've got to get Carson on the phone for a long conversation," said Walter, whose wife, Caroline, is still close to Shaelyn Palmer. "It's going to be fun to see all those guys."  

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