9-27-02, 8:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The name has changed, but not the challenge posed by the daunting figure of Tampa Bay Pro Bowl safety John Lynch.
When the Bengals played the Buccaneers 10 months ago, their tight ends were dropping like stocks and backup fullback Nick Williams ended up getting most of his snaps at tight end on a day starting tight end Tony McGee went down, joining Marco Battaglia on the injured list. But they managed to run the ball decently against the league's sixth best defense.
So what else is new? Starting tight end Sean Brewer is out with a knee injury and now Williams is named Nicolas Luchey and he's going to be the second tight end behind rookie Matt Schobel.
With Lynch in town, the Bengals need their tight ends to grow up in a hurry. He keys a swarming defense that offers openings over the middle and underneath their Cover 2 zone, but none at the line of scrimmage.
Just ask Luchey about the problems they present. Last year in overtime, with Luchey in the game, along with fullback Lorenzo Neal, the Bengals had the ball on their own 4 in overtime. They gave the ball to running back Corey Dillon and Luchey had to choose between blocking Lynch and the cornerback. He let Lynch go and Lynch roared in to strip Dillon of the ball and the Bucs won the game on the next play.
"I had the option to block either guy," Luchey recalled Thursday. "I went with the corner because he was the most dangerous. The closest guy to the play. Lynch just made a great play."
Everyone, from Neal, to Luchey, to Schobel, to wide receiver Peter Warrick, is going to have to get their hat on Lynch at some point during the game. But in just his second start in as many seasons, quarterback Akili Smith is going to need help from the makeshift duo of Schobel, making his first NFL start, and Luchey, playing
his first full game at tight end in the NFL. With everyone figuring the Bucs are going to blitz the house against the inexperienced Smith, the tight ends are going to have to be available on quick routes and, at times, they are going to have to pick up the blitzers.
With 463 career tight-end catches on the Bucs' sideline Sunday in the persons of Ken Dilger and Ricky Dudley, the big question is why the Bengals haven't picked up a veteran tight end. Dilger visited Paul Brown Stadium last April, before they took Schobel in the third round of the draft. But Dudley became available two weeks ago when the inexperience was obvious.
Still, the Bengals were leery of the injury history of both Dilger and Dudley, but it's Brewer missing Sunday's game with a knee cartilage tear as he comes off a rookie season he spent on injured reserve.
"I can't control the injuries," Brewer said. "I hope I've got these all behind me now and I don't get hurt for a long time."
For a variety of reasons, Brewer and Schobel have received virtually no snaps in the first three games. The Bengals have been in four wide sets by the second half in order to catch up, plus they resorted to using rookie left tackle Levi Jones at tight end in running situations.
After being part of an offense that led the NFL in preseason rushing, Brewer has openly wondered why Jones was playing and he wasn't. Asked if it has curtailed his development, Brewer said, "I guess so. You really can't get a feel until you're in a game. You can't simulate the speed in practice, but you have to do what they ask us to do."
What they are asking Jones to do is to concentrate on playing tackle, so it looks like Schobel will be the man Sunday. "I think they want to see what I can do and what we can do," Schobel said.
Using the 310-pound Jones seemed to tip that the Bengals were running and Smith said it happened in Atlanta last week, when the safety rushed up to Jones' side and "shook us up a few times." Still, Jones might be able to play a tight end helping in pass protection.
Luchey might not even play that much if the Bengals determine they want to play with just one tight end. But he provides enough flexibility that they could also use him out of the backfield and as a receiver.
"I really haven't been given a reason why I haven't played more," said Luchey, in his fourth season. "I think I give them some versatility so they can use me in a lot of ways.'
The 270-pound Luchey is an intriguing load. He can catch and block, but it's the age-old story. The Bengals seek consistency from him, and he seeks the playing time from them to get the consistency.
He's in a better position than the last time he met Lynch and company. It was Luchey's first game back since tearing his anterior cruciate knee ligament in the May, 2001 minicamp.
MATCHUPS:In his first Paul Brown Stadium start in nearly two years,Bengals QB Akili Smith* hs to find the man who won last year's game in overtime for Tampa Bay, 16-13, in *Bucs SS John Lynch.* Smih also needs help from Bngals LT Richmond Webb, who i offering no excuses for his early struggles as he prepares for Buc DE Simeon Rice. With the Bucs bringing in 10 sacks and the Bengals allowing 11, it's a huge part of this game.
Bengals RG Scott Rehberg, replacing Mike Goff, gets to play Bucs DT Warren Sapp for the second straight year. They are both on new teams, but Cincinnati hopes it can fare better when Bengals CB Jeff Burris plays Bucs WR Keenan McCardell.
Special teams play, along with Lynch's play, doomed the Bengals in last year's loss to Tampa Bay. Bengals WR Ron Dugans has to always know where to find Bucs CB Ronde Barber.
SMITH VS. LYNCH: Smith is more comfortable with this defense because it is based on coverage reads. That's the good news. The bad news is he has to read Lynch, the Pro Bowl safety who stripped Corey Dillon in overtime on the Bengals 3 last year.
"They like to blitz him, they like to use him in a lot of different ways," Smith said. "If you read low to high, you have to find Sapp and then Lynch and if it's high to low, then you go to Lynch and then Sapp."
Right guard Scott Rehberg says Lynch is like "a linebacker out there. He really brings it," and fullback Lorenzo Neal looks forward to it.
"The guy comes at you 100 miles an hour," Neal said. "He'll hit you. He's got a knack for the ball. He's a ball hawk." **
WEBB VS. RICE:** The last time Rice played the Bengals, he had two sacks and a forced fumble in a ridiculous stretch he earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month with eight sacks. He has one this year, but that's OK because the Bucs already have 10.
Webb, the classy 13-year pro, isn't about to point any fingers. His team has never had the lead and has been down at least 17-0 early in the second quarter of all three games. Not exactly a recipe for pass protectors.
But at 35, the seven-time Pro Bowler is giving up sacks he didn't used to give up and the coaches have discussed replacing him with No. 1 pick Levi Jones, a move that now seems to be coming sooner than later.
"I've always said I want to do what's best for the team and if that means I'm on the sidelines, then I want to do what helps us win," Webb said. "That's the important thing. I'm not going to point fingers. I know I'm going to come out of this. You get judged on sacks. I just have to stay on the blocks longer and keep fighting through it."
He is preparing for Rice's speed as well as the stunts and games he pulls off with Sapp: "They're great athletes and everybody is disciplined. They get where they need to be. That's what makes them so good."
REHBERG VS. SAPP: The 6-8, 325-pound Rehberg, making his 24th NFL start, did this last year when he played for the injured Matt O'Dwyer, against the 6-2, 303-pound Sapp. Yes, Sapp is big, quick, relentless and will flop over Rehberg at right guard and O'Dwyer at left.
"But you can't forget about the other guys," Rehberg said. "(Anthony) McFarland is an excellent player as well. It doesn't change anything. The bottom line is we have to move the ball, run the ball, pass the ball and score some points. It's not going to be the end of the world if we don't score on the first drive. But we don't want to go three and out. We want to change field position on that first drive."
The Bengas like to angle block, so the Bucs' slanting, one-gap scheme is a bit harder to defend than the typical 4-3 defense.
"You can get in trouble doubling Sapp," said center Rich Braham. "Usually the guard has to block him and the way our offense is set up, there's a lot of one-on-one blocking. If we can get some angles, stay low, we'll be fine." **
BURRIS VS. MCCARDELL:** The Bengals kept Bucs wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson out of the end zone and out of the 100-yard area last year with some good work by cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn. But the addition of former Jaguar Keenan McCardell has to be bothersome.
He has three 100-yard games against the Bengals and he had 92 yards last year on eight catches. Working against some members of this secondary, McCardell had nine catches for 108 yards in 1999 and 10 for 108 in 2000. The Bengals hope Burris can tighten things up. Artrell Hawkins, the other starting corner, is expected to play even though he has been listed as questionable and missed practice Wednesday and Thursday. **
DUGANS VS. BARBER:** Barber walked in untouched to take the ball off the foot of punter Nick Harris last year in a blocked punt that turned into a touchdown. The Falcons tried to do the same kind of thing last week by bringing the ninth man off the corner, forcing Harris to get off a hurried 17-yard kick, and the Bengals have to find a way to deal with the extra man.
The Bengals had 11 men on the field last week when Harris got off that punt, but they had people running on and off the field up until the kick.
Special teams coach Al Roberts attributed that to having one new player on the punt team as well as tight end Sean Brewer's knee injury on the third-down play. But Brewer didn't appear hurt until he went to the huddle.
The Bengals are trying to improve their tough numbers, which are next to last in the NFL in gross and net punting.
NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need for Sunday's game against the Bucs, including 153 and seven. The first is Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson's streak of consecutive passes without an interception. The second is the number of interceptions Bengals quarterbacks have had in 167 passes dating back to last season's finale.
153 _ Brad Johnson's streak of consecutive passes without an interception.
7 _ Interceptions Bengals quarterbacks have had in last 167 passes dating back to last season's finale.
112 _ Sacks by Tampa Bay's defensive line from 1999-2001.
109 _ Total of all Bengals sacks from 1999-2001.
55 _ Yards Bengals running back Corey Dillon needs to become club's all-time leading rusher.
72 _ Percentage of his games Dillon has rushed for more than 55 yards since he became a regular halfway through his rookie season.
17-10 _ Bengals record when Dillon carries 22 or more times.
472 _ Career catches by the Tampa Bay tight ends.
18 _ Career catches by Bengals tight ends.
39 _ Age of Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden.
44 _ Years in the NFL of Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau.
672 _ Days between home starts for Bengals quarterback Akili Smith.
349 _ Passes Smith has thrown since throwing last-second winner to Carl Pickens in first NFL start.
3 _ TD passes Smith has thrown since that winner to Pickens.
5 _ Smith's career TD passes (two to Peter Warrick, two to Pickens, one to Ron Dugans.)
54- 129-1 _ Tampa Bay record from 1980-91.
53-123 _ Bengals record from 1991-2002.