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Together again

5-30-01, 5:35 a.m.


After practice lately, outside linebacker Takeo Spikes has been watching film from last year while recording all his mistakes in a spiral notebook.

So if there is one guy who knew what Tuesday's practice signified, it is Spikes.

Even if it was only a little 60-minute workout in helmet and shorts.

Even if there was only two days left in May and two voluntary practices left and seven weeks before training camp.

Here's a guy who six months to the day of the Bengals' best defensive stand of last season was upstairs two hours after practice writing down his worst moments in that 12-3 victory over Cleveland.

So you didn't have to tell Spikes it was the first time he had been on the field with middle linebacker Brian Simmons since the third quarter of last season's regular-season opener.

"No one thinks anyone thinks about stuff like that, but I do," Spikes said. "It felt good out there being beside my role dog. We hadn't been together in damn near a year. I think I bring more energy (to practice) after being out. I just felt like more guys were into it. More guys talking, more guys wanting to make that play."

On the field, Spikes (the 13th pick) and Simmons (the 18th pick) had been as close as their selections in the 1998 first round of the NFL Draft. But when Simmons ripped cartilage from his knee last year, Spikes had to go it alone the rest of the season. When Simmons returned to workouts this month, Spikes was sitting out after getting his left shoulder cleaned out in a March 27 arthroscopic surgery.

On Tuesday, they finally joined up.

"Overall, (Spikes) looked pretty damn good," said linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who had his men

together for the first time as defensive coordinator. "A little rusty, sure, but that excellent curl flat is one of the best (pass coverage drops) I've seen."

Spikes liked what he saw through the helmet for the first time. Simmons, his usually silent partner, has been more and more vocal this spring. There is a legitimate quick pass rusher at right end in No. 1 pick Justin Smith. There is more depth on the defensive line with former Vikings tackle Tony Williams. There is more experience on the other line with left tackle Richmond Webb.

Spikes just wanted to finally get out there in the middle of it.

"I felt rusty," he said. "I felt like the day I came into the league. I was saying, 'Damn, this speed is going quick.' I need to work on my drops in coverage.

Being able to look at the quarterback at the same time and look at the receiver, like a head on a swivel. Go back and forth. That way you don't become a wasted man. You can kind of float out of your zone to where he's looking and make the play, help somebody else out."

What is helping out Spikes is the soreness that nagged the area connecting his hip and groin much of last year is pretty much gone, although he did have to ice it down some after practice. As he watched film, the old twinge came back when he saw himself wrench it again late in the game chasing the ball out of bounds.

"I hurt it again there," said Spikes, frustrated by his inability to get to the quarterback on blitzes all during the game. "Look at that. I had no explosion in my first three steps. My motor is harder than that. I'm floating in there. That's not my motor."

Spikes has been watching all his plays from all 10 division games from 2000 and is making lists. He'll compare the notes and make one final list of his most frequent miscues and hang the paper in his locker at Georgetown College when training camp starts July 20.

At the moment, leading the final list is, "taking the initial break faster on the ball as quickly as it's thrown," and "winning one-on-one battles on the blitz."

As Spikes watched himself try to shoot through the inside of the Cleveland offensive line, he punched the clicker in agitation for a replay of one of the guards stopping him by simply raising an arm.

"See, I got to beat him, Dog, I've got to beat him," Spikes said. " I should have swatted that arm down. I've got to beat offensive linemen one-on-one. Can't anybody beat me one-on-one. You've got to beat that. That's one of the weakest points of my game is coming in on blitzes."

What Spikes doesn't lack is confidence in his team. He's been having a running e-mail and two-way pager battle with Tampa Bay wide receiver Jacquez Green, a friend from where they grew up in Georgia.

Green, Spikes, receiver Ike Hilliard, Bengals rookie receiver Chad Johnson, and some other NFL players gathered socially in Miami this past week. Spikes, knowing he was finally buckling the chinstrap this week, felt like he could dole out some words.

"I was telling them to watch out because we're coming at them," he said, "and they said, 'C'mon Spikes, you said the same thing two years ago,' and I told them I don't care, we've got the talent. I pointed at CJ and I told Jacquez, 'I've finally seen a guy who gets out of the chute as fast as you. He's made a believer in me.' And we kept going at it all weekend. I know we can play with what we've got here."

Spikes is confident he can play with what he's got in his left shoulder. It's still not easy for him to feel like he's getting full range of motion, but he's been told it's fully healed and it will come as he continues his stretching and strengthening exercises.

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