Updated: 8:10 p.m.
The Bengals went 10 years between taking the fourth pick in the draft and they'll be on the same field in their Paul Brown Stadium opener Sunday (1 p.m.- ESPN 1530) when rookie wide receiver A.J. Green faces a 49ers defense led by end Justin Smith.
Old friend Smith shows and you won't recognize him since his last snap at Paul Brown Stadium in 2007. Which is just about right because he doesn't recognize the Bengals since there will be only eight players around that were either on the roster or practice squad.
"Tell you the truth, it's been so far removed that it's just another game on the schedule and it's going to be one of those tough fought games," Smith told the Cincinnati media during a conference call Wednesday. "There's Robert (Geathers) and (Domata) Peko and I played with Leon (Hall). And some of the guys on the offensive line. But everyone else is different."
So is Smith, a 265-pounder the Bengals made a 4-3 right end when they took him with the fourth pick in 2001. He wasn't the sackmaster they envisioned, but he was one of the most productive first-rounders the Bengals ever had. His 43.5 sacks are fourth on the Bengals all-time list and he averaged 86 tackles in his seven seasons in which the only game he missed was his first one because of a holdout.
Solid, but the Bengals felt not enough to warrant what a team like the Niners gave Smith in unrestricted free agency, which was reported as $20 million in guarantees for six years for a total of $45 million.
Smith has been better in San Francisco as an inside player in a 3-4. He's gone to his first two Pro Bowls the past two seasons and his 23.5 sacks since he left the Bengals leads the 49ers. His 674 tackles and 157 straight games leads all NFL defensive linemen.
And, as usual, Smith doesn't have much to say about his game and what's different about it. He's still the same no-frills guy that played his college ball at Missouri about 30 miles from where he grew up. Give him a ballcap and jeans and he'll give a straight answer.
"There are multiple looks you can go from it," Smith said of the 3-4. "So the responsibilities are a little bit different, but so far I like the scheme. Both fronts have their advantages and disadvantages. This is the scheme I'm in and so far we've had some success in it."
Head coach Marvin Lewis says Smith is in a different spot but has the same attributes.
"He still has the same motor and energy and strength and explosiveness. He does a good job as a rusher and plays the run very well. He plays as hard as he always did," Lewis said. "So it's a credit to him because he's played this long and injury free, basically, as far as major things, and just kept on playing. The only time he's ever missed is when he held out originally. So it's just a credit to him and how he goes about his training and his life."
On the run downs, one of Smith's former Bengals teammates, left tackle Andrew Whitworth expects to get him most of the time. On passing downs Smith will slide in on left guard Nate Livings. Whitworth believes Smith's relentless, high-motor mauling strength has given the 49ers defense that kind of identity. And San Francisco is working on 24 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher and is ranked No. 1 against the run after the first two games.
"I know his style and his attitude; I practiced against him for two years," Whitworth said. "He's like he was when he was here: a power rusher. They play almost identical to Pittsburgh. They don't move around as much, but they're fast and physical with good players inside and outside. It's pretty close to what we see in the AFC North and their three down linemen set the tone for them."
Now Smith might not say much publicly, but old teammates from here and there know that he likes to talk to them. Whitworth says Smith is the master of the one-liner. And, as former 49ers linebacker Manny Lawson says, "He's a character."
Whitworth has heard it all firsthand. Smith pinned the nickname Dinobones on Whitworth because he's so big and his hands are so strong.
"He's a straight shooter," Whitworth says.
"He goes out there and you'll be dog-tired and he'll find some way to motivate you and uplift your spirits," said Lawson, starting at SAM for the Bengals on Sunday."You look at him and you say, 'He's got a bad body, he must be slow.' But I mean the guy is powerful, he's quick, he's got a high motor and he loves the game."
Lawson is aware of Smith's playing streak and shakes his head.
"He comes in with tape on him all the time. I've never seen a guy with so much tape on him. It's crazy," Lawson said. "I'm like, 'Justin, what are you doing? You can't move.' "
Then Lawson does a solid imitation of Smith shrugging it off.
"Oh yeah, Justin talks. When doesn't he talk? You mean 'Country?' " asked former 49ers cornerback Nate Clements. "He's got a high motor. He's always going out there. He really gets those boys up front going."
Whitworth says there'll be mutual respect out there Sunday. They rarely got into it during practice.
"He's a laid-back guy who plays hard as hell each week. Justin just plays the game he way it's meant to be played," Whitworth said.
Smith says the Niners don't talk about the sub-100 streak that started on Nov. 29, 2009, the week after the Packers' Ryan Grant got the Niners for 129 yards on 21 carries. Bengals running back Cedric Benson broke Baltimore's 40-game 100 streak in 2009.
"Cedric is running well and we'll be tested this week," Smith said. "The offensive line uses their big guys and the scheme they run and the people they have up front, it fits them well. You always see them getting positive yards even when there's penetration.
"(Whitworth) is big. He gets the job done. He's shut down a lot of good pass rushers. He's done really well in the running game. He just uses his size and his athleticism to his advantage. Same guy when I played with him. He looks the exact same."
Not so Smith. He wonders what Lawson, Clements and safety Taylor Mays are telling the Bengals about their defense since they all played in Frisco last season. The Niners also have former Bengals defenders Ahmad Brooks at outside linebacker and safety Madieu Williams playing in situational packages, but they can't tell their teammate much because none of the three played for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati.
"Played with those three guys the last couple of years and there are some talented guys as well and they're probably giving all the info they can about us. .. (we) haven't played in Cincinnati in a while so we don't have quite as much information as they do."
But Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden isn't exactly suffering from information overload.
After Wednesday's practice, Gruden said he's pretty much relying on the video.
BACKS ROTATION: Lewis called himself out Wednesday for failing to get backup running back Bernard Scott more carries. Scott has pretty much only worked one series in each game and has just six carries for 13 yards compared to Benson's 41 for 180.
"I just have to do it. I really do. And that's my fault," Lewis said. "I've got to do it and say, 'OK, this is when.' I think sometimes we get caught up in the flow of the game and the situation. 'Oh, we had a three-and-out. Well, OK, it's Bernard's turn.' If that goes three-and-out, then so be it. We'll know we can go three-and-out and with whoever the back is at times.
"As I've looked over the NFL the last few years I think the Giants have done the best job of platooning their guys like that, getting the guy in and going, letting the guy play for a series and then the other guy comes back for a series and they alternate them. They just do it, I think for longevity purposes over the season, that's the way to do it. And in Bernard's case, I think he's deserving to get to play more and more, to get the chance to touch the ball."
Lewis says he's spoken with Giants running backs coach Jerald Ingram about the rotation with Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. In their win over the Rams on Monday night, Bradshaw ran it 15 times for 59 yards while Jacobs took it 16 for 50. Lewis probably doesn't want to get it that equal, but the Giants also seem to vary it from game to game. Yet they also seem to have an outline going into the game. In the opener, Jacobs carried the ball just six times even though he was in the 5-6 yards-per-carry range and Bradshaw wasn't close to that but carried it 13 times.
"They don't do it by feel. They just do it. Everybody knows it going in and that's the way it's going to be," Lewis said.
Gruden's not sure if Benson and Scott could be assigned specific series, but that's a discussion Lewis apparently wants to have.
"We'd love to get him more touches," Gruden said of Scott. "But the last game was hard. He's out there one series for a four-play drive. Plus, we have some drives shorter than normal. Then in the second half we started with a three-and-out and then it was the passing game. That will happen if you're the other guy. We have to sustain drives in the end, then we have a better chance of getting Bernard into the game.
"I'm happy with either back in the game."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Whitworth is raving about the passion exhibited by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.
"He's not scared. At first he was quiet in the preseason, but he's really jumped out of his shell," Whitworth said. "The biggest thing for Andy right now is that he's playing the game all in, heart on his sleeve. Passionate. That's awesome. That's something this team needs and it's kind of something new for us. Offensively having a guy that fired up and that passionate while he's playing is neat."
» President Obama is scheduled to appear across the street while the Bengals are practicing on the Paul Brown Stadium fields Thursday and head coach Marvin Lewis isn't expecting the visit to impact the team's schedule. When Lewis told his team, "The President is coming," one of his players asked, "President of what?"
"They said, 'Coach, you just should have said, 'Obama,' " Lewis said.
» Andre Caldwell is now the full-time slot receiver with Jordan Shipley (ACL) lost for the season. But been there, done that in big moments. Moments after Shipley limped off the field Sunday in Denver, Caldwell scored on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Dalton on the same play he caught the winning four-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer against the Steelers with 14 seconds left in the 2009 PBS game.
"The middle linebacker dropped off and I replaced him," Caldwell said.
» Lewis says the role model for the receivers ought to be Andrew Hawkins, just signed off the practice squad. He says Hawkins, who played in the CFL for two seasons after sitting out 2008 looking for a job, earned it the way players used to do it.
"In training camp," said Lewis, who expects the 5-7 Hawkins to continue to work on fielding punts as well as covering them. "Whatever he is, 195, 200 pounds because he's stacked, he's looking to go in there and take your head off."
» The Bengals replaced Hawkins on the practice squad with former University of Cincinnati receiver Armon Binns, a guy Lewis says the Bengals wanted to sign after the draft. But the Jaguars got him and cut him just before the season.
"Sometimes they don't listen," Lewis said.
The 6-3, 209-pound Binns is what Lewis calls a receiver in the Bengals mold with "a big catching area," much like the rangy A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson. And he's wearing the old number of someone with a big naming area: Chad Ochocinco's No. 85.
» Left end Robert Geathers (shoulder), who didn't play Sunday, was on the side Wednesday pummelling director of rehab Nick Cosgray in a punching drill. SAM linebacker Dontay Moch (foot) is easing into running and looks to be getting closer by the week. Guard Otis Hudson (knee) is back full go and safety Talyor Mays (knee) looks to be just in time to play the Niners team that traded him a month ago.
For the Niners, wide receiver Braylon Edwards (knee) and fullback Moran Norris (knee) have been declared out. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree (foot) was limited. Although the 49ers said quarterback Alex Smith suffered a concussion in Sunday's loss to Dallas, he was a full go at practice.