10-6-01, 10:40 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals, who had just 15 catches of 20 yards or more by wide receivers last year, already have four heading into Game Four.
Peter Warrick, the leader with seven, is still looking to bust a 20-yarder for the first time this season. And with the return of wide receiver Darnay Scott against the Steelers, one of his more consistent targets over the years, that may open up something longer for Warrick than his biggest catch this year of 13 yards.
Since 1995, the Bengals have beaten the Steelers five times. In four of those games, Scott has caught a touchdown pass of at least 44 yards. In his last game against them in 1999, he hauled in a 76-yarder from Jeff Blake on the game's first series to give the Bengals the lead for good in Pittsburgh.
"If those safeties rush up too far for the run," Scott said, "we're going to go over the top."
Warrick is counseling patience in the slot, which is
where he plays in the three-receiver sets. He's searching over the middle, where he's stopping and starting after a catch in a bid to use his elusive play-making skills. But NFL defenders haven't been as unyielding as college players.
"Trust me. I'll get one," Warrick said. "I get 13, 13, then all of a sudden I'll get a 24 and a 24. They teach you to take the ball straight up field because there's a lot of pursuit coming. That's just the nature of me.
"I got a couple of licks last year from cutting back, but also some positives, too, when they overpursued," Warrick said. "There are upsides and downsides, It's just given how it's played."
Things aren't as grim as last year, when the Bengals' young receivers went from Sept. 24 to Nov. 12 with just one catch of more than 20 yards. That was Craig Yeast's 22-yarder against the Steelers.
And receivers coach Steve Mooshagian reminds people that Sunday is only Warrick's 20th NFL start.
"You can't take the natural instincts from him," Mooshagian said. "He's starting to learn those stop-and-start moves in college won't be as successful in the NFL. He's learning each week it's usually better to make one move and go. But there are certain situations teams have bracketed him and double teamed him in the middle and it's opened up other things for us."
Mooshagian pointed out one of Sunday's X factors is the Steelers strong safety. Scott has had some success against Pittsburgh's aggressive safeties, but the Steelers' most aggressive safety, Lee Flowers is out with injury and former Bengal Myron Bell gets the nod at strong safety.
"We don't know how Myron is going to play it," Mooshagian said.
KEATON VS. ZEREOUE (AGAIN): The question on the table is if Bengals reserve running back Curtis Keaton hadn't come down with meningitis in 1996 at West Virginia, how Famous would Amos be? As Famous as the Amos Zereoue that became the Mountaineers all-time leading rusher after three seasons before the Steelers picked him in the third round in 1999?
It got ugly in Morgantown, W.Va., where media reports claimed Keaton said he was
better than Zereoue as the two battled for playing time.
" I would never back down thinking that I was better than him. The proof is in the tape," Keaton said. "At the same time, that never came out of my mouth."
As a freshman, Keaton was West Virginia's featured back while Zereoue red-shirted. Then Keaton got sick, red-shirted his sophomore season, and didn't get the job back from Zereoue.
That dictated Keaton transfer to a Division I-AA school so he wouldn't have to sit out the 1998 season, which is how he ended up being named the outstanding player in the Blue-Gray All-Star Classic from James Madison and became the Bengals' fourth-round pick in 2000.
"If I had to do it over again, I never would gone to West Virginia," Keaton said. "But it worked out for everyone. I'm where I want to be."
Where they both are is trying to find playing time behind city institutions. Zereoue is getting more time spelling Jerome Bettis. With the help of a career-long 32-yarder, Zereoue is opening eyes averaging 7.5 yards on his 13 attempts after just 24 combined carries in his first two seasons.
But Keaton is also making an impact. He led the AFC in kick-off returns the first two weeks. And after a rookie year he carried just six times for 24 yards, he ripped off 44 yards in his first three carries of this year during the fourth quarter in San Diego.
But Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson admitted it's tough getting Keaton carries running behind Corey Dillon and Brandon Bennett.
"The main thing is," Anderson said, "is that he executed the plays that were called. He had a good week of practice and not that he doesn't prepare every week, but he prepared well and was ready and that's what he has to do as a young player still learning."
Keaton said his relationship with Zereoue wasn't as ugly as portrayed.
"The media turned it into a competition," Keaton said. "Amos and I knew we were competing against each other. They made it out like we didn't get along with each other because of people printing wrong things. That we took it off the field and that I said I was better than he was. (But) we got along."
They haven't stayed in touch, although Keaton called Zereoue before the 2000 draft to ask about his experience and the adjustment to the NFL. He plans to say hello to Zereoue during Sunday's pre-game.
"They made the decision to go with Amos and to do what he does," Keaton said of West Virginia. "It's hard not to take that personally. But at the same time, can you keep focusing on it? You have to live your life and move on. Like I said, I'm where I want to be and I'm sure he is, too."
MATCHUPS: Bengals DT Oliver Gibson goes up against a converted guard in Steelers C Jeff Hartings, the first time Gibson faces Pittsburgh without his good friend and future Hall-of-Famer Dermontti Dawson. Bengals MLB Brian Simmons has to make sure that Steelers RB Jerome Bettis doesn't cut-back down hill through the middle.
Bengals RT Willie Anderson duels last year's NFL leader for sacks by a linebacker, Steelers OLB Jason Gildon. With injured safety Lee Flowers out for Pittsburgh, Bengals RB Corey Dillon tests former Bengal and Steelers SS Myron Bell.
The Bengals have a history of going long against Pittsburgh's 3-4 zone blitz. Can Bengals QB Jon Kitna get it there like Jeff Blake did when his receivers are matched one-on-one against the likes of Steelers CB Dewayne Washington. Bengals CB Artrell Hawkins can't let Steelers WR Bobby Shaw hurt them in the slot.
GIBSON VS. HARTINGS:** Gibson has been impressed by Hartings' quickness and strength on film even though Hartings played all of his 72 games at guard before this season. But as Gibson said about Dawson's absence, "I can't say I'm totally upset about that."
Still, Gibson said the Steelers are running much of the same stuff they did with the quick, mobile Dawson. Except maybe for the sweep on which Dawson used to pull. Gibson says Hartings does a nice job with the "piggy-back," blocks in which the center takes an angle on the man after the guard blocks him.
The Steelers have the NFL's second-best rush offense. The key, Gibson says, is penetration and getting into the backfield.
SIMMONS VS. BETTIS: The Bengals have to be stout against Bettis to prevent the Steelers from using their other weapons.
While Bettis rumbled for 114 yards on 22 carries against the Bills, running back Amos Zereoue ripped off a career-long 32-yarder and running back/fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala scored on a 22-yard touchdown run. Gibson notes that the Steelers are running more reverses and screens to take advantage of those two's versatility. He says the Bengals have to be aware that when Zereoue goes in the game, the ball is going to him.
ANDERSON VS. GILDON: Gildon is coming off a 13.5-sack season and forms a formidable tag team with Joey Porter, the other outside backer who had 10.5 sacks. They each had their first one of the year last week in Buffalo to set the tone for a 20-3 manhandling of the Bills.
Gildon is a game-breaker in the Greg Lloyd tradition and flashed it last year when he returned an Akili Smith fumble 22 yards for a touchdown against the Bengals.
In fact, Anderson says Gildon is a combination of Lloyd's intensity and Kevin Greene's quickness. He says Gildon is the quickest rusher he's faced this year, but he has a variety of moves that don't allow tackles to take away one part of his game. **
DILLON VS. BELL:** How will the Steelers play it without Flowers? If Dillon is doing his thing, will they run up the safety and open the Bengals' passing game? Or will they allow Bell, a player the Bengals felt wasn't a great tackler, to sit back? Dillon has run the ball pretty well lately against the Steelers with two 100-yard games in the last three and a plus four-yard per carry average in five of his six starts against the Steelers.
KITNA VS. WASHINGTON: In four of the Bengals' five victories since 1995, Scott has caught a touchdown pass of at least 44 yards. The Steelers like to put their corners in one-on-one coverage so they can unleash their bevy of blitzes, but Scott has even beaten their zones. On his 76-yard bomb on the third play of a 27-20 win in Pittsburgh in '99, Scott won a race down the sideline when the safety didn't leave the middle in time.
Can Kitna get the long ball there? It looks like he can. He has already hit Scott with a 41-yarder and 34-yarder, although neither outside receiver had a catch for 20 or more yards last week in San Diego. **
HAWKINS VS. SHAW:** Pittsburgh's pedestrian receivers seem to come alive against Cincinnati. When the Bengals shut down the run, they can't allow the Steelers to make hay when they go three wides on third down with Shaw in the slot.
Shaw hurt them last year with five catches for 102 yards in two games, including his season-long 45-yard touchdown. Shaw has just three catches this year and none last week.
WEATHER REPORT: According to the Steel City weather gurus, it will be a vintage Pittsburgh day for the opening of Heinz Field. They call for partly sunny skies and a chilly 50 degrees with 20 mile-per-hour winds.
NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need for the weekend, including 3. The Bengals haven't won their third game of the year this early since beating the Patriots on Sept. 23, 1990. The earliest since then is a 27-9 win in Pittsburgh on Oct. 19, 1995 that put the Bengals at 3-4.
3.6 _ Bengals running back Corey Dillon's yard-per-carry this season, a yard below his career average.
10-21 - Bengals record at Three Rivers Stadium.
54 _ Yards Steelers running back Jerome Bettis needs to become the 14th 10,000-yard rusher in NFL history.
1 _ Number of times in his NFL career Dillon has gone three straight games failing to get four yards per carry. He had just a little more than three in the last two against Baltimore and San Diego.
20-16 _ Bengals QB Jon Kitna's record as an NFL starting quarterback.
31-25 _ Steelers QB Kordell Stewart's record as a starting NFL quarterback.
4-10 _ Bengals road record in the AFC Central since 1998.
2-1 _ Bengals record in Pittsburgh since 1998.
2-0 _ Bengals record in Cleveland since 1999.
24 _ Combined sacks by Steeler outside linebackers Jason Gildon and Joey Porter in 2000.
26 _ Sacks by the Bengals in 2000.