Warrick scoped

12-19-03, 11:15 a.m. Updated:
12-19-03, 5:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals have lost wide receiver Peter Warrick for this Sunday's game against the Rams after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Friday morning for torn cartilage. The Bengals are hoping Warrick can recover in time to play in the season's finale against the Browns in nine days at Paul Brown Stadium after watching left tackle Levi Jones come back in six days after a similar procedure.

"It didn't get better," said head coach Marvin Lewis of the injury Warrick suffered in last Sunday's 41-38 victory over San Francisco. "Once they went (into the right knee) they did the right thing. We'll see how he responds. He plays a different position than Levi."

Warrick, who has career highs with 75 catches, 794 yards, and seven touchdowns, has to do more cutting and moving than a tackle, and might take longer to recover. But he's also about 100 pounds lighter. One thing is for sure. Not only does the loss of Warrick hurt them in the slot, his most effective position, it also hurts them on special teams. Warrick, named a second-team alternate Pro Bowl kick returner Thursday, is their main man on punt returns. The Rams have allowed 12 returns of 15 yards or more.

Lewis said that rookie Kelley Washington is going to start "in some packages," after making three starts as the third wide receiver. He also said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is going to play for the first time this season. With Houshmandzadeh sidelined for the first half of the season with a hamstring problem, Washington grabbed the third-receiver job with 18 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns. His 14.9 yards per catch is second on the team to Pro Bowler Chad Johnson's 15.3.

Houshmandzadeh, who has dressed for just one game, had 41 catches for 492 yards last season for a 12-yard average, and one touchdown. About three weeks ago, he went to Lewis wondering why he couldn't get on the field after the club had let him take up a roster spot for about seven weeks with an injury. With his team in the process of going 8-3 after an 0-3 start, Lewis didn't want to break any continuity.

"T.J. talks to me every day. He's upstairs (with the coaches) as much as any player," Lewis said. "I encourage him every day. It's here. This is what you've been waiting for. I told him last week, 'Hang in there.' Now's his chance."

Houshmandzadeh, a third-year player, has always flashed confidence despite his seventh-round selection, and he's not backing down now.

"I felt like I should have been playing weeks ago," Houshmandzadeh said. "I can't go out there and show I shouldn't have played. I want to show I should have been able to play. It gets frustrating. You have to hang in there. Anybody who says it isn't, they're lying. Once practice starts and things get competitive, you forget about that. The only time you get frustrated is when you're thinking about it, in meetings or down time. But you forget about it once practice stats.'

Even though Warrick showed up hurt early in the week, Houshmandzadeh thought nothing of it. He knew Warrick had missed only one of his 62 career games and told him, "You'll be all right." But Houshmandzadeh knows what injuries can do. They giveth and taketh away and they have done both for him this season.

Lewis gave no clues how he is going replace Warrick in the slot, where he has caught many of his 23 third-down catches that are tied for fifth in the AFC. Johnson and Washington are outside guys. Houshmandzadeh practiced and played the slot last year. The only other wideout is rookie free agent Kevin Walter, and he's got two catches for 14 yards.

"Our practices are like games anyway without getting hit," Houshmandzadeh said. "I've been waiting for this all year. I have no choice but to be ready and I will be ready."

INSIDE SCOOP: Marvin Lewis knows exactly which NFL teams have and which teams don't have indoor facilities: "Us and the Redskins are the only teams north of Florida," that don't have them. Baltimore has one by next season. He also knows that bubbles are falling out of favor in place of field-house type structures. But asked the chances of getting such a facility at Paul Brown Stadium, he said, "We don't talk about that."

But the players most certainly are talking about it after heading out to Mason's Wall2Wall Soccer complex again Friday. It marked the third straight day the Bengals went inside when Lewis shifted the schedule from outdoor to indoor in the morning when he saw the snow coming down: "We didn't want to be slipping and sliding on the turf."

It works out because the Bengals play their only indoor game of the season Sunday in St. Louis. But even though they are playing outdoors at PBS next week, could Lewis take the team back to Mason if the weather is bad? Even though it's a round-trip 70-minute bus ride, Lewis thinks he tweaked the schedule enough to rest the players. And you can't beat the naptime on the bus.

But the Bengals have some decisions to make with Lewis running the practices. Do they build one of their own, secure some kind of agreement with a facility like Wall2Wall, or try to tough it out? Lewis has been saying one thing at a time, but how quickly could things go if there is an AFC North banner hanging from a future rafter?

KITNA GRACIOUS: All is not well with the Bengals' offense n ow that Warrick is shelved. But as long as quarterback Jon Kitna is around, the Bengals have hope.

Kitna is a major reason there is talk of going to the playoffs and the fact that guys like Willie Anderson and Chad Johnson got more notice this year, but he's staying home unless two quarterbacks decide not to go to Hawaii. He made his case with a career-high 25 touchdown passes against just 11 interceptions, including a staggering 20-1 ratio in Cincinnati's eight victories in being named the second alternate behind the Pro Bowl group of Tennessee's Steve McNair, the Colts' Peyton Manning, and Kansas City's Trent Green.

Anderson and Johnson said he deserved to go, with Johnson telling him to pack his suitcase because he plans to take Kitna with him. Anderson thought he was a victim of the name game. But Kitna felt badly only for Jordan and Jada.

"My kids really wanted to go. They really would have enjoyed it," Kitna said. "I'm not surprised. Not when you've got four of the top five passers in the NFL playing in the AFC. I know what they go by. They go by passer rating. But just to me mentioned with the elite is an honor. That's a hard thing to do and I'm blessed by it."

Indeed, McNair (102.4), Manning (101.6) and Green (97.2) are the top passers in the league, followed by Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper (95.9) and then Kitna at 91.8. Kitna leads the Patriots' Tom Brady in every category but attempts and yards, where he trails by only 64. But Kitna's 227,642 votes were about 1,000 behind the fourth place Brady in fan voting.

SPIKES PUMPED: No one was happier than Willie Anderson for Takeo Spikes Thursday. Unless it was Takeo Spikes for Willie Anderson. Spikes, Anderson's former Bengals' teammate, also made his first Pro Bowl as a Bills linebacker.

"This validates Willie Anderson," Spikes said from Buffalo. "He's the epitome of a

player who put it on the line every week, no matter how bad it was for eight years, no matter how bad it got, and no matter what the politics were that was going on."

And it validated what Spikes had been saying for years. It's the record that gets you noticed. Granted, his Bills are only 6-8, but Spikes knows he and his team got a lot of attention early because they were favorites.

"You have to seize the moment, it's like a wave and I'm riding it and Willie is riding it," Spikes said. "Willie isn't doing anything differently. But more people are watching, and then they come in there and say, 'How is Rudi Johnson getting all these yards?' and they see he keeps going off right tackle."

Spikes is happy for the Bengals, and it sounds like he's pulling for them to win the AFC North. And though he's not happy with the Bills' record, he feels the defense is setting a powerful foundation.

"I'm real happy for the Bengals because I know how badly those guys wanted it and how tough the tough times were," Spikes said. "I'm happy where I am. My time was up in Cincinnati, that's all. We're No. 2 in defense and we've got a chance to finish No. 1 in the league. We have to build on that. It won't take away all the hurt, but if we finish No. 1 overall, that will take away some of it."

**

MATCHUP OF THE GAME: ** They don't come any better than this. A Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Rams left end Leonard Little going against a Pro Bowl right tackle in the Bengals' Willie Anderson.

Little has at least one sack in eight of the 10 games he has played this season. His dozen are tied for third in the NFL and his 38.5 sacks over the past three seasons lead everyone but the Giants' Michael Strahan (47.5) and Tampa Bay's Simeon Rice (41.5).

"He's one of the three best defensive ends in the league in my opinion," said Anderson before Thursday's practice. "I've been watching him ever since he was playing

in the SEC (at Tennessee). His first step is unbelievable. It's in the Jevon Kearse mold of quickness. Playing in a dome helps out, but the guy is just plain good. The impressive thing about him is that he always has big numbers even though he's a marked man. You wouldn't think a guy could do that, but he does."

At 6-3, 260 pounds, Little's quickness and eight home games in front of a defeaning crowd and on an Astro-Turf fast track are assets. But the 6-6, 340-pound Anderson says Little isn't a simple speed rusher. It's a matchup more than speed vs. brawn. He compares Little's relentless style to an old AFC Central rival, former Ravens end Michael McCrary. Anderson is going to have to call on his athleticism, as well as his size.

"He sets up different things off his speed move," Anderson said. "The thing you have to like about him, too, is he never quits on a play and he gets sacks that way. You have to block him and you have to stay with him. You have to finish, because he has the speed and tenacity to keep the play going. He can beat you for sacks, and then he can also pick up some cheap sacks just by hustle."

Anderson knows the crowd will be loud, and Little will be poised. Anderson also knows he hasn't had help blocking, and that there is always a first time.

"You go into the game with the pride to say that," Anderson said. "You never know. I'm not too proud to the point where if a guy is a problem, 'Hey, come on over here (with another blocker).' Because a lot of guys in this league, a lot of tackles that are in the Pro Bowl, get help in some fashion. Whether it is the (quarterback) going to a three-step drop, or whatever, they get help. Not all the time, but some of the time."

BLOCKS AND BLITZES: Those Christian ball caps bearing a cross and Bible verse that he makes himself have cost Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna $5,000. In wearing them at his post-game news conferences, Kitna unwittingly violated a NFL rule that apparently prohibits the wearing of non-NFL apparel immediately after a game.

"That's what happens when you don't follow the rules," Kitna said. "I won't wear it any more. The Bible says submit to the authorities placed above you. The authorities say that's the rule. So you have to follow the rules. . . I thought it just applied to competitors' products." He says he'll probably appeal. . .

The death this week of Hall-of-Fame quarterback Otto Graham hit particularly close to the Bengals. He led coach Paul Brown's Cleveland teams to 10 championship games in two leagues, and Bengals President Mike Brown has always called him the greatest player who ever lived.

"(John) Elway reminded me a little bit of him," Mike Brown said. "I remember Otto once saying he never understood how hard it was to throw a ball accurately until he became a coach. He just never thought about it. He was able to do it so effortlessly." . .

WEDNESDAY's QUICK HITS: Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson confirmed he got fined $10,000 for his end-zone sign to the NFL, even though he was polite ("please don't fine me again") and charitable ("Merry Christmas"). When he agreed to do a Christmas message for a local television station, he said, "My last Christmas message got me fined." . . .The count for his fines this year is in the $70,000 range, but he said he's still got something up his sleeve in St .Louis this Sunday. "Of course. You thought it was over?" he asked. . .

It looks like Johnson is going to be named to his first Pro Bowl Thursday because he came in second in the fan voting at AFC receiver behind the Colts' Marvin Harrison. "I don't know," Johnson said. "I want to go to the playoffs. Forget the Pro Bowl." . . .

Rams head coach Mike Martz said WR Isaac Bruce (high ankle sprain) is probably going to play, but they will continue to keep him out of practice until later in the week. Martz called him "vastly improved," and just can't see him out of the lineup since he hasn't missed a game in five years. "It's hard to look in our offensive huddle and not see No. 80 in there," Martz said. "A little bit of a panic hat set into the old coach for a little while." . . .

Martz said RB Marshall Faulk's knee is sore and he won't start taking the practice workload until Friday. . .

Bengals RB Rudi Johnson is 125 yards shy of becoming the club's fifth different 1,000-yard rusher since Jim Anderson joined the staff as running backs coach in 1984. He would join James Brooks, Ickey Woods, Harold Green, and Corey Dillon in what would be the 12th 1,000-yard season in Anderson's 20th year. . .

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