Who steps up?

7-29-02, 5:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Michael Westbrook was supposed to play like Darnay Scott. Not get hurt like him.

Four days shy of the second anniversary of Scott's season-ending broken leg, Westbrook went down Sunday with a broken left wrist that is to keep him out four to six weeks. But on Monday there wasn't the pall that hung over Georgetown College two years ago.

That's because Westbrook isn't out for the year and because the receivers behind him aren't nearly as green as the ones that were behind Scott in 2000.

As then head coach Bruce Coslet fixed a catatonic stare at Scott's prone body, he was left with a total of 15 NFL catches and none of them for touchdowns. Westbrook leaves 246 catches and 10 touchdowns behind him.

"It's certainly not as devastating as when Darnay went out for the year," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of football operations. "We've got much more experience. This is a solid position. T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) has practiced better than any receiver. Peter (Warrick) has practiced better than he ever has. Ron Dugans is a solid guy who is probably our best special teams player."

Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson, the bookends from Oregon State who are heading into their second seasons, are slated to rotate in Westbrook's spot at split end opposite the flanker Warrick. When they go three wides, Warrick moves into the slot and Johnson goes to flanker.

"It's a little early to put the honor on him," said receivers coach Steve Mooshagian, "but if we had to pick one today, T.J would be the most improved and most valuable guy to this point."

Houshmandzadeh knows that makes some people uncomfortable,

given that he's a seventh-round pick on a team with two first-rounders in Westbrook and Warrick, a second-rounder in Johnson, a third-rounder in Dugans, and a fourth-rounder in Danny Farmer. He finished his rookie season with 21 catches, but nine came against the Steelers in the 26-23 overtime win in the game that established him as a potential crunch-time player.

"I'm out here trying to play more than they want me to play," Houshmandzadeh said.

Asked about the camp buzz labeling him the most reliable and consistent receiver early in camp and he said, "Call it what they want. I just want to play. Just play me. That's just the way things are. I was drafted in the seventh round so naturally there are guys in front of me. I won't comment (on getting buried), but the competitor in me is supposed to think I'm the best guy out there."

Johnson is striving to match Houshmandzadeh's consistency, but nobody can match his speed. Mooshagian clocked him at 4.2 seconds on three straight 40-yard dashes during the offseason.

"Everybody knows I can run, so I've got to be the deep threat," Johnson said. "How many deep balls did we have last year? I feel that's part of my job. To keep everybody honest. You can't play us honest like they did last year when you've got the deep threat going."

Johnson admits his rookie year was an unmitigated disaster. He looked to be on track with three third-down conversions in the 24-14 victory over the Browns, but broke his collarbone and the rest was frustration. He led an aborted receiver revolt against quarterback Jon Kitna in the dying moments of the Baltimore game, but the two made up publicly and privately.

"I'm a professional. I can't do that anymore," Johnson has said this week. "We talked when we got back to Cincinnati and it got taken care of.

"Kitna was frustrated. I was frustrated. I know you won't see that this year," Johnson said. "I was just coming back. It was my second or third game and I wasn't on my game because the injury set me back. I don't think there'll be miscommunication like that."

Johnson played in a similar offense at Oregon State, but he had trouble adjusting last year to the sight adjustments once the defense changed up.

"I'm thinking about what I need to run," said Johnson of what was his thought process. "I'm looking at the DB. I'm trying to run my route, then look at them. . . Constant mistakes. Constant mistakes. By the time you get to September, I'm going to be all right."

Johnson has never lost his confidence. On bengals.com audio Saturday, he predicted, "I'm going to cut a rug." He got involved in a wrestling challenge with running back Corey Dillon after Monday morning's skills sessions and got picked up, carried like a baby, and dropped on an equipment bag.

"Maybe they'll cut CD if I get hurt," said Johnson with a laugh.

It was a joke, but it's no laughing matter. The Bengals need Johnson and the rest of his guys to help carry Dillon this time around.

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