12-13-01, 8:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For the second straight week, the Bengals play a return man who returned a punt for a touchdown while wearing No. 84 for Cincinnati. But Craig Yeast wouldn't mind 86-ing his old mates Sunday, when he expects to return both kicks and punts for the Jets.
"I'd like to bust a big one every week," said Yeast Wednesday from New York. "But playing the Bengals, they're the team I played for for two years and they kind of released me at a tough time. I'd like to return two or three against them ."
Yeast, a wide receiver the Bengals took in the fourth round out of Kentucky in 1999, has returned enough kicks to stand fifth in the AFC with a 24-yard average. He has also returned eight punts for a 10.3-yard average. He's gaining three more yards per pop than his Bengals' counterparts for both, but he's more concerned with the Jets' playoff run at 7-5. If New York wins Sunday, Yeast will have as many wins this year as he did in his two seasons with the Bengals.
"Winning would be sweeter than anything," said Yeast, asked the difference among the teams. "In New York, the veteran guys that are leaders get in the young guys' faces and let them know the season has moved a long and you can't be a rookie anymore. It's time to play like a second- or third-year guy.
"The biggest thing here is veteran leadership. Curtis Martin, Vinny Testaverde, Mo Lewis, Marvin Jones, Victor Green. There are so many guys to choose who have been here five or six years or more. You don't see that on a lot of NFL teams these days."
The 5-7, 165-pound Yeast felt the Bengals never could see beyond his size. After spraining his ankle on his third day of training camp as a rookie, Yeast never really hooked on as a regular receiver or return man, although he did start seven games and last he year had more snaps than any other receiver except Peter Warrick.
punts for touchdowns as a rookie, he didn't break one last season even though he got 27 more shots than Warrick. While backing up Pro Bowler Tremain Mack for two seasons, Yeast returned 10 kicks for a 15.6-yard average. But it was Mack who returned one for a TD in '99 and Warrick who broke a punt last year.
Yeast thinks the Bengals could have given him a better break by not waiting to release him until Cutdown Day with everybody else on Sept. 2.
"They drafted two receivers in 2000 (Warrick and Ron Dugans) and two more in 2001 (Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh)," Yeast said. "Every receiver they brought in was 6 foot, 6-2, 200 pounds. I'm not dumb. I knew the numbers game. I wasn't going to be there very long. It wasn't a matter of when they were going to release me. It was really bad timing and put me in a bad situation."
In the Bengals' defense, they had a spate of injuries at receiver in training camp and Houshmandzadeh couldn't return punts in the last two pre-season games.
When Yeast did sign with the Jets Oct. 10, coach Herman Edwards thought he was a one-week answer. But Yeast kept doing good things. He hasn't caught a pass in eight games, but he ripped off a career-long 50-yard kick return against the Rams and took over the AFC lead for a week after Game 8. He had a big role in the Jets' 13-12 win at the end of October in Carolina when one of his six punt returns went for 35 yards and he had 86 yards on three kickoffs.
"I don't have that (size) issue where I'm at now," Yeast said. "It's not even an issue."
Damon Gibson, who wore No. 84 before Yeast arrived, is eighth in AFC punt returns for the Jaguars with a 9.2-yard average. Warrick has been nicked with injuries and has been limited to 15 returns for 6.9. Houshmandzadeh has them all beat this year with an 86-yarder against the Browns.