Justin Smith downplays his growing reputation as a workaholic.
Ask the second-year defensive end if he really took just eight
days off during six months of off-season training, and he'll grin
and say the stories are overblown. Question him about his workout
routine at Missouri, where he spent so many hours in the weight
room that the team's strength coach banned him from pumping iron
past 9 p.m., and he'll say the coach wanted to spend some time
with his wife and kids.
No matter how much he tries to deflect the attention, however,
Smith is simply too good to be ignored. He has size (he's 6'4",
270), power, speed, quickness and a relentlessness that coaches
dream of. He's also quickly becoming the marquee player for a
Bengals defense that will surprise a lot of people this year.
"Ever since I was in college, I've tried not to take any
attention I get too seriously," says Smith, the fourth pick in
the 2001 draft. "You have to be more focused on what you're
trying to accomplish in the NFL. I know some people have talked
about me being a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but I'm not worried
about the Pro Bowl as much as I am about helping this team win."
The Bengals expect Smith to pick up where he left off as a
rookie. After holding out until the day before last year's
season opener, he walked into the lineup and finished with 8 1/2
sacks, 41 tackles and two interceptions. Though his success went
largely unnoticed outside of Cincinnati, anybody who watched
Smith saw how scary he can be. "He's the definition of a
dominant pass rusher," says Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes.
"We've been trying to find that around here for a few years, and
with him in the lineup, all our jobs are made a lot easier."
The butterflies from Smith's rookie season have vanished, and he
doesn't have to endure four-hour crash-course sessions with
defensive line coach Tim Krumrie, as he did at the start of last
season. "He's stronger, he's more confident, and he's more
relaxed," Krumrie says. "He'll continue showing people that he's
everything a Number 1 pick is supposed to be."
Because he demands constant double teams, Smith creates
opportunities for the rest of the Cincinnati defense. End Reinard
Wilson had a career-high nine sacks last year, many of which came
when he and Smith played together on long-yardage situations.
Smith isn't the only unsung talent on the defense. Tackles Oliver
Gibson and Tony Williams flew under the radar despite fine
seasons. Spikes, Brian Simmons and Steve Foley form one of the
league's best linebacking corps. There are still questions at
cornerback, where Artrell Hawkins and Jeff Burris are average,
but the athleticism of the defense has improved markedly since
Smith's arrival--and so have the numbers. In 2001 Cincinnati set a
team record for sacks (48) and allowed the fewest total yards per
game (302) by a Bengals defense since 1983. "He's helped make us
faster up front," Simmons says of Smith. "Now we have a lot of
guys who can run."
Cincinnati will rely heavily on its defense until the offense
stabilizes. (The biggest question was what to do at quarterback,
and on Monday the Bengals named free-agent acquisition Gus
Frerotte to start ahead of Jon Kitna and Akili Smith, the third
pick in the '99 draft.) Justin Smith--who is so driven to improve
that this spring he frequently practiced pass-rushing moves in
the living room of his suburban Cincinnati home--and his fellow
defenders welcome the responsibility. Though they had a six-game
losing streak last season, they also gained confidence from a 4-4
start and from victories over three playoff teams: New England,
Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Says coach Dick LeBeau, "It's not a
question of finding out if we can win. We know we can play with
That's how Smith sees it too. "Look at our defense, and you'll
see we have great linebackers, a solid line and a lot of good
backups," he says. "But when you have depth and talent in the
NFL, you have to realize it won't last forever. You have to move
quick, and that's what we're trying to do." --J.C.
COLOR PHOTO: MARK FRIEDMAN/SPORTSCHROME Smith demands attention from blockers, freeing up his linemates to make big plays.
COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS THOMPSON
Wide receiver Peter Warrick will line up in spots other than the
slot to capitalize on his explosiveness. He'll get more time on
the outside in multiple-receiver formations, run more downfield
patterns and maybe even set up at quarterback to get more
rushing attempts. At the least, Warrick will no longer be in the
role of a small tight end, as he was in 2001.
ENEMY LINES an opposing team's scout sizes up the Bengals
"Cincinnati's success will depend on the quarterback situation.
I'm not a Gus Frerotte fan. History has proved that he'll
produce when things are going well, but he folds as soon as you
hit him in the mouth. Akili Smith has the most ability of the
three, but Jon Kitna is the best option. His only major flaw is
overconfidence. Last year he would make smart decisions in the
first half, but when they got behind, he started thinking he
could win all by himself. That's when he got into trouble....
Whoever's at quarterback will have talent to work with. Michael
Westbrook and Chad Johnson can run, and Ron Dugans and Peter
Warrick are tough in the slot. Throw in Corey Dillon, and they
have five legitimate weapons.... People got on the Bengals for
drafting Levi Jones, but it's only a mistake if the guy is a
bust. They needed a tackle, and they figured they wouldn't get
someone as good in the second round.... Defensively, their
linebacking trio is probably the best in the game. Steve Foley
is really underrated. He was a defensive end in college, and
he's finally coming into his own as a strongside linebacker....
They still have issues at cornerback, but Lamont Thompson might
help their secondary. He's a big safety with range, but he also
needs to be more aggressive.... They have more talent than
people realize, but you have to remember that these are the
Bengals. Everybody expects them to screw it up."
Sept. 8 SAN DIEGO
15 at Cleveland
22 at Atlanta
29 TAMPA BAY
Oct. 6 at Indianapolis
20 Open date
Nov. 3 at Houston
10 at Baltimore
24 at Pittsburgh
Dec. 1 BALTIMORE
8 at Carolina
22 NEW ORLEANS
29 at Buffalo
NFL rank: 29
Opponents' 2001 winning percentage: .463
Games against playoff teams: 6
PROJECTED LINEUP with 2001 statistics
COACH: Dick LeBeau; third season with Cincinnati (10-19 in NFL)
2001 RECORD: 6-10 (sixth in AFC Central)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense T18/23/23; defense 11/12/9
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Gus Frerotte [N] 169
48 att. 30 comp. 62.5% 308 yds. 3 TDs 0 int. 101.7 rtg.
RB Corey Dillon 33
340 att. 1,315 yds. 3.9 avg. 34 rec. 228 yds. 6.7 avg. 13 TDs
RB Brandon Bennett 230
50 att. 232 yds. 4.6 avg. 20 rec. 150 yds. 7.5 avg. 0 TDs
FB Lorenzo Neal 340
5 att. 10 yds. 2.0 avg. 19 rec. 101 yds. 5.3 avg. 1 TD
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR Michael Westbrook [N] 75 57 rec. 664 yds. 4 TDs
WR Peter Warrick 92 70 rec. 667 yds. 1 TD
WR Chad Johnson 200 28 rec. 329 yds. 1 TD
TE Sean Brewer  276 29 rec. 372 yds. 1 TD
K Neil Rackers 322 23/24 XPs 17/28 FGs 74 pts.
PR Peter Warrick 92 18 ret. 6.4 avg. 0 TDs
KR Curtis Keaton 338 42 ret. 21.2 avg. 0 TDs
LT Richmond Webb 6'6" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Matt O'Dwyer 6'5" 310 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
C Rich Braham 6'4" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Mike Goff 6'5" 311 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Willie Anderson 6'5" 340 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Vaughn Booker 34 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
LT Oliver Gibson 45 tackles 3 sacks
RT Tony Williams 15 tackles 5 sacks
RE Justin Smith 41 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
OLB Steve Foley 24 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Brian Simmons 50 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
OLB Takeo Spikes 80 tackles 6 sacks
CB Jeff Burris [N] 54 tackles 3 int.
SS Cory Hall 32 tackles 0 int.
FS Lamont Thompson (R)[N] 93 tackles 10 int.
CB Artrell Hawkins 47 tackles 3 int.
P Nick Harris 84 punts 40.1 avg.
[N] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 98)
 2000 college statistics
"Their linebacking trio is probably the best in the game. Steve
Foley is finally coming into his own."