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 offseason 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� 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 people."
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."
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