Notebook: Late bloomers, hard chargers

<b> PITTSBURGH - </b> The best receiver in the AFC? Well, if you judge by statistics, today's game would be the proving ground for both Hines Ward of the Steelers and Chad Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals.

The two players are tied for the conference receptions lead with 65 apiece. Johnson, though, has 988 yards compared to Ward's 774 and is being viewed as the top up-and-comer in the league. In his third season in the NFL, Johnson has 162 catches for 2,483 yards (15.3 avg.) and 14 touchdowns. In five games against the Steelers, he's averaged 5 catches and 75.4 yards, including a career-high 152 yards on 7 catches the last time he played at Heinz Field.

Last week, Johnson caught 10 passes for 107 yards and 3 touchdowns and bragged afterwards, "There's not anyone in the NFL that can cover me."

The 6-foot-1, 192-pound Johnson was a late bloomer in college. He played only one season at Oregon State and caught only 37 passes, so scouts didn't become too interested in the cousin of Keyshawn Johnson and Samari Rolle until after the draft process kicked in.

"He tore it up in the Senior Bowl," remembered Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. "That's when his stock went through the roof. I remember everyone talking about him at the Senior Bowl."

Actually, Bettis should remember Johnson for a play that occurred less than a month before the Senior Bowl.

In the Jan. 1, 2001 Fiesta Bowl between Oregon State and Bettis' alma mater, Notre Dame, Johnson was credited with a 74-yard touchdown pass that gave Oregon State a 12-0 lead on its way to a 41-9 route. But replays of the catch showed Johnson coolly dropping the ball at the two-yard line, right in front of an official who was signaling touchdown.

"Yeah, yeah. I do remember that," Bettis said. "But I remember them crushing us more than anything else."

Johnson is being helped these days by the progress of former No. 1 pick Peter Warrick, who has 54 catches for 592 yards and 5 touchdowns this season.

Added to his production from the final eight games last season, Warrick has 86 catches for 982 yards and 10 touchdowns in his last 19 games (avg. 4.5 receptions, 52 yards, 0.5 touchdowns). In the first two-thirds, or 38 games, of his career, Warrick caught 142 passes for 1,475 yards and 6 touchdowns (3.7-39-0.2).

Scouts say Bengals running back Rudi Johnson is another Corey Dillon, but without the long-distance speed. Don't tell that to the Dixie College defense. They allowed Johnson to rush for 373 yards and 7 touchdowns in the 1999 Junior College Championship Game.

Johnson went on to play one season at Auburn, where he rushed for 1,567 yards on a school record 324 carries in 2000 and was named SEC Player of the Year. Steelers right guard Kendall Simmons was one of the linemen who helped pave the way for Johnson that season.

"He was a quiet guy. He didn't say too much. Rudi was cool," Simmons said. "On the field, he's not as big as Jerome, but you can't tackle him. One person's not going to tackle him. That's how he was in college and he's been doing it lately, too. He gets in there and he's slippery and he ain't scared to put his shoulder down. He's that type of runner."

These days, Simmons is rooting for another former teammate, running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, to make it to the big time.

"He'll definitely make it," Simmons said. "To me he's a little undersized, but Emmitt Smith is only 205, 210. That's how big Cadillac is. To me, Cadillac runs bigger than what he is. He's going to have to be a little more slippery up here but I think he'll make it."

Steelers lineman Keydrick Vincent never missed an opportunity to brag about his old school, Ole Miss, which is expected to play in a New Year's Day bowl with quarterback Eli Manning. However, Vincent missed his best chance to promote the Rebels on Monday night in San Francisco. When introducing himself during taped intros, Vincent said he was from Lake Gibson High (Fla.).

"They retired my jersey a year ago and Ole Miss hasn't -- yet," said Vincent. "It's in the plans though."

Bettis came into the season needing 533 rushing yards to pass Thurman Thomas for ninth place on the NFL's all-time list. After 11 games, Bettis still needs 127 to pass Thomas. Another 46 would push Bettis into eighth place past Franco Harris, who still leads Bettis by 3,093 on the Steelers' list.

"If I could've got all of my yards here that would be sweet, but he's going to keep that one," Bettis said. "But to pass him up (on the all-time list) is an honor. He was the person I saw when I came here a few years ago. He was the marquee name. That was the guy you looked at. You looked at his numbers and you said, 'Whoa.' Those are pretty big numbers and to be this close is definitely an honor and it's something in the back of your mind you think you'd love to do but you don't worry about it. You don't say after a game 'How many yards am I away?' But as a running back, and as a big back, and as a Pittsburgh Steelers running back, it's something that you definitely look at."

Reserve center and possible restricted free agent Chukky Okobi on what's to come this off-season: "I don't know the status of Jeff's (Hartings) injury right now, but his knee's held up pretty good this year. He's actually had a pretty good season despite our record and how things have looked. He's played pretty well so I haven't given much thought to my future here."

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