Jim Skow and Jason Buck are mid-sized sedans in depth-chart spots where teams traditionally love to park Fleetwood Broughams.

They are, in a word, small."We're probably the smallest pair of ends in the league," offers Buck.

"If not the smallest, then it's close," said defensive line coach Bill Urbanik.

Buck, a lean, rangy 6-5, weighs 253.

"I've been at that weight since I lost eight pounds at Wilmington (in training camp)," he said. "It's not a bad weight, but I'd like to weigh 260."

He was billed as a 265-pounder out of the draft, but what the heck. All good advertising contains a little puffery.

Skow, 6-3, gets on the scale only when reporters aren't around.

"I'm not telling," he said with a smile when asked for his weight. "You'll never get it out of me."

But 245 would be a guess perhaps a tad to the high side. If you met Skow on the street and didn't recognize the face, you might mistake him for an average human being instead of a pro athlete.

Skow is, however, the best defensive end on this team, and Buck is second best, nudging ahead of Skip McClendon to start in the 3-4 "stack" and the 4-3 "nickel" defense.

And, hopefully for the Bengals, it's just plain old size prejudice that makes that sound so scary to so many of playoff-hopeful fans.

"I'm biased, I know, but they're both better players than they have gotten credit for," said Urbanik.

In Skow's case, that's hard for the rational mind to deny. He had 9.5 sacks this season, the team's best total that tied for fourth-best in the AFC, and he admittedly is not a pass-rushing specialist.

"People always get caught up in sack numbers, but Jim is a very good run player who developed into a good pass rusher," Urbanik said. "He's very strong for someone his size, and he was a starter last year because of his run defense, and he played tackle in our nickel (four-man line) until the third game this year."

Said Skow: "I think I'm pretty good on run defense and that I had a good year. But sometimes it takes a while for people to notice."

Or maybe they don't want to notice, because the less rational side of their mind is always going to want the 6-6, 290, ballet dancer with a mean streak.

Buck was compared to that standard last season, and with the dual problems of a holdout and a strike, the rookie's scores were unfavorable. He was given up by many as a first-round bust.

But he has become a solid contributor in his second pro season - he is second among Bengals in sacks, with six, and second to Tim Krumrie in "pressures." Krumrie has 22, Buck 21 and Skow 16.

Most personnel gurus expect nothing more at this stage from the 17th spot in Round 1 of the draft, where Buck was chosen.

"I'm not Bruce Smith physically," Buck said, comparing himself to Buffalo's superstar end, "but I've never doubted my ability as a pass rusher, and my run defense has been improving all year long. It's pretty clear to me that the reason I'm starting now is that my run defense has improved."

Linebacker Reggie Williams, who has watched plenty of ends during 13 years with the Bengals, says Skow's improvement is because of nothing more complicated than a little basic seasoning.

"He's getting tuned in to his specific run responsibilities, which is just a matter of time," Williams said. "He knows things like which side of the tackle he's responsible for. He was playing a nice, hard physical game all the while, but now he's in the right place at the right time a lot more often."

Buck isn't under the 260-pound mark because of a failure of trying to eat his way there.

"I eat anything I can at any time," he said. "I'll out-eat anybody on this team in training camp. But because of metabolism or whatever, I don't put on weight."

Skow's struggles in the same arena already have been chronicled.

It probably doesn't matter, not if they're doing the job.

But the quality of the Bengals' overall defensive performance has been debatable of late - they finished the regular season ranked 18th against the rush - and the fan hasn't been born who doesn't feel more comfortable when his player looks bigger than his opponent directly across the scrimmage line.