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23 Skidoo for Bengals

9-18-02, 6:35 p.m. Updated:
9-18-02, 11:55 p.m.


The Bengals have gone from Super Bowl XXIII to LeBeau Bowl XXIII.

It wasn't Joe Willie Namath guaranteeing a win in Super Bowl III, but LeBeau's guarantee Wednesday that his Bengals will score 23 points per game raised plenty of eyebrows on a day he stuck with Gus Frerotte as his starting quarterback.

It's a bold statement for a team that hasn't come within nearly a touchdown of doing that since 1997, when they scored 22 points per game with Norman Julius Esiason getting five of the starts at quarterback.

The last time they hit 23 per was the 8-8 season of 1996. They averaged 14 last year, 11.6 in 2000, 17.7 in 1999, and 16.8 in 1998. This year, they are next to last in the NFL with 13 points in two games and would have to score 56 points Sunday to average 23 for this season.

"When I give our men a goal, it's based on something. It's not pulled abstractly out of the air," LeBeau said. "And I gave them this stat—we're going to score 23 points a game, because in the last three years, that is what the average playoff team has scored per game. We are not interested in a stat that won't put us at a playoff level. We're going to score 23 a game, and it's going to happen here."

Look for wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson to get more snaps in Atlanta after Michael

Westbrook fought through 76 plays Sunday in his first significant playing time since breaking his left wrist on third day of training camp.

Frerotte kept his job because LeBeau liked how he moved the ball up and down the field by converting 53 percent of his third downs en route to a NFL-high 28 first downs on Sunday.

But Frerotte knows that the game came down to the first lefty pass thrown by a Bengal since Scott Mitchell got intercepted three times in Cleveland last year. Frerotte got picked in Cleveland, too, but everyone knows he's right-handed.

Especially him.

"I had one play that could have—probably did—cost us the game," Frerotte said. "That's a little hard for me to take. Nobody has to tell me that, and you guys don't have to write about it because I think about it every second of the day. I've just got to move on and get ready for the next week."

The play has symbolized the Bengals' futility through the air since Esiason left. It was also the play of a man pressing in an attempt to lead his new team to their first touchdown of a season that was then six quarters old.

"Gus doesn't make plays like that," said Westbrook, Frerotte's old teammate in Washington. "We were all put in a position of trying to put some points on the board. We're all desperate to make a play. We're so desperate that it just all backfired."

With the coaches deciding Houshmandzadeh's pulled groin muscle was too tight to play early, and Danny Farmer out with a knee injury, Westbrook had to play nearly every snap even though he's still coming back from the wrist injury.

He had run a route to the goal line when he looked up and saw Browns defensive end Kenard Lang 40 yards away lugging back Frerotte's lefty toss the other way.

Westbrook caught him at the Bengals 10 before he got blown up by a block as Frerotte caught Lang at the Bengals 8.

"I felt comfortable for a minute and then Kenard Lang takes off and I'm at the goal line," Westbrook said. "I was so tired, I didn't even feel that block. It's a good thing it was half time, so I went in and got some oranges and felt better."

But Westbrook is still feeing his way around the offense as he makes up for lost time with the wrist injury. They kept it light for Houshmandzadeh in Wednesday's practice and Johnson got the bulk of Peter Warrick's work as Warrick sat out with a bruise. Look for Houshmandzadeh to split more time with Westbrook if he's healthier.

"Our receivers are playing all right," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "They are light years away from where they were last year. We had 28 first downs and converted more than half of our third downs and you have to be on top of your game to do that. But we failed in other areas."

He picked out four plays that illustrated it isn't one position's fault.

"On the first play we have four people open and the protection breaks down," Bratkowski said. "On the second play, we run an adjustment that (Westbrook) flashes to another adjustment that they used for his old team, and not here. On the third play, the quarterback goes through his reads, looks, and the receiver slips.

"On the fourth one," Bratkowski said, (Houshmandzadeh), because it's wet, comes out a little high on the come-back route and he scoops up a low pass, but the replay takes it away. Those plays would have been huge third-down plays in their territory. If we can fix those plays, it's a different afternoon."

But Bratkowski is making no excuses, he's just saying things are closer to coming together than last year. Then there's the obvious question, "Is Frerotte and the team paying for a quarterback derby that split up the pre-season snaps?"

"You can't do anything about that," Bratkowski said. "This is the hand that's dealt. Would it be nice if Gus was in his third year in the system? Yes. But he's not. It's not important where we are now, but where we are in four weeks, six weeks, 14 weeks."

SCREENS AND DRAWS: WR Danny Farmer says he's shooting to return for next week's game against Tampa Bay, but the Bengals are playing it cautious with the torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Farmer, who injured the PCL a week ago, says he's ready to start running this week, but the club wants to ease him back. . .

The Panthers are looking for a replacement for injured John Kasay. The Vikings are looking for a long-term answer beyond the Gary Anderson signing Wednesday. But K Travis Dorsch

remains a Bengal even though all indications are he'll be inactive for the third straight game this Sunday night while Neil Rackers gets the call. The Bengals apparently haven't been given a trade offer by the Vikings, a team that might have drafted Dorsch in the fourth round if the Bengals didn't. And if they did get an offer, the Bengals probably wouldn't take it until Rackers proves more than his 2-for-2 opener.

"Whether I'm going to kick here or be a player to be named later, my job is the same," Dorsch said Wednesday. "It's to make Neil Rackers better, make the team better, make the Bengals better. If I'm going to kick here or somewhere else, I have to prepare so I'm going to keep working it.

"I'm sure the Bengals don't want to give me away," Dorsch said. "They gave up something to get me, but that's all out of my control."

No one knows what Rackers thought about being told to pass up a 51-yarder in Cleveland last week to "pooch punt." Dorsch could see it both ways.

"It's a tough call for Coach LeBeau," he said. "He's looking to play field position and there was some crosswind going across his face." . .

ROLB Takeo Spikes is listed as probable for Sunday with a tender pectoral muscle that bookends the other he partially tore six weeks ago. He practiced Wednesday, as did RB Brandon Bennett (ankle) and DE Vaughn Booker (knee), after not playing last Sunday. . .

WR Peter Warrick (bruised leg) didn't work, but is expected to play. . .DE Eric Ogbogu (calf) is questionable. . .

With the Bengals looking to improve their pass protection, look for rookie LT Levi Jones to get more work at tight end against the Falcons and possibly some spot play behind Richmond Webb at left tackle. But LeBeau is sticking with the 35-year-old Webb in the starting lineup: "Richmond will start, but I've said continually that we'll put in Levi Jones and get him ready. I know that Richmond will bounce back. A lot of those things are stunts, a lot of those are mitigated circumstances. Those are only excuses, the bottom line is we have to protect better."

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