Akili, offense baffled

9-30-02, 1:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

On a day former Bengals wide receiver Darnay Scott scored the only touchdown for Dallas in the Cowboys' victory over the Rams, this wasn't a good day for a Bengals' offense that averaged less than four yards per pass.

On a day the Paul Brown Stadium crowd watched two veteran tight ends the Bengals could have had score touchdowns for Tampa Bay when they couldn't score any by anybody, this wasn't a good day for the Bengals' offense.

On a day Akili Smith's passer rating of 34.5 gave the Bengals' starting quarterbacks this season a combined 80.6 (worse than 12 individual AFC quarterbacks in last week's ratings), this wasn't a good day for the Bengals' offense.

And the Bengals' defense knows it after giving Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson 100 of his 277 yards on two touchdown passes.

"The way we're going now, we can't have those two plays," said Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "In order for us to have any chance to win the game or even be in the damn game, we can't give up two plays like that. When guys realize that, it won't happen."

For the third time in this dreadful 0-4 season during Sunday's 35-7 loss, the Bengals' offense failed to score a touchdown and break 200 yards of offense. For the third time, they gave up at least three sacks, and didn't generate four yards per rush. They mustered just 168 total yards, their fewest since they got 94 against the Ravens two years ago in a game that cost them their coach.

They hope that's not the case Monday morning, but who knows? An hour after the Buccaneers swarmed him into 12 of 33 passing for 117 yards and an interception that got run back for a touchdown, Smith sat shell-shocked at his locker.

With 23 points to open the season, it is one of the lowest four-game stretches in in Bengals history since they scored 15 from Oct. 1-Oct. 22, 1978, a skein that sparked the Bengals' first mid-season coaching change with Homer Rice taking over for Bill Johnson. The 23 points matches the first four games of 2000, when Dick LeBeau took over for Bruce coslet after Week 4. Round off their 5.8 points per game scoring average and they are on pace to score 96 points this season, far below the NFL's record 16-game low of 140 set by the 1992 Seahawks.

"This stuff has been going on for four years now in my life," Smith said. "When I get an opportunity, I don't do anything. I didn't come into the league this way. I came

into the league ready to go. I'm just baffled. I'm prepared, but it seems like when I get out there, I'm not ready to go, for whatever reason. I studied my butt off this week. I just don't know. I'm lost. I'm dazed by what just happened today. We didn't score any points, we got few (11) first downs. I'm just baffled, man."

For the 13th time in his 17 NFL starts, Smith failed to throw a touchdown pass, but his offensive line didn't give him any room to breath.

"It's been the same thing that's happened for four years," Smith said. "There's times I had an opportunity to get it done and I didn't, or there was a combination of things."

Wide receiver Chad Johnson, making his first start of the season and fourth of his career, didn't have a catch. Neither did Michael Westbrook, the veteran free-agent signed to take the place of Scott. Scott had a 17-yard touchdown catch Sunday. The coaches are getting restless with Westbrook, who has four catches, with a long of 16.

Johnson appeared to be open on a couple of long routes, but the passes were either over or underthrown.

"It's there," Johnson said. "There were maybe four or five deep balls; we have dudes beat five or six yards. He might get hit, he might slip — just little stuff. It's like we're this close from a home run. I'm sure y'all see it, you're up there, you're watching. It's like they say — everyone's got to be accountable for themselves. That's when everything goes right. He drops back, throws it and it's there. It's a touchdown. I'm not sure where the mistakes came in at. I tried my best to make the plays when my opportunity came"

The biggest of those mistakes everyone is talking about came in the last minute of the first half and if this sounds like a recording, just wait. Thanks to Simmons' touchdown off an interception, the Bengals had a shot at going into halftime down by just 14-7, a veritable tie after coming into the game with an average halftime deficit of 18.

But with Smith looking at a first –and-10 from his own 23, Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp beat left guard Matt O'Dwyer and was chewing on Smith's leg when Smith tried to unload it over the middle.

"He called me every bad word in the dictionary. He's Warren Sapp — that's all I have to say about that," Smith said. "He's everything that everybody imagines he would be on the football field."

Like Gus Frerotte's left-handed pass that got picked off in Cleveland two weeks ago when he was under the gun with 21 seconds left, Smith's bid to wide receiver Ron Dugans got intercepted at the 25 and returned for a touchdown by linebacker Shelton Quarles with 52 seconds left in the half.

"I was hoping Dugans would come underneath. It was just a miscommunication between me and Dugans, I was hoping Dugans would come underneath, but he came out on top and the ball got picked. That's the best defense I ve faced. Not even close."

Smith's first stint as the Bengals' starter had been marked by indecisiveness in the pocket. On Sunday, he looked to be more resolute, but he couldn't get his running game going with just five yards on four carries as the Bucs' ultra-quick defensive line fenced him in.

"Actually, we were picking up on what they were doing and we still didn't have any success out there," Smith said. "They were calling out their blitzes that we saw on film — we knew what they were doing and we still didn't have any success."

If LeBeau was indecisive about naming a starter for next week against the Colts, Smith had empathy.

"I don't know what the coaches are thinking," Smith said. We're struggling on offense and I don't know if Kitna or Frerotte would have had a chance today either. Whatever LeBeau and the organization decides to do, all I can do is roll with it."

There's no secret what's going on in the locker room. The Bengals are averaging less than a touchdown per game and defensive captain Takeo Spikes, who took the blame for tight end Ricky Dudley's wide-open 35-yard TD, is lobbying for no rifts.

"We have to play the perfect game to even have a chance to win," Spikes said of his defense. "We know we're going through growing pains on the offensive side of the ball. We have no problem with that. We have to do that.Point blank. Ain't no pointing fingers on that."

That's the point.

They need points.

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