Bengals future rocked

BY GEOFF HOBSON

NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ When Bengals coach Dick LeBeau arrived at Sunday's post-game mortem, he noticed the podium was placed near the NFL logo on the wall.

"Is that what they mean when they say, 'Your back is against the wall?'" LeBeau asked.

Which is exactly where he is after the Bengals got blown out by the Titans, 35-3, here at Adelphia Coliseum in a game frighteningly similar to the one that closed out the Bruce Coslet era in a 37-0 no-show in Baltimore Sept. 24.

"I don't think it helped any," said LeBeau when asked if the loss dealt a blow to his hopes of returning next season.

"We won't play like that next week," LeBeau said. "We won't play like that two weeks in a row. I really believe that. I know we won't."

Sunday was bad enough. For the fifth time this season, the Bengals didn't score a touchdown. For the tenth game this season, the Bengals failed to pass for more than 137 yards. For the sixth time in his 1,300-yard season, Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon couldn't rush for more than 42 yards.

"It kind of tells you where you are," said Bengals quarterback Scott Mitchell.

The Bengals keep getting further and further from the class of the AFC Central. In five games this season against Baltimore, Tennessee and Jacksonville, the Bengals have been outscored, 135-21.

More bad? Tight end Tony McGee is out for the year with a broken ankle, and middle linebacker Adrian Ross with an injured tendon in his left hand and right tackle Willie Anderson with a high left ankle sprain could be gone for the year with two games left.

Sunday was bad enough that the effort had to start being questioned. No coach or player said there was a lack of any. But some wanted to check the films.

"I didn't see a lack of effort," LeBeau said. "We lost our focus some later in the game."

"It wasn't a lack of effort," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "It was a lack of execution, myself included."

"I saw effort," Anderson ."But we didn't run the plays we put in.

"I hope it didn't hurt Dick at all," Anderson said. " I don't care who's coaching. The way we played today, we still didn't give ourselves a chance to win if Vince Lombardi was coaching us. I hope it doesn't hurt Dick's chances. This is not the team he coached."

At this point, Anderson didn't want to start saying the same things from the previous 10 losses. But former Bengals receiver Carl Pickens, who made his first catches since Oct. 1 against his old team Sunday, said it best when asked the difference between the two franchises.

"11-3 vs. 3-11. That's the bottom line," said Pickens after catching two balls for 56 yards. "That's the bottom line. You play this game to win and you want to associate yourself with winners. I haven't won 11 games since college."

As badly as the offense played (the 171 total yards was the second fewest of the season next to the Baltimore debacle), it was the defense that showed why the Bengals don't win.

Pickens neatly supplied the symbolism late in the game when he simply outjumped Bengals cornerback Tom Carter for a 38-yard pass play.

Pickens made a play. Carter didn't. It happened all day. The Bengals' secondary, which had been fried for 10 passes of 24 yards or more in the previous five games, gave up six passes of at least 20 yards to four different receivers and three different passers here Sunday.

Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who didn't practice all week with a strained knee and sprained ankle, nickel and dimed the Bengals' pass packages on 6-for-8 passing for 127 yards on third down.

"If our guys make the plays that their guys make and we get off the field (on third down), it's not that kind of game," LeBeau said. "But that's the game it was. If you don't make plays, the other team is going to separate from you."

LeBeau was shaking his head because the Tennessee receivers didn't get much separation from his cornerbacks, but the Bengals' corners have struggled for years making a play on the ball.

"Look at the plays down field," said Bengals free safety Darryl Williams. "Guys are running right with them. We've got position."

But wide receivers like Pickens and Yancey Thigpen, who came into the game with 17 combined catches, caught four for 145 yards.

Carter was the guy the Titans picked on in his first start since getting benched midway through the Nov. 12 game in Dallas.

"They went up and got the rock," Carter said, "and I didn't. I thought I had position all the way most of the time."

When rookie cornerback Robert Bean wrenched his knee at about the halfway point, the other rookie, Mark Roman, got a shot and he'll probably get one at Carter's expense against Jacksonville next Sunday because LeBeau said that spot will be looked at this week.

More plays made and not made?

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Continued from Homepage

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Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse wasted no time early in the second half, beating Anderson backup Jamain Stephens for one of four sacks of Mitchell.

This one was at the Cincinnati 9
and the Titans then turned Daniel Pope's short punt into a five-play, 32-yard touchdown drive. The big play was McNair's 15-yard pass to tight end Frank Wycheck when Darryl Williams overpursued Wycheck.

Then McNair hit running back Eddie George for a three-yard touchdown pass to give Tennessee, the 28-3 lead. On a day he joined Eric Dickerson as the only players to gain 1,200 yards in each of their first five seasons, George caught two touchdowns in a game for the first time in his career while grinding out 81 yards on 24 carries as the big pass plays took the pressure off him.

On the Titans' next series after George's third touchdown of the game, Bengals defensive end Reinard Wilson sacked McNair to force a fumble recovered by tackle Tom Barndt.

But the Bengals couldn't cash. Mitchell overthrew tight end Marco Battaglia in the end zone, underthrew receiver Peter Warrick at the goal line and came up a yard short when he scrambled up the middle on a fourth-and-goal.

The Bengals had trouble getting Dillon into the offense, giving him just four carries in the first quarter and three in the second quarter, and Mitchell had his worst day since becoming the starter when he hit just 12 of 26 passes for 131 yards.

McNair hit 11 of his first 16 passes against an overmatched Bengals secondary and finished 16-for-26 with 229 yards when he was pulled early in the fourth quarter.

To rub the proverbial salt in the wounds, a pair of former Bengals exposed the woes of the pass defense when quarterback Neil O'Donnell hooked up with Pickens for a 38-yard pass that set up the Titans' final touchdown.

McNair threw a pair of touchdowns in the game's first 22 minutes, one a 56-yarder to wide receiver Yancey Thigpen on the second series of the game.

On the next series, McNair found Thigpen for a 33-yard pass that set up George's five-yard touchdown run, and then he hit George on a seven-yard scoring pass that gave Tennessee a 21-3 lead with 8:47 left in the first half.

McNair picked on Carter, back in the starting lineup because of Rodney Heath's season-ending shoulder injury.

McNair floated a long pass down the left sideline to Thigpen that appeared to hang up long enough for Carter to intercept the ball.

But Carter stumbled, giving Thigpen room to catch the ball at about the Bengals 20-yard line and Thigpen raced to the end zone for his longest catch of the season.

Moments later, Thigpen beat Carter down the middle for the 33-yard pass to set up George's first touchdown.

Then wide receiver Derrick Mason got into the mix early in the second quarter when his 20-yard catch against a wide-open Bengals zone opened it up for George.

George ripped off a 14-yard gain, and then got loose from linebacker Takeo Spikes on a pass route for his seven-yard catch set up by McNair's play-action fake and roll-out pass.

Peter Warrick's 15-yard catch set up Neil Rackers' 45-yard field goal early in the second quarter to pull the Bengals within, 14-3.

Dillon did salvage one thing from the brutal day. He broke Pete Johnson's 19-year-old club record of 274 carries in a season.

After watching him work in pre-game warmups, the Titans decided to start McNair.

McNair strained his left knee and sprained his left ankle last week during the Titans' 15-13 victory in Philadelphia.

The Titans did sit one injured starter Sunday, replacing Marcus Robertson with Bobby Myers at free safety.

Before the game, the Bengals deactivated linebacker JoJuan Armour, cornerback Sirr Parker and wide receiver LaVell Boyd. **

DILLON POPULAR:** If the fans have anything to say about it, Dillon will go back to the Pro Bowl. When the public's voting shut down Friday, Dillon was third among AFC running backs with 77,891 votes.

But that's only one third of the equation. The coaches and players, who vote Monday, also count for a third.

Spikes and Anderson need some help on Monday. Spikes finished 12th in the AFC at his position among the fans with 14,522 votes. Anderson came in 24th with 8,052. The team is announced Thursday.

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