Bengals look to reverse September swoon

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals President Mike Brown not only wants a victory, but he also wants his team, "to look right," when it plays in Baltimore Sunday as they fight the numbers game.

"The important thing is to win, and the next thing is to look right and we haven't done either," Brown said today during today's practice. "The first thing is to stay away from the negative turnover ratio. It's something we haven't been able to overcome at our stage. And we have to score. We haven't done enough scoring and that's damaging because everyone knows the good teams are scoring 30-plus points and we haven't hit the 10-point barrier (for the season)."

The Bengals' minus-5 is the third-worst turnover ratio in the NFL, behind Seattle (minus-8) and Green Bay (minus-6). But maybe their bigggest fight is the September/October numbers since 1991, which is 10-58. There hasn't been a September to remember for the 0-2 Bengals since they went 3-0 10 years ago.

The matchup with the Ravens isn't good for the Bengals on paper. Since '95, Cincinnati has won two road games in September, both in overtime. The Bengals' offensive line goes against what is widely believed to be the NFL's best front seven without injured center Rich Braham. Baltimore leads the NFL in allowing 2.5 yards per rush, which is the average of Bengals running back Corey Dillon.

But Brown is heartened by the work of a defense that held Jacksonville's top ten offense to a touchdown and 241 yards in last week's 13-0 loss and the hope is an inexperienced offense can feed off the success. Quarterback Akili Smith said similar efforts mean the Bengals, "will win more games than we lose." Plus, less than a year ago the Bengals chased Ravens quarterback Tony Banks into a 24 of 40 passing day with seven sacks in a game last season that Baltimore won at the gun on Matt Stover's 50-yard field goal.

"The defense had a good week of practice," said defensive end John Copeland. "Last week was a confidence builder. You could tell out there in practice. We're out there flying around thinking we can be good because we know we did in a game what we did in practice and now we know we can succeed."

As the Bengals try to fend off their sixth winless September since '91, they know what's ahead if they can't stem the tide.

"We can't let it keep sliding because then everything starts to collapse," said tight end Tony McGee. "If we can go into Baltimore and give it a good shot and then come back home with a chance to go 2-2 with 12 games to go, hey, we've got something going. With Miami and Tennessee coming in, we've got to get some momentum because our schedule doesn't let up."

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"We've got to get out of this rut," Smith said. "We don't want to be 0-3 coming back here to play Miami in front of our crowd and fans."

"You never want to get into a situation where you're looking back and wishing," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "Last year we lost all our games early (1-10) and halfway through the season, other than pride, what else do you have to play for? You can't wait to win one and be motivated by that. Then it's too late to rally."

The standings say the Bengals finally cut a break when they go to Pittburgh Oct. 15. But October has been the cruelest month on the road. They are 6-28 in the last nine Septembers, 4-30 in October, and haven't won on the road in October against a non-expansion team since 1995.

"I can't explain that. I don't know why," said Brown said of the team's slow starts. "It's a little bit (of a mystery) that we always do so poorly right at the start and late in the year we seem to be playing along with everybody else and we're up to speed. At that point, we're against teams fighting for the playoffs and have a lot at stake."

Spikes is fighting the here-we-go-again syndrome with heavy politicking in the locker room. He thinks the mind frame is different than last year because now players are calling out other players to produce.

"I think we're more in control of our own destiny," Spikes said. "There's a sense of urgency from a lot of these guys mainly because a lot of them have been put on the platform. Not even by the coaches, but by players on the team. They've been called out by other guys."

Actually, Spikes himself got called out by his closest comrade on the team in linebacker Brian Simmons after Spikes didn't play well in the 24-7 Opening Day loss to Cleveland. Simmons told him after one play, "You've got to have that play. You're supposed to make that play. Now make it."

"I took that deep. That cuts me more than if it came from any coach," Spikes said. "In my eyes, if you don't have the respect of your teammates, you've got nothing."

While Spikes handled the emotional end, McGee, the dean of the offense in his eighth season, analyzed the Xs and Os. The offense of Smith and rookie receivers Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans isn't the one of quarterback Jeff Blake and veteran receivers Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott.

"We don't have that big play capability," McGee said. "We don't have that 80-yard bomb waiting. We're more of a grind-it-out team. When you have that big play, it can hide a long of things. Bad series, bad series, bad series, and then there's the 80-yarder. We were in a lot of close games because somebody like Darnay could run by somebody. But now we've got to be consistent with what we do. We're just not the same offense."

But McGee also took heart from the defense and likes his team's chances in the fourth quarter if the game is close.

"Look at last week," McGee said. "It was 10-0 halfway through the fourth quarter, when a touchdown can change the complexion of the game."

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