BY GEOFF HOBSON
As the Bengals' coaches ponder lineup changes after Sunday's 31-16 loss to the Dolphins, the Bengals' players are waiting to see if new coach Dick LeBeau follows through on his pledge to bench struggling starters.
"In the past, you expected change and you'd see the change coming," said defensive captain/outside linebacker Takeo Spikes, "but you didn't see it until the next game when it took something bad to happen for them to put somebody else in. That's the way it's been in the past. So it's going to be interesting to see who'll be starting out there (at Wednesday's practice).
"I think we need changes where ever we're not being productive," Spikes said. "I think so. Even if it's just change for a moment just to wake some guys up and that includes me if I'm not doing my job."
One singular problem remains glaring after the Bengals lost their first four games in a season for the fifth time in 10 years.
In the last two games, the defense has allowed the Ravens and Miami to convert an astounding 18 of 28 third-down tries. Even more startling is 11 of the conversions have come on plays of third-and-seven or more.
With most fingers pointing at the secondary, position coach Ray Horton stopped short of saying Monday he's making changes in the lineup.
Public opinion in the NFL, of course, is toughest on quarterbacks, cornerbacks and high draft picks. Two out of three is bad for cornerback Artrell Hawkins as he takes the heat . But Horton didn't sound like he was prepared to replace Hawkins with the 170-pound Rodney Heath this week against Tennessee's big receivers.
Horton pulled Hawkins in favor of Heath briefly Sunday after a tough stretch in which Hawkins was called for a 34-yard pass interference penalty after peeking into the backfield on a third-and-two play-actin pass, got outjumped by Miami receiver Oronde Gadsden for a touchdown, and got run over along with a mass of teammates on running back Lamar Smith's 18-yard touchdown run.
But Horton wants better play from all his people and there's still plenty of time for the coaches to talk personnel before Wednesday's practice as Horton echoes the "produce or else," mantra of LeBeau's week-old term.
Rookie draft picks Robert Bean and Mark Roman are apparently not yet ready to contend with Heath and Hawkins. The plan is to activate Bean and Roman every other week for special teams, so Roman dresses this week.
Horton isn't sure if Bean and Roman are the future, but he knows there's a struggle in the present.
"It's just like when a starter gets pulled for a reliever or a pinch hitter," Horton said. "If that's what I need to get a play made, maybe I will. But right now, no.
"As long as starters are doing their jobs, they keep their jobs," Horton said. "When they're not doing their job, the next guy comes in. When is that point? I don't know. But 0-4 is getting close to that number."
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It's just not Hawkins. Other players are struggling, it's just that Hawkins' problems are exposed in the open field because of his position.
LeBeau and Bengals President Mike Brown agree with Horton.
"That's (LeBeau's) call," Brown said of any lineup change. "But I think the way we have gone this year that there is no need to keep somebody in there if he isn't getting it done. I think it's pretty clear we're striving just to prove we can play at a competitve level and we have only done that for one half of one game."
But it's hard for Horton to sit Hawkins, the club's second-round pick in 1998 trying to validate the promise he hasn't shown since his rookie season.
Hawkins has speed, good size at 190 pounds, a willingness to hit, and is a solid guy with equally solid work habits. But he mirrors the problem of this secondary. He has done everything but make a play on the ball. And for a solid tackler, he has missed a lot.
"It's not that we've been really beaten or out of position with that much regularity," LeBeau said. "But we are not finishing the play and you drill it and you keep putting them in those situations and you hope they will react in the ballgame like the way they react on the practide field."
What has the Bengals concerned is they gave up so many crucial pass plays to a Miami club operating without two of their biggest receiving threats in O.J. McDuffie and Tony Martin. Hawkins and left corner Tom Carter certainly stayed with Gadsden, but they couldn't find the ball or make a play on it once it got there.
"We have to devise a system that gives them better opportunities to make plays," Horton said. "We're close, but we're not there yet. I have to get them to relax so they can do the next part of their job description, which is to make plays."
Carter, an eight-year veteran, has offered consistently tight coverage, Horton said, and called some of his holding calls, "ridiculous."
Carter was upbeat after the secondary allowed Fielder to pass for 155 yards: "I'd say we're doing pretty good if you look around the league and see guys throwing for 300 and 400 yards each week."
The person who has been hardest on Hawkins is Hawkins. He indicated Monday he's not going to talk until he has something to discuss.
"My gut reaction is that he does different things in practice than he does in a game," Horton said. "He's a different player when the lights come on and I don't know why. Maybe it's pressing too hard to make the big play and they don't make the easy play. They have to relax."
Spikes said the problems on third down can be traced to the timing of the quarterback pressures.
"Sometimes when you have pressure , you have to able to cover for at least a couple of seconds to give your guys a chance to get there," Spikes said. "On certain pressures it has to be understood it's going to be a quick throw because we're coming with more guys than they can block. We were there, we just didn't make the play."
The question this week may not be about making the play, but who is making the play.