Bengals need win more than story lines

10-18-03, 8:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Make no mistake.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis refuses to compare players, teams, and coaches, and as he looks at the Baltimore Ravens his club plays Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium and the one on which he made his name in the NFL, he insists, "That team is then and this is now."

But after growing up with everybody else in the franchise when it moved from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996, there's no question Lewis is using these Ozzie Newsome-Brian Billick Ravens as a model for what he hopes to make these Bengals:

A perennial contender locked into an agenda that develops draft picks and finds complementary free agents that fit into the plan and not the other way around. A team that can win without a drop-dead Pro Bowl quarterback because the system makes the team and not the other way around.

Yes, you can contend even if you have just purged your payroll because of salary cap reasons, like Newsome did last year as the Ravens general manager in a season that started 7-7 and ended 7-9. Or, even if you "wrap assets around," a rookie quarterback like Billick is doing this year as the head coach of a 3-2 team leading the AFC North.

So shouldn't the Ravens be the first truly "must game," in the Marvin Lewis era? If the Bengals are to contend Raven-like in December, they must be 2-4 at Sunday supper. If they are 1-5, you figure the Carson Palmer blueprints are getting dusted off and there is a lot of talk about next year.

All the sub-plots threaten to overshadow the true story line:

With the Bengals staring at four PBS games in the next five weeks, Sunday's game is the mother (and father) of all must games.

It appears that one of those sub-plots, Bengals running back Corey Dillon playing against the man who broke his single-game rushing record, Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, is going to come off. But even though Marvin Lewis upgraded Dillon (groin) Friday, he reserved the right to make a game-time call on Dillon's status.

"My decision," Lewis said.

And isn't that the essence of this rebuilding process?

"I've only been here a few days," said an apologetic Kyle Richardson, the new Bengals punter who helped Lewis' great Baltimore defenses with lethal positional kicking. "But I think you can probably see some of the same things here now. Everybody in Baltimore, no matter if you were a player, a coach, or if you were in the front office, you knew what the schedule was. Everybody knew the schedule."

Lewis is on a fast-track schedule. Asked if it's going to take three years to become like these Ravens, he said, "Not as long as that." Indeed, a win Sunday puts them only a game back of Baltimore, not even a year. All the sub-plots threaten to overshadow the true story line:

With the Bengals staring at four PBS games in the next five weeks, Sunday's game is the mother (and father) of all must games.

"The good thing about it," said linebacker Brian

Simmons, "is that we know how important it is. It's been emphasized. We've had two weeks of good practice with it. We know that this is the stretch we've got to put it together."

Or, as middle linebacker Kevin Hardy observed earlier in the week, the NFL decimal-point heads never unearth any stats about 1-5 teams that make the playoffs. Of course, it helps that a guy like Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton played last year on the 1-4 Titans team that finished 11-5 and went to he AFC title game.

The run began with a 23-14 win over Jacksonville a year ago this week.

"There are a lot of similarities," Thornton said. "We came out at home and put it together against a division team. It only takes one game to get on a roll, and hopefully we can get something going. Actually, we're playing a lot better than that team did. I think we've got more confidence than that team. We had some bad games, like getting beat by Oakland (52-25), but here, we just have to get that one or two plays at the end of the game."

Billick had a good line earlier in the week about his familiarity with Lewis. It was Billick who decided to retain Lewis as defensive coordinator in 1998 pretty much sight unseen, opting to go with recommendations, his own experiences against Lewis' defenses, and his gut. When he saw how Lewis worked so adroitly with a defensive staff packed with former coordinators, he knew he had a head coach in waiting.

"You just have to very careful you don't turn it into a bad Abbott and Costello routine," Billick said of Sunday. "I know that he knows that I know that he knows. . ."

The thing is, the Bengals have played the straight man for Billick's act. Since he became the Ravens coach in 1998, he is 9-1 against Cincinnati, the only victory coming in the second game of the 2001 season. Running back Corey Dillon averages only 64 yards per game against his defenses, and when Lewis was there, the Ravens put him through his three worst days (nine, 23 and 27 yards) when he carried in double figures. They have been shutout three times. Last season, they lost twice to the Ravens in games they had two interceptions, a blocked punt, and a punt returned for touchdowns.

How badly does Lewis want to win this one?

"Coaches want to win every game, (but), yeah, you can tell," said safety Kevin Kaesviharn. "You can tell when guys want to win certain games. You can sense it. He's trying to bring that urgency to us. He's always assertive. He's probably been more a lot more assertive."

Billick also doesn't want to compare. The Ravens decided to go with rookie quarterback Kyle Boller this season because of their strong defense, sound special teams, and Jamal Lewis' punishing running game. He knows why Lewis isn't playing Palmer.

"Each situation is different with a different set of circumstances," Billick said. "Where the coaches are in their tenure, they're all factors."

Last week, Newsome acknowledged that Lewis doesn't have Baltimore's luxury of recent playoff performances. He needs wins to sell his team and his town and the quarterback is going to have to wait.

But the quarterback is just one of the sub-plots:

Richardson, who pinned the Giants four times inside their 20-yard line in the Ravens' Super Bowl victory following the 2000 season, tries to begin to revive his career against his old team.

"No bitterness at all," Richardson said. "They let about 21, 22 of us go because of the salary cap. That's just the way it goes."

But the sub-plots can't get in the way of 2-4 or 1-5.

"Time to move," Simmons said.

**

MATCHUPS:Cincinnati tries to stop the NFL's leading rusher and in order to do so,Benglas MLB Kevin Hardy and SS Rogers Becketthave to lead their gang to tackleRavens RB Jamal Lewisin holding his long runs to a minimum.Bengals OLBs Brian Simmons and Adrian Rossfigure to be key guys whether blitzing rookieRavens QB Kyle Bolleror coveringRavens TE Todd Heap.**

If the Bengals have to stop a Lewis on offense, they also have to do it on defense. But the best way to stop the man in the middle is for Bengals C Rich Braham and Gs Mike Goff and Eric Steinbach to handle old friend and Ravens NT Kelly Gregg. If they can do that, Bengals RB Corey Dillon's return to the lineup won't be dominated by < b="">Ravens MLB Ray Lewis. Bengals QB Jon Kitna can't get careless withRavens FS Ed Reed, lurking in the secondary, andBengals WR Chad JohnsonRavens CB Chris McAlister.

Bengals P Kyle Richardson, the Ravens all-time punter, also has to keep his eye on S Ed Reed in his Bengal debut against his old mates.

**

HARDY, BECKETT VS. JAMAL LEWIS:** The first key is staying at home on the back side of the defense because Lewis set the single-game rushing record last month against Cleveland much like Dillon did three years ago against Denver. The play and line starts one way before the back cuts it back, and defenders find themselves a lot of times failing to arm tackle because they are taking him on laterally. But they have to prevent the long plays that turn games around and Lewis has plenty of them with four runs of at least 48 yards and five of at least 23.

"He can break tackles," said Bengals free safety Kevin Kaesviharn. "He runs through you and you have to make sure you don't let him get a full head of steam. You have to get all 11 guys on him. He can run away from one or two, but not 11." **

SIMMONS, ROSS VS. HEAP, BOLLER:** Boller has been sacked only 10 times in two games, but, like any rookie quarterback, he has trouble with blitz looks and his NFL-low 48 passer rating tells you something. Heap, a Pro Bowler, leads the Ravens with 17 catches this season and only the Giants' Jeremy Shockey has more catches among NFL tight ends the past two seasons. But he has been calling for more balance in the Ravens' offense and is looking for the ball.

Billick has done a good job protecting Boller by not throwing a lot of passes (he has no more than 26 attempts in the last four weeks), and with some well-placed screens Simmons and Ross must contain. **

BRAHAM, STEINBACH, GOFF VS. GREGG:** Gregg is the former Bengal draft pick (sixth round in 1999) who has turned into a very solid player and is a perfect 6-foot, 310-pound fit at nose tackle. After a breakout season last year in which he was named the club's unsung hero, Gregg is off to a good start with two sacks in the last two games, and is a key figure in their scheme that allows their fast linebackers to run to the ball in pursuit led by Ray Lewis.

"Their linemen do a real good job of not letting you get to the linebackers," Braham said. "They know when to grab, and hold you, and take you down so you don't get there. Plus, they'll give you different looks and try to confuse you."

DILLON VS. RAY LEWIS: You know Dillon is all jacked up for a variety of reasons. He hasn't played much, he doesn't have a 100-yard game this season, trade rumors, he's playing the guy that took his record. . He's the guy who broke Marvin Lewis' streak of 50 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher in 2001 against the Ravens, but Lewis and Lewis also gave him some of his worst days. The Ravens have held him to his three lowest games when he's had double-digit carries (nine, 23, and 27 yards) and he has averaged 64 yards per game against them in 11 outings. **

KITNA VS. REED:** Except for the Phillip Buchanon play, Kitna has done a good job of staying away from the back-breaking pick and he can't make mistakes Sunday because Reed is going to cash. In a season he is emerging into a Pro Bowl player, Reed already has four interceptions and took one 54 yards for a touchdown against Cleveland, and he's got a good rep of reading the quarterback's eyes and jumping routes.

JOHNSON VS. MCALISTER: Here is a nice matchup of emerging Pro Bowl players. McAlister showed why he exasperates and excites Billick at the same time on the same play last week in Arizona. He had two picks and took one 83 yards for a score, but got flagged for pointing at the Cardinals and backpedaling into the end zone.

Johnson has been known to do a bit of the same, so here we go. Except he said he won't talk to McAlister during the game because, "I know him from Los Angeles. There's no reason to trash talk to a guy you don't know."

RICHARDSON VS. REED: Naturally, Richardson makes his Bengal debut against the Ravens. A season after Richardson set the NFL record with 39 punts inside the 20 in 1999 for Baltimore, he helped the Ravens with 34 more the next season that included four in the Big Game. But Reed is lurking, so beware Bengals on the perimeter. Reed was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week last week for blocking a punt and taking it 22 yards for a touchdown. The Ravens did that to the Bengals last year, but it was another rookie safety, Chad Williams, who blocked a punt for a touchdown.

**

NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game against the Ravens, including 3 and 4. The first is Bengals running back Corey Dillon's 100-yard games against the Ravens. The second is Ravens running back Jamal Lewis' 100-yard games against the Bengals. The Bengals are 0-3 when Dillon rushes for 100 yards against Baltimore. The Ravens are 4-0 against the Bengals when Lewis runs for 100 yards.

6 _ Shutouts the Ravens posted in the six seasons Marvin Lewis was their defensive coordinator.

3 _ Shutouts Lewis' defense posted against the Bengals.

5 _ Punts inside the Bengals' 20-yard placed by new Cincinnati punter Kyle Richardson when he punted for the Ravens in their 16-0 victory over the Bengals Dec. 23, 2001.

5 _ Punts the Bengals have put inside their foes' 20-yard line this season.

7 _ Rushes Ravens have gained at least 23 yards this season.

0 _ Rushes Bengals have gained at least 20 yards this season.

543 _ Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller's passing yards in this season's five games.

580 _ Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's passing yards in two games against the Ravens last season.

82 _ Passes Boller has attempted in his last four games.

87 _ Passes Kitna attempted against the Ravens in two games last season.

111 _ Starts by Ravens Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden, the fourth pick in the 1996 NFL Draft.

109 _ Starts by Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson, the 10th pick in the 1996 NFL Draft.

13 _ Quarterbacks protected by Ogden.

11 _ Quarterbacks protected by Anderson.

64 _ Yards Bengals running back Corey Dillon has averaged in 11 games against Baltimore since he became the starter.

120 _ Yards Ravens running back Jamal Lewis has averaged in four games against the Bengals.

4 _ Pro Bowlers selected by the Ravens in the first round since 1996.

0 _ Pro Bowlers selected by the Bengals in the first round since 1996.

**

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