Bengals seek answers

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals quarterback Akili Smith may have walked out of today's films even more mystified than when he walked in to review Sunday's 13-0 loss to Jacksonville.

In an effort to simplify things for an offense struggling with an inexperienced quarterback and two rookie receivers, the coaches gave Smith a game plan he was told had the shortest list of pass plays in three years. But the Bengals didn't get in the red zone and running back Corey Dillon mustered just 32 yards on 17 carries.

It ended a historic stretch dating back to last season's 22-0 loss in Baltimore. The 14 points in the Bengals' last four regular-season games is the lowest for four straight games, a point less than the 1978 team gathered in losses in San Francisco, 28-12, at Miami, 21-0, to New England at home, 10-3, and in Buffalo, 5-0. It's also just the second time in 39 starts Dillon averaged less than two yards per carry.

"And it still didn't get it done," said Smith of the cliff notes game plan. "Everyone knows if we don't have a running game they're just going to barrel in and put the pressure on me. If we had better protection, on some of those plays our receivers were running open, they were big plays. Other times when I did have the time, I wasn't accurate and didn't make the right read.

"We've been going through this for two years now trying to get on the same page," Smith said. "Something's got to change. I don't know what it is. After every game we look at the film and it's a breakdown (on each bad play). Well, damn. Every game? Come on."

Sunday's breakdowns came along the offensive line as the Bengals struggled with the Jaguars' version of the Chicago Bears' 4-6 defense that terrified the 1980s. The Jags basically committed eight players to stopping the run and blitzed virtually every play. And they'll probably get more of the same the next two weeks.

Next comes the Ravens, who run a similar scheme to Jacksonville, and the week after that comes the Dolphins, the fourth team in NFL history to allow just one touchdown in its first three games.

"In this league, they'll keep with it until you can pick up (the blitz)," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "It's like sharks smelling blood. They keep coming and coming.

"Teams know we're a good running team and they're scheming us differently right now and playing more aggressively," Anderson said. "Teams have us thinking right now. They're trying to shut down the offensive line and Corey Dillon running the ball. They know we've got a young quarterback and two young receivers and until we get some positive yards, I see teams doing that."

Anderson called out the line for its poor play today. He also called out criticism that put some of the blame for the line's lackluster play in the first two games on conditioning. . . .

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"It starts with me and the whole offensive line," Anderson said. "We're hurting. Our pride is hurt because we feel like our group is making us lose."

Anderson was peeved over reports that questioned the conditioning of a line that relies on beef (the average starter weighs about 320 pounds) rather than quickness. HBO's "Inside the NFL," showed a clip this past week that caused a buzz in Cincinnati. It showed some of the Cleveland Browns' defensive linemen exulting in the fourth quarter at how they had worn down the Bengals' offensive line on the way to a 24-7 win two weeks ago.

"Guys are always talking like that on the sidelines trying to pump each other up," Anderson said. "Defensive linemen get to come out of the game and rotate. We don't. What's in shape? If we went to a doctor, they'd say, 'You're dead.' But we're in football shape. Are you getting physically beat in the fourth quarter? On one pass play down the field, I'm down there right behind the receiver."

The 340-pound Anderson said he hopes people aren't talking about him. He's hitting his weekly weight incentive and he says he's the same size he was that night three years ago when Dillon set the single game rookie rushing record and the same size last year, when Dr. Z made him an All-Pro in Sports Illustrated.

"Look at the game Sunday," Anderson said. "It's raining, it's cool. Ideal conditions. We didn't do the job. But for people to say the reason is we're out of shape is bull."

Anderson thinks a couple of reasons for the line's lack of sync could be right guard Mike Goff's promotion at the end of training camp to starter with the release of Brian DeMarco and the fact center Rich Braham is playing with the injured knee that kept him out all preseason.

"Rich Braham is playing on a bad knee," Anderson said. "It's huge and the guy is trying to tough it out and do things that he could normally do. He's playing in pain, but he's one of the leaders of this team . . .As a whole, those two things aren't hurting us, but we're trying to get to a point of working together."

Braham, who had his bursa sack removed early in training camp, admits his knee has puffed to rather large dimensions. But he won't say it's why he didn't play well Sunday. Anderson figures the biggest reason the line is struggling is because, "guys are doing more individual blocks than team blocks or combination blocks and in the running game everything has to work together. . .It's got to be like synchronized swimming and we're not doing that."

Coach Bruce Coslet is concerned about the running game and its failure to take advantage of the blitz. But he doesn't think it's because they sent DeMarco packing.

"When we ran the ball most successfully last year, DeMarco was out," Coslet said. "It's never a single factor. . .We like to run the ball against the blitz. That's when you get a lot of your biggest runs. If you split them and then you have no pursuit or secondary help. We're not afraid to run right at the blitz, but we're just not getting to the blocks at the point of attack."

Or as fullback Clif Groce, a big fan of the running game, said, "Each person is a bust on a different play. . . It's execution. Just look at the film. In the first quarter. Nine plays and nothing. One person this play, one person that play. You can have all the 10-year players, but if they don't do their assignment, they're going to get beat."

How badly does Smith need the running game?

"Listen to me," Groce said. "He's a rookie. Look at Tim Couch last year."

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