10-10-02, 5:10 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals are trying to go back to the future this Sunday when they play the same Steelers' defense that Jon Kitna strafed for 411 passing yards last Dec. 30.
The topic of the week is that the Bengals ignited the demise of Pittsburgh's 3-4 zone blitz scheme with Kitna's Cincinnati-record 68 passes in the 26-23 overtime victory. Since then, Pittsburgh has fallen victim to Tom Brady's 294 passing yards, Rich Gannon's 64 attempts, and Aaron Brooks' 100.5 passer rating in allowing their most points in their first four games since 1989.
Both sides deny the Bengals started the trend, but it could have been just as damaging to Cincinnati. The Pittsburgh win may have lulled them into thinking they could thrive on a rotating wide receiver corps after Darnay Scott had the biggest receiving game of the season to that point (113), Peter Warrick had his first 100-yard game of his career (109), T.J. Houshmandzadeh nearly had his first (98), and Danny Farmer caught the tying touchdown pass with 37 seconds left in regulation on a marvelous 18-yard circus catch.
But with the Steelers back in town nine and a half months later, the Bengals are still laboring to find their passing game.
Kitna's six wide receivers combined to catch 384 yards that day, but that is more than half of the 677 they have together this year in five games. The corps is in the throes of a rotation because of injuries and because no one has stepped up to take the top two jobs with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski still seeking someone to consistently beat one-on-one coverage.
"No one has stood out," Bratkowski said.
Except maybe the fuming Michael Westbrook, who was supposed to be bigger, faster and better when he signed to replace Scott. He is saying things like he doubts he'll be active for the game Sunday after playing just five snaps last week and that the coaches don't even talk to him anymore.
"If we're going to continue to lose with the guys we have and they don't think they need my help, so be it," said Westbrook, frustrated with just four catches for 41 yards after signing a three-year, $4.5 million deal.
"I'm not here to complain about any of that. . .It's not rocket science. I wasn't healthy then, I'm healthy now. I was playing with a broken wrist and cast on my hand and they still think I'm that same guy. Which I don't think is very intelligent. I can use both hands now. . .Now I totally understand. I used to wonder before I got here. Now I understand. That's all I'm saying."
Westbrook is also saying he's probably going to be inactive Sunday and he may be right because Farmer, out
the past four games with a knee injury, is going to play. Farmer wonders why they didn't play him last week because he felt he was healthy enough, and Warrick, unhappy over losing the punt return job, is trying to build on catching his first touchdown pass in 17 games last week.
There are those who wonder if the young receivers might be more consistent if the Bengals decided on two regular wideouts instead of splitting the six into different packages. Somebody might get mad, but stick with the same guys, the theory goes. If the regular quarterback got hurt by not getting enough snaps because of an even training camp derby, maybe the same thing happened to the wideouts.
"I don't know if it's a good thing thing or a bad thing," Farmer said. "What it does show is that we have guys that can play a lot of positions, but it's also a little bit of a weakness because they haven't played enough in every type of situation to be as successful as we would like."
"Maybe a little bit," Bratkowski said of the inconsistency. "But you're talking about the timing between a quarterback and receiver. In regular personnel, you have two receivers. When you go four wides, those same people are pretty much still playing. Maybe it has a little bit of inconsistency because somebody (can't) lock into one position, but the big thing is, who is going to make plays for us? We're still trying to find out."
A major reason the Bengals haven't been able to find a mix is because of injuries. Westbrook (broken wrist) and Farmer (hamstring) missed most of training camp and Houshmandzadeh has been nursing an injured groin all during the regular season. Warrick (bruised knee) and Ron Dugans (Achilles) have also been nicked. Chad Johnson has been the healthiest and most productive, but his most consistent trait has been his inconsistency.
"The one thing we've gotten this year more than any other is man coverage. Bump and run coverage. Beating that coverage is what separates average NFL receivers from good ones," Bratkowski said. "We're getting a bunch of bump run man this year and no one has displayed the ability to beat it consistently and that's what we're looking for. It's a concern. We're working like heck on techniques. We'll see plenty of it until we prove we can beat it."
When Farmer got cut from the Steelers at the end of the 2000 training camp, Bratkowski was his receivers coach. He has apparently been won over by Farmer during his work here and said Farmer would have played last week if they felt his knee responded better.
"We didn't think he was quite ready," Bratkowski said. "We could have used him in an emergency last week, but he didn't look completely ready and we wanted to see him more confident in the leg. (Staying healthy) has been a problem for him. Once he gets going, he gets hurt and when he misses some time, it takes him time to get back in the swing. Hopefully, he's over that now."
Warrick has been unhappy ever since he arrived over his lack of opportunities to go down field in the slot. Told last week's 30-yard play is the longest touchdown catch of his NFL career, Florida State's human video game said, "That's funny." On Wednesday, he simply said he could make big plays out of the slot if he's given the chance.
"Those plays haven't been called for him. A lot of times he's playing in the slot," Kitna said, "Peter has a knack for making big plays when given the opportunity, and that's what I want to do, give him the opportunity to display his abilities. The thing I told him is to just play. And to go out and play like he's on the playground. He and I have a good relationship. . .I think Peter is going to be effective no matter where he lines up."
Warrick wistfully thinks of the last Steelers game ("I wish there could be more like that,"), and Houshmandzadeh thinks it's a good example.
"It wasn't complicated," Houshmandzadeh said. "We were behind and we had to make plays and everyone stepped up and made them."
Bratkowski likes the talent, but he's trying to fit it together like one of the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles of Niagara Falls.
"Some guys are doing things very well. Some guys are catching the ball very well when it's thrown their way," Bratkowski said. "But then the same guys aren't always getting open and separating when we need to go to them. We're still looking for that go-to-guy."
Westbrook doubts it's ever going to be him.
"Whatever they want to do. I signed a three-year contract," he said. "When I was starting and playing, I was one-handed. I know I hurt myself because that's not what I wanted them to see. But I wanted to be in there. I got what I asked for."