Bengals to spread wings?

12-03-01, 5:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Now that the Bengals are left with no pure tight ends and quarterback Jon Kitna led them to their first touchdown in 10 quarters behind a fair amount of spread formations, did we get a glimpse of the last five games of the season for Cincinnati's beleaguered offense?

"I'm not saying anything," said Chad Johnson, an obviously frustrated rookie receiver. "We were playing pitch and catch. Executing our pass offense. You saw the last drive. . .What we did on that drive is what we need to be doing for the whole game. Period."

What the Bengals appeared to do was spread the field without any tight ends more than usual in the fourth quarter and they got 10 points out of it in the final 4:29 of regulation on quick pass routes. But it also included running back Corey Dillon's longest run of the day, a 16-yarder that appeared to be out of a spread.

"Sometimes we get bogged down trying to find the perfect play," Kitna said. "instead of just running our stuff. And that's just what happened in that last drive. Those plays right there are the same plays that we've been running since minicamp and the good thing about those is that everybody knows where they're going on those plays. I know exactly what to read. I mean, we didn't throw the ball past 10 yards on that drive."

Although left tackle Richmond Webb struggled at times and appeared to give up two sacks to Simeon Rice, right tackle Willie Anderson was encouraged by an offensive line that held a Tampa Bay defensive line with four No. 1 draft picks to just three sacks and got Corey Dillon 3.4 yards a carry against a stingy defense.

But Dillon's streak of four straight sub 100-yard games is the second longest of his career and Anderson is looking for answers for an offense he said continually put the defense in a hole Sunday.

Anderson gathered his linemates

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a few days before the game and reminded them they are the unit under the gun. Even though offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is installing a new pass offense, Anderson reminded them they can still play like the unit that helped the Bengals to No. 2 in NFL rushing last year.

"Over the years, things have changed around here. Different guys changed. I think our philosophy has changed," Anderson said. "We've got to get back to our old way of moving the ball. Mashing with the big guys and pushing guys and getting Corey these yards.

"I'm tired of being on a team that our coaches talk about the hustle and fight of the D-line," Anderson said. "We as an offensive line have to get there fighting, hustling and pushing and doing our thing. I think guys responded against a good Tampa team."

During the game, Anderson kept screaming at the line to prevent negative runs and to push for the four- and five-yard runs. Only two of Dillon's 23 runs lost yards or went for no gain.

ZERO RESULTS: The Bengals made the right call Sunday on the play that ended up deciding the game. Zero, zero, zero, which tells the punter there is one extra man that they can't block and he's got to kick it fast. But the Bengals special teams couldn't zero in again.

A field-goal percentage of 50. A 101-yard kick-off return to open the 20-7 loss to Tennessee. Foes taking kickoffs back to their own 32.6-yard line, the NFL's worst average.

This one, though, in Sunday's 16-13 overtime loss to Tampa Bay, made the difference. With 9:25 left in the second quarter and the Bengals' defense coming off a stirring 18-play, 11:15 scoreless stand to keep a 3-0 lead, Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber got the points back in eight seconds. That's the time it took him to line up in the slot, roar in untouched to block punter Nick Harris' kick and watch it bound to tight end Todd Yoder for an 11-yard touchdown run.

Huge in a game the Bengals' defense allowed just two Martin Gramatica field goals in regulation.

"Who ever that guy was, he must have a 4.0 or 4.1 (seconds) in the 40," said Harris of Barber's quickness in the 40-yard dash. "I knew he was coming. I tried to get it off faster, but he was still there. Record speed. He must have timed it up pretty good."

Barber ignored the Bengals' wide man, rookie cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn, and left him uncovered as he inched down the line into the slot. Kaesviharn indicated in post-game interviews that he hadn't been told to follow the man down the line. Harris said his only alternative would have been to throw to the wide open Kaesviharn, "but we don't have that

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play set up yet, but it's all my responsibility to get off fast and the guy was just faster than I was."

It was the first blocked punt against the Bengals in two years and the first for a touchdown since Travis Hill fell on a Lee Johnson punt in the end zone in old Cleveland Stadium Oct. 23, 1994. Tampa Bay blocked a punt on Monday night in St. Louis, but Harris said that was only because the snap drew the punter to the right and into the rush.

" "We were out there for about 20 seconds and the guy kept bouncing back and forth like he was coming in," Harris said. "And it's kind of like a hot read. . .a blitz for a quarterback. When the linebacker steps up, I (as a quarterback) think two quick steps and get it (the pass) off."

THIS AND THAT: TE Tony McGee may need arthroscopic surgery on the most severe (Grade 3) of medial collateral ligament sprains in his knee and not reconstructive surgery. Still, he is out for the year with an eight-to-10 week injury after cornerback Brian Kelly took out his knee on a six-yard catch on the Bengals' first play of their two-minute drill at the end of the first half.

McGee, 30, saw his streak of 117 straight starts end last year with a broken ankle in the 14th game of the season and can you believe what has happened to the Bengals' top three tight ends this season?

Third-round pick Sean Brewer has spent the year on injured reserve with a groin problem. Marco Battaglia is out for the season after a Nov. 17 appendectomy. And now McGee, the No. 1 tight end. Look for the Bengals to activate Kirk McMullen from the practice squad after they put McGee on IR Monday instead of pursuing a veteran with five games left.

The Bengals had to turn to second-year player Brad St. Louis

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in the second half, but he is primarily a long snapper who pretty much only plays on goal-line situations and in short yardage. But the coaches drew up a play for their only tight end standing at halftime because of the way the Bucs responded to one of the Bengals' sets with one tight end. On the first play of the fourth quarter on a first down from the Bengals 46, a wide-open St. Louis dropped a lob over his shoulder at about the Tampa Bay 40.

"He led me and I only got one hand up on it," St. Louis said. "I should have brought the other one up." . . .

WR Darnay Scott had four catches for 30 yards, including a clutch four-yard grab over the middle on fourth-and-three with 50 seconds left that put the Bengals on the Bucs 19 in the tying drive. That put Scott into fourth place on the Bengals' all-time receiving list with 364 catches, one ahead of Eddie Brown and 52 behind third-place Isaac Curtis. . .

Tampa Bay's Keyshawn decisively won the battle of Johnson cousins. Bengals rookie Chad had Cincinnati's second longest catch of the day, a 15-yarder in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal that cut the Bucs' lead to 13-6. But he only had two catches on the day for 27 yards while Keyshawn led all receivers with 85 yards on seven catches and had the game's only 20-yard plus play.

Keyshawn beat strong safety JoJuan Armour down the right sideline for a 34-yarder on the first series of the second half that set up Martin Gramatica's 38-yard field goal that made it 10-3.

Chad was visibly upset, but he did get a post-game pep talk from Keyshawn: "He told me to keep my head up, but I just can't stand it." . . .

WR Peter Warrick did get loose for a 14-yard catch out of that two-minute drill in the first half that put Cincinnati in field-goal range at the Bucs 34, but LG Scott Rehberg's holding call eliminated the play. . .

Rehberg may not start his fourth straight game because LG Mat O'Dwyer (knee) has been upgraded to questionable for Jacksonville next week. . .CB Artrell Hawkins (ankle) could miss his second straight game because he's doubtful.

ALL MY KICKERS: In another chapter of that never-ending soap opera of "All My Kickers, the Bengals' Neil Rackers responded to the heat with a 2-for-2 day a week after going 0-for-2 in Cleveland. So did Tampa Bay's Martin Gramatica, who missed from 43 and 51 yards before nailing the winner from 21 as both kickers fought to negotiate the new sod in the middle of the field.

Rackers' 23-yarder put the Bengals on the board in the first quarter, but his 41-yarder that scraped the right goal post with 4:29 left in regulation was the biggest of his career and brought the Bengals within 13-6.

"It felt wonderful. That's what I've always said," Rackers said. "The

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first half of the season, they took care of me when I missed field goals, they still won games. And this half of the season, I want to be the guy that gives them an opportunity to win the game."

It was Rackers' first shot on the new sod, which was installed two weeks ago, and he admitted it took some getting used to.

"We knew Rackers did not have a great percentage and you can see why now," said Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy. "This field is re-sodded in the middle and its tough footing. I think any kicker coming in here to kick consistently is probably pretty tough."

Rackers said he slid a bit into his 41-yarder, which is why it went so far to the right.

"In warmups, I didn't quite have the distance I normally do because you have to be a little careful with your plant foot," Rackers said, "and I went ahead and dug in a little bit and slid into the ball and cut it just a tad."

Rackers said Gramatica asked him, "What's wrong with your field?"

"I don't think he's used to playing on the (type of) fields we see (on a regular basis) in this conference," Rackers said. "He obviously scrubbed it (his kick) a little bit but he comes back and hits a game winner."

Rackers, clearly relieved, knew what the 41-yarder meant for his team. Not to mention for his daily practice squad battle with Jaret Holmes. All indications are the whole thing rode on this game. For at least another week.

"It's a great feeling considering all the things going on," Rackers said. "I just wish I could have got one in overtime."

Right tackle Willie Anderson was happy with the kicks, but it also miffed him to be asked. P>"That's what you get paid to do," Anderson said. "Gramatica does it all year. He wins games for them. I don't pat you on your back for doing your job. Go kick a 50-yarder or something unusual, I'll give you a pat on the back. An extra point and a short field goal is what you get paid to do."

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