Bengals try to zone out Browns

9-27-03, 8:50 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

How big is Sunday?

Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons, who would downplay Armageddon, calls it, "huge."

How big is the 0-3 Bengals' game at the 1-2 Browns?

Cornerback Artrell Hawkins said, "It can decide which way both our seasons go. It's that kind of game ."

Cincinnati can leave 0-4 and the paint peeling off the walls from the talk-show fallout as the Browns separate from them at 2-2. Or, the Bengals can leave with both teams 1-3, and a one-game lead over Cleveland in the AFC North.

Talk about what a difference 60 minutes makes.

"You know those division games," Simmons said. "As good as two games."

This is the kind of game it's been the last three times. The Browns have pushed, shoved, and manhandled the Bengals all over Ohio in outscoring them, 65-27. Symbolizing their dominance in the trenches last season, the Browns had six sacks to the Bengals' one and the last time they met they stuffed Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon on the one-yard line on third and fourth downs midway through the fourth quarter to preserve a 27-20 victory.

Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna thinks they will get that yard if they need it this year even though they line up with basically the same cast.

"We're a more confident team," Kitna said. "We've got a better idea of our personnel and theirs. We have a better idea of what we are."

Although former head coach Dick LeBeau sought a smash-mouth identity for his offense, Kitna says it just may not be that way as he goes to his big-play receivers more and more.

Yet 10 months later, it looks like this one is going to be decided in the same spot. The Browns' defense has allowed minus-four yards on nine snaps inside their foes' 5-yard line. From their foes' 5, the Bengals haven't been easy on the eyes. They have managed one touchdown on a five-yard pass, but they also have just four yards on five rushes from the 5, along with two sacks down there.

"They've been amazing on the goal line and we have to figure out a way to score in there," said center Rich Braham, who has been appointed the offensive captain for Sunday. "And we have to score touchdowns and not field goals. That's how they beat San Francisco last week (13-12). They just gave them four field goals."

This is the kind of game it's been the last three times. Grinding, grimy affairs that had its share of big plays from the likes of Johnson and Johnson (Chad and Kevin), but they have been decided on the goal line and in the red zone.

"We have to have the mindset that we're going to be physical. If we don't, the things that are happening are going to keep happening," said right tackle Willie Anderson of his line. "If each man takes care of his battles and thinks about being physical, that's our game. These guys are one of the most athletic D lines we play this year, so we have to think that way. They have four or five guys that can disrupt a game and you can look up in the third quarter and have no points."

It's an uneasy matchup for the Bengals, given their two biggest offensive mistakes the last two games are what basically amounts to red-zone interceptions. Plus, their best receiving tight end, Matt Schobel, is doubtful with a hamstring injury.

And, there is no green in the Browns' red zone, where they haven't allowed a touchdown the eight times this season teams have penetrated their 20-yard line.

"We need to get better in the red zone, no question," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "But we were 50 percent last week scoring touchdowns (1-for-2) and that's about where you have to be. For the last couple of years, teams that go to the playoffs have been 51 percent.

"This is a big challenge this week because these guys have one of the best defensive lines we'll play all year," Bratkowski said. "They've got five guys across the board and they're tremendous pass rushers. If you get in a situation where you have to throw, you're going to have some problems."

The Browns' young linebackers have attracted attention with their energy and ability to get to the ball so quickly. But Braham knows that comes from the Browns' massive defensive line.

"They'll do anything to keep you off the linebackers," Braham said. "Hold you, pull you down. And they're big."

The closer the Bengals get against Cleveland, the worse it's been. Last year's other game, a 20-7 loss on Sept. 15, 2002, was spurred by a red-zone interception on quarterback Gus Frerotte's left-handed interception on a desperation heave from the Cleveland 17 in the last minute of the first half. A possible 10-3 half-time deficit became 17-0.

In the 18-0 loss on Nov. 25, 2001 that marked Cleveland's first win over the Bengals in their new stadium, T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 86-yarder put the ball on the Cleveland 5. The third longest punt return in Cincinnati history gave the Bengals a chance to cut the lead to 12-7 in the third quarter. But an incomplete pass, two Dillon runs for three yards, and a sack blew it up.

Although the Bengals' offensive line has made one switch, it's pretty much the same one that lined up against Cleveland on the goal line back in November. But should it be a different outcome because they are stronger and in better condition? Some thought that goal-line stand had been lost in March and April conditioning.

"That's easy to say something like that, but you have to see how it plays out over 16 games," Bratkowski said. "If we are, we should be playing better in the fourth quarter and playing stronger late in the season. We just didn't execute those plays as well as we should have."

The Bengals still struggle to execute in goal-line and short-yardage, although there have been flashes. Kitna has thrown once on third-and-one, and hit Peter Warrick on a 10-yard pass. The other third-and-ones have been three runs for minus-one yard. Red zone, goal-line, and short yardage were all been top priorities for Bratkowski this offseason.

Although the Bengals have been ripped for being conservative and predictable down there, Bratkowski knows, "The good teams are able to do both down there, run and throw," and as the Browns' sack of quarterback Scott Mitchell on a fourth-and-two rollout shows, he has tried things other than Dillon off tackle.

Some cry for Dillon to be pitched wide, but Dillon prefers to go straight ahead. Some moan that Dillon has lost his edge with Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal's free-agent bolt, but Neal was Dillon's unsuccessful lead blocker on the third-and-one, and fourth-and-one, against Cleveland. Some even suggested Dillon might have made a wrong read. Some argue it's tough for Dillon to make a read when defenders swarm him before he gets to the line.

"It's just not one thing on the goal line," said one Bengal. "It's so complicated, I couldn't even begin to explain it or point to one thing. It's angles, it's looks, it's everything."

Which is maybe why head coach Marvin Lewis just wants to simplify things.

"(Goal line) is execution," Lewis said. "It can be push, it can be angles, it can be a lot of different things. Backs on the right read, people up front getting initial push, everybody coming off on the timing of things. Just getting it done. We're going to try and not be so analytical about it. Just everyone seeing the look and blocking the look."

The Bengals finished next to last in AFC red zone touchdown percentage last season, and this year they are tied for 20th in the league with nearly 43 percent. But it's not Kitna's two interceptions thrown from the 17 and 20 that have Lewis indicating they may run it in the red zone more.

He takes a look at his defense, which is tied for 16th in the NFL in giving up touchdowns 55.6 percent of the time, and he has seen how they have been hurt in the running game down there.

"Offenses get anxious," Lewis said. "They don't want to run it three times and kick the field goal if they don't happen to have success. It's probably easier (to run) just based on coverages and things people are playing (in the red zone.) You attract more people to the line of scrimmage, yet the nature of the beast is I think teams are going back to running the football."

Lewis senses opposing offenses have seen that against the Bengals in the red zone and, "We have to do a better job there defending the run."

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