Bengals trying to return to elite

12-22-03, 3:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ST. LOUIS _ If it had held up, it would have been the second longest punt return in the history of the game, and Jeff Burris might have actually run the Bengals into the playoffs with a 102-yarder that seemed to take as long as the 13 years since they were last in the postseason.

But as Burris lay exhausted at the Rams' 5-yard line early in the third quarter, the penalty flags were getting picked up. It turned out that extraneous Bengals and Rams had both leaked on to the field during Burris' extraordinary and resourceful play.

The good news is that the Rams thought the ball was dead and the play was over. The bad news is, so did some of the Bengals.

Both teams were called for illegal substitutions and Cincinnati had the ball on its 27 instead. In a second half the Bengals could manage just 115 yards, the swing of 78 yards was devastating.

"That was a huge play. It would have been a nice momentum swing for us to have a first down down there," understated quarterback Jon Kitna. "They made the right call."

Head coach Marvin Lewis, who has brought attention to detail to special teams and is a major reason the play there has been so much better, fumed, "It's our fault for being on the field."

What could have been a 17-17 game in the first five minutes of the second half stayed a 17-10 lead for the Rams, and eventually became a 27-10 final. And the Burris play seemed to symbolize Lewis' first season as coach of the Bengals after 15 excruciating games.

Brilliant. Smart. Alert. Encouraging. And, oh so close to going all the way.

But not quite there yet. Not this week.

The Bengals can still get to the playoffs with a win over Cleveland and a Baltimore loss to Pittsburgh. But they know they could have decided things themselves with a big win on the road either this past Sunday, or two weeks ago in Baltimore.

The road the past two weeks against good teams has been ugly. Close games, which the Bengals win at home and on the road, got out of hand in the second half. In the last two second halves on the road, the Bengals have been outscored, 24-3.

"To win games like this, you have to have big dogs," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Obviously in the games we lose on the road like this, we don't have the big dogs. We need some big dogs. I'm not saying that (the team is a couple of players away). In games like this, the big dogs, if you've got them, they've got to stand up. Not just the two anointed captains (Kitna and middle linebacker Kevin Hardy).

"But everybody steps up," Anderson said. "Marvin and the coaches do a great job of pushing that and pushing that and pushing that. But it's on us to come to determine it. We need a bunch of leaders. We need some dogs."

Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who earlier in the week said he was playing in his sixth straight biggest game, put it like this on ESPN.com:

"You say you're tired of being disrespected, you have to do something about it, make the plays that force people to respect you. We definitely fell short today. I think people know we're (competitive) now, but that's not enough, not yet. We're just about over the hump but today could have put us on the other side of it."

Anderson defines dogs as clutch players: "We all have to do our job better at crucial times. Crucial times. That's when good teams and good players step up." Anderson has a guy like Burris in mind.

A 10-year pro who has struggled the past two months with the lingering effects of a concussion, lost his starting job, and who isn't even the regular punt returner. That fell to him Friday when wide receiver Peter Warrick underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.

(And won't this be forever known as the Burris game?)

"Jeff was going for the jugular," Anderson said. It was the sidelines' fault that we messed it up. But that's the type of things guys do. You watched (Ravens cornerback) Chris McAlister do that a couple of years ago (returning a short field goal). Jeff was thinking big play all the way, That's what you have to think. . .I think Jeff Burris was trying to do that. That's the mentality you have to have. Attack mentality to make your own destiny, and not sit back and wait."

Burris chose to wait and pick his moment when Rams punter Sean Landeta sailed a punt over his head at his own 10-yard line and the Rams failed to bat the ball out of the end zone. As it rolled it around the end zone, the officials didn't blow the whistle, so Burris suddenly picked it up and ran away from the confused Rams.

The Bengals might have looked confused, but they are used to seeing Burris do it in practice all the time.

"Give credit to our special teams coach," said Burris of Darrin Simmons. "He makes sure we know the rules. It's something we work on.

"It's weird because we do it in practice all the time," Burris said. "I never thought it would actually happen in a game. But it was one of the situations today we tried to take advantage of. The ball's not dead until the referee blows the whistle. So, theoretically, any time the punt team touches the ball, it's live and we can pick it up without any cost to us, and try to return it. If I got tackled in the end zone, it still goes back out to the 20.

"The biggest thing is if I get it out to the 19, we have to take the ball at the 19," Burris said. "It's one of those things you have to be smart. You have to know when to take your chances."

Burris said he immediately thought about how Kevin Walter and Reggie Myles try to chase him down in practice when he does it, and there he was doing it in a game and the Rams weren't moving. If the Bengals' little guys weren't surprised, the big guys were. Anderson thought the entire offensive line was on the field as Burris raced by.

The offense taking the field after a change of possession isn't to be taken lightly. For the line, the idea is to bound out there and get that first play off.

"It's a psyche thing for the opposing team," Anderson said. "Do you want them to see an offense walking onto the field with its head down, or taking the field? It's kind of a psyche thing we take pride in. Some people were saying, 'Take the field.' Some people were yelling, 'Come back.' Half the offense was on the field. The whole O-line was."

Most of the receivers and running backs were waiting to see what personnel group would go in. Kitna was still getting the play from the coaches, and he was thankful, "I wasn't one of the guilty parties." Simmons was trying to keep guys from going on the field, but the offensive line was on its way.

"We should have been aware, but it's one of those situations that it's unexpected," Burris said. "That makes it extremely tough."

You certainly don't see a 102-yard punt return every day. And certainly one that doesn't go for a touchdown. The NFL record is 103 and the Rams' (oddly enough) Robert Bailey went for a TD against the Saints in 1994. That's the only one more than 100. Four have gone for 98, all TDs, with the latest one coming in 1990. The longest Bengals' punt return ever is Carl Pickens' 95-yarder for a TD in 1992.

"That was a heck of a play by Jeff," said safety Kevin Kaesviharn. "They touched the ball, so it's a live ball still. Free play for us. Even if he fumbled, it still would have been our ball. You don't see that play very often and that's why the guys thought, 'Oh, the ball is dead,' but that's not the case. That kind of hurt us. That would have been a big play for us."

So the Bengals zipped up the might-have-beens and packed the what-ifs in preparation for one last shot next week. Under Lewis, they have gone from bad to good, to, at times, very good, and now you can sense they are trying to find what it takes to be very good all the time.

"We can be average, and be average guys and be average individuals, but if you want to be good," Anderson said, "good individual, great individual, great team in the big time, you've got to step up and be big."

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