Bills prepare Bengals for worst

12-29-02, 2:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. _ With all eyes on Monday, the Bengals failed to watch the Bills on Sunday zoom by them into the offseason with 20-3 a half-time lead.

The script is the same that has sentenced the Bengals to what looks to be their worst record ever at 2-14 and the NFL's No. 1 draft pick. The defense, backed up with poor field position because of shoddy special teams play and offensive turnovers, surrendered two touchdown drives of a combined 100 yards.

And the Bengals' offense, 27th in NFL red-zone play, wasted a 12-play, two-minute drill drive when they couldn't punch it in twice from the Bills 2 in the last minute of the first half and settled for Neil Rackers' 19-yard field goal with 24 seconds left after wide receiver Chad Johnson couldn't get away .from Bills cornerback Nate Clements on two Jon Kitna incompletions.

It wasted the defense's swarming of Bills running back Travis Henry, a 1,300-yard rusher held to 2.4 yards per carry on 17 carries in the first half.

The game, of course, was being played against the backdrop of the unknown status of the Bengals coaching staff.

Head coach Dick LeBeau is in the last year of his contract and the bulk of his assistants don't have deals that extend past this season.

Speculation is rampant about who the Bengals next coach will be if LeBeau is terminated Monday. New NFL guidelines instruct all teams to

include minority candidates in what the league says must be "a legitimate search." It's believed the team has studied at least one African-American assistant coach in Redskins defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, a LeBeau disciple from Pittsburgh, and published reports have linked another, Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, to a possible pool, in case of a change.

If the Bengals go another way Monday, Lewis and Smith, both 44, fit the criteria of young, aggressive coaches. But the team's history has tended to side with head coaches who are grounded in offense.

The Bengals coaching staff is already in flux. Bengals wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian, one of the coaches in the last year of his deal, plans to interview in the next 10 days for the head coaching job at Division 1-AA Sacramento State. Mooshagian, a Los Angeles-area native, said last week the lure of coaching in his home state makes the job attractive. Mooshagian, 43, has been the head coach at Fresno City College and played and coached at Fresno State.

But Mooshagian has heard nothing on the Walt Harris front. Harris, the University of Pittsburgh head coach, fits the Bengals' M.O. as a former NFL assistant. Mooshagian, Harris' former offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, would no doubt be on a Harris staff in Cincinnati, but he hasn't heard any indication that Harris is in the mix, or if there is even a change on the way.

Mooshagian won't interview at the East-West Shrine game in the San Francisco area because the Bengals don't appear to be making plans to send coaches to scout that college all-star game next week. That could be seen as more evidence of a change on Monday, although the Bengals have been cutting down the last few years on sending coaches to that particular game.

Could one change already be on the way with defensive end Vaughn Booker on Sunday's inactive list? Radio analyst Dave Lapham reported before Sunday's game that Booker has strongly hinted to his defensive linemates that he won't be back next year. But Booker has said he wouldn't make a call on retirement immediately after the season.

The Bills' second touchdown of the first half came after Kitna fumbled the ball away his at own 45 when he got flushed out of the pocket late in the first half. The defense, as it did much of the half behind strong play from inside linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons, stuffed Henry on third down, but Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe spread out the Bengals on fourth down and wide receiver Eric Moulds beat cornerback Jeff Burris inside for a touchdown pass to make it 20-0 with 2:41 left in the first half.

The Bengals whiffed on their six third-down tries in the half and couldn't get running back Corey Dillon off against the NFL's second-worst rush defense with 15 yards on seven carries at the half. Their only big play was Kitna's 50-yarder to Johnson as he finished nine of 18 passing for 123 yards.

Bledsoe, the NFL's ultimate pure passer, broke from the pocket for his fourth career touchdown run on a seven-yard quarterback draw to give the Bills a 13-0 lead in the first five minutes of the second quarter.

But it was tough to find fault with the Cincinnati defense, although Bledsoe had his way against a depleted secondary with 11 of 16 passing in the half for 130 yards, with at least 33 of the yards going to the three wideouts of Moulds, Peerless Price, and Josh Reed.

The Bengals had three straight three-and-outs to end the first quarter against a heavy blitz defense as Dillon could manage just eight yards on his first six carries and Kitna missed four of his first six passes.

Nick Harris got off a 26-yard punt from his own end zone and when fullback Lorenzo Neal got called for a personal foul on the kick, the Bills had a first down on the Bengals 11. But they got stoned on third down when Spikes and Simmons sandwiched tight end Jay Riemersma at the goal line to force quarterback Bledsoe's incompletion and Mike Hollis' ensuing 25-yard field goal.

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