11-3-03, 11:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
TEMPE, Ariz _ The Bengals knew this might happen.
The Arizona offensive line, anchored by 380-pound right guard Leonard Davis and book-ended by 335-pound tackles L.J. Shelton and Anthony Clement, is one of the biggest in the NFL and they have shed the lethargy that dogged them before they went into their bye week two weeks ago.
"Those guys are huge. That's why you have to get up on them," said Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton after Cardinals running back Marcel Shipp gouged them for 141 yards. "You have to make them throw the ball a lot. You can't let a team like that just run when they want."
Shipp, the third-year free-agent out of the University of Massachusetts, ran like it was a U Mass-Maine game back in the Yankee Conference day. In the Cardinals' winning 13-play drive that opened the second half, he banged through the interior six times for 36 yards to set up quarterback Jeff Blake's deadly third-down passing.
Although Shipp softened them up (strong safety Rogers Beckett had to come up to make a game-high 12 tackles), Blake converted all three third downs in the 80-yard drive that were all passing situations. While the Bengals struggled with the Cards stopping the run and pass, they also dealt themselves a bad hand on special teams with two fumbled kickoffs and Kyle Richardson's net 37.2-yard punting average.
"They played hard. Probably harder than we did," said middle linebacker Kevin Hardy. "That's disappointing. But you have to face the facts. That's part of the facts."
Twice, Blake's target in what appeared to be zone coverage was rookie wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the NFL's second-leading receiver on third down. Boldin caught a 13-yarder on third-and-five and a seven-yarder on third-and-seven for the touchdown with 8:12 left in the first quarter. The other third down came when he hit tight Freddie Jones for a 20-yard gain on third-and-12.
"(Blake) and the passing wasn't the problem," Thornton said. "When you can't control the running game, you can't win."
Or, as defensive tackle Oliver Gibson said, " They didn't get into the end zone much, but they controlled the pace of the game. That's offensive football. If you can control the pace of the game and not turn it over, you've got the advantage."
In the end, everyone said how the Bengals and Cardinals were so similar. Both had the worst record in their conference in the past decade, both went into their bye week haunted by turnovers, both emerged from the off week to ride errorless streaks by their quarterbacks. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis complimented the Cardinals after the game for settling on an identity, and then following through on it.
It's just that the good running game, stopping the run, and taking advantage of special teams mistakes is supposed to comprise the Bengals' identity, and not how they lose games.
"We didn't stop the run. We didn't run the football offensively, and we didn't play very good in the special teams area," Lewis said. "They outplayed us."
With running back Brandon Bennett nursing a sore back and some recent trouble handling kickoffs, Rudi Johnson replaced him on the kick return team and he joined Kenny Watson.
But Johnson said he and Watson had a miscommunication on the opening kickoff of the game. Johnson said Watson is the man whom calls who takes the kick when it is in the air, but they both went for it at about the 5, collided, and Johnson recovered his fumble and got it only out to the 13.
After Richardson's 37-yard punt led to a field goal that cut the Bengals' lead to 14-10 with 4:14 left in the first half, Watson let the ensuing kickoff one- hop through his hands out of bounds at his own 2. Throw in Richardson's 35-yard punt that set up Arizona's first touchdown, and the hidden yards that gave the Cards an average drive start at their own 36 and the Bengals at their own 22 weren't so hidden.
Also not helping their cause was the fact that Arizona scored on its first possession, marking the third straight game the foe has scored a touchdown on the opening drive, the fourth time this season, and marking every game they have scored first.
"It happens every week," Thornton said. "We do the same thing every week. Spot a team seven points. Offense goes down and scores twice. It's happened the last few weeks. We all lose our confidence in the situation. We have to play better on defense."
Some players thought the Bengals came out flat, but guys like Thornton and Jon Kitna disputed it, although Kitna admitted the way they played, "could be construed," that way.
"We've played big lines before. Like Baltimore," said Gibson, playing down the Cards' size. "Stopping the run comes down to staying in your gaps and execution."
Hardy also agreed that the Bengals had done pretty well stopping the run against the Ravens' very large line, and looked elsewhere for an answer. But it wasn't being surprised. Hardy said Shipp didn't run the draw as much as they thought, but the lead and counters were simple enough that they should have been stopped.
Another factor for Blake's third-down success may have been the game-ending concussion sustained by cornerback Jeff Burris in the second quarter. That moved Artrell Hawkins, the nickel back, into the game every snap, and Reggie Myles saw some action as the third corner.
Blake, who threw nine interceptions in his first six games, has thrown none in his last two. Throwing for 166 yards, he upped his record to 3-0 against his old Bengals. He has thrown for a total of 464 yards in the three wins and for 281 in the last two, a number he bettered in 11 starts in Cincinnati.
"A lot of them (Sunday) were quick passes," said Hardy of the third-down plays.