Dazed defense, team tries to cope

9-9-02, 4:35 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau ended a day that began with so much promise promising lineup changes after the devastating Opening Day loss to the Chargers.

"Absolutely," said LeBeau when asked if changes could include lineup shuffles, but he wouldn't be specific. "I have to look at the film before I comment on that. We're not going to be run on like that performance today. We're going to fix that. . .We have to make changes."

LeBeau reserved most of his wrath for a defense that is supposed to carry his team to the playoffs. Ten starters return to the NFL's ninth-best defense and yet as middle linebacker Brian Simmons observed, "The only time we stopped them was at the end of game when they kneed the ball."

Right tackle Willie Anderson said an emotional LeBeau spoke after the game about how each man had let down each other in what is supposed to be a family. And Anderson agreed as a player who never thought a team as close as this one would let it get like this in a game.

But it was the defense that felt the pain, symbolized by defensive tackle Tony Williams smashing the lens cap of a Dayton, Ohio television camera on the sideline after one Chargers touchdown. Simmons said if they keep playing like that, "We'll go 0-16.

"Some things around here definitely have to change," Simmons said. "I think the defense might have talked too much about last year. We have to realize, this is this year and we have to make what we're going to be this year. What we did last year doesn't matter."

It was as good an explanation as anyone else had for the 34 points, 401 yards, and 5.4 yards per rush. But it was a stunning blowup for a proud unit that last year confused Drew Bledsoe, stymied the Super Bowl champion Ravens, and shut down Pittsburgh's No. 1 rush offense.

Bengals President Mike Brown was among those stunned by the outcome on a day Paul Brown Stadium was the only house on the NFL's Opening Day that was more than 10,000 seats shy of a sellout.

"It's a big disappointment. Everyone knows we were expecting so much more," Brown said. "We've got work to do. The way they moved the ball so easily makes you think it had to be somehow a technical thing. It has to be that. If it isn't, well, we have to find out and fix it."

There was brave talk about next week in Cleveland and rallying by Wednesday at practice. With the Browns and Ravens losing and the Steelers playing Monday night, Brown noted, "We probably had to play the worst of any team in the first week, and yet as we sit here we're tied for first place."

Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson compared the performance to a wakeup call that "embarrassed," his 1995

Steelers and how their 27-9 loss to the Bengals on national TV dropped them to 3-4 and spurred them to the Super Bowl.

"Thank goodness we've got 15 opportunities to get it straight and I'm going to get it straight by Wednesday."

But Gibson, who had two offsides penalties during the Chargers' 241-yard rushing day, admitted, "I'm concerned. It's disturbing. I'm curious to see the film, too. I must not have been doing something right. . . It shows how if you don't pay attention to detail, you will get embarrassed and today we were embarrassed. That isn't Bengal football. It's not us."

One of the most disturbing things is the Chargers used a re-tooled interior line to punish the Bengals' highly-regarded front seven. Rookie left guard Toniu Fonoti left with an injured shoulder in the second quarter and was replaced by a second-year backup. Right guard Bob Hallen, benched in Atlanta last year, made his Chargers' debut, along with Cory Raymer, a solid but journeyman center.

"Guys were playing hard, I just mean guys (weren't) playing the defense effectively," Simmons said. "We knew what they were going to do. They started going wide and then they just started running right at us. We can't allow teams to do that. We gave ourselves no chance to win that game. None."

Strong safety Cory Hall said the Bengals were taken a bit by surprise with the shallow crossing routes the Chargers used to get mismatches in the middle of the field and that quarterback Drew Brees didn't go down field more.

But the problems against the run were harder to explain. In his first NFL start at free safety, Mark Roman had six tackles, but he'll always be remembered for the one he didn't make when he bounced off Brees near the goal line and didn't wrap him up.

"It was like a chain reaction," Hall said. "One guy might have trouble for a play or two and then be all right, but then two guys would have trouble and it just kept on like that."

Linebacker Takeo Spikes called it one of the top three games for embarrassment and said, "We have to swallow it. If we don't, who will? . . We have no choice (to bounce back).

"You just can't give up something you've always been focusing on the whole year," Spikes said. "If you do that, it doesn't mean anything to you and I think it means something to the guys in this locker room."

But the question still remains. How do they bounce back from such a big step backward?

"It sure was," said wide receiver Danny Farmer. "We're going to have to get on some people and people are going to have to look at themselves in the mirror and focus on playing some football because we did not play well today. . .We've got to turn it around real fast."

Anderson, who says this is the closest team he's been on in seven years here, found it hard to believe they let this happen to each other. He said that's what LeBeau talked about right after the game.

"This team has prided itself on staying together," Anderson said. "Today, we let each other down. You looked around and in guys' eyes, every guy knew he let down coaches, players, their brother."

Brown said last week that the first few weeks of a season are key and how they set the tone for the rest of the year. He recalled that first AFC title in 1981 probably never would have been if not for come-back-victories in the first two games.

"It's just one game," said running back Corey Dillon. "But I'm sick of saying that, too."

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