11-3-03, 5:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
TEMPE, Ariz. _
The once proud Bengals' running game is in tatters Monday morning after its worst game in 23 weeks, and their franchise running back can't seem to play more than a half without his injured groin driving him to the sidelines.
Or get, or find, any holes when he is in the game. And his backup also found the sledding tough in the crucial last 20 minutes or so of a should-have-had-it 17-14 loss to Arizona here Sunday.
Even though the Cardinals gave the Bengals a mild surprise by playing more deep zone than they have shown, Cincinnati still couldn't run the ball against a Cover Two defense that can be vulnerable to the rush. They could manage just 47 yards on the ground for their lowest ground game since the '02 opener, and right tackle Willie Anderson lambasted his offensive line.
"It starts with me. It starts with the offensive line," Anderson said. "We are not getting it done as a unit. We're not doing enough to shorten ballgames down and give our defense a rest and put together sustained drives with a running game."
Running back Corey Dillon, one of four men who have rushed for 1,000 yards in his first six seasons, reaches the halfway point of his seventh year with just 208 yards. That's eight yards fewer than what he got in one game against the Cardinals the last time the clubs met three years ago.
He has been hampered by a groin injury since Sept. 21 and has missed pretty much the second half of games against the Steelers, Browns, and Cardinals, as well as sitting out games against the Bills and Seahawks. On Sunday, he didn't play on the Bengals' goal-line series in the first half and didn't return in the second half after getting just five yards on seven carries.
After the game, he admitted his groin tightened up "somewhat," at halftime. Dillon, who practiced Thursday and Friday, said he "sure didn't," want to risk more injury and thought it was time to try backup Rudi Johnson.
"It wasn't bad. there was no pain, no nothing," Dillon said of the groin in the first half. "It didn't make any sense to stay out there and there's nothing out there and no opportunities. Let my boy (Johnson) go in and do his thing with it."
With Dillon's longest run four yards and six of the seven runs going for a yard or less, the debate this week is going to be if he should play until he's fully healthy if he isn't fully healthy. But like Anderson, Lewis pointed to the offensive line.
"There's no need to do that," said Lewis of resting Dillon. "We've got to get some people knocked down so we can get the running game going with Corey.
"Corey is our best runner and we're going to keep playing him," Lewis said. "Corey tightened up a little bit at half, which is kind of understandable until he gets back going full swing."
Anderson fumed about the Bengals letting their chance of getting to .500 "go down the drain," and put the onus on the offensive line.
"There's no reason we can't get big-time yards for Corey Dillon," Anderson said. Asked if he thinks Dillon is healthy, Anderson said, "If he's not healthy, you still have to keep guys off him until he's five, six yards past the line of scrimmage."
While Dillon couldn't dodge the Cards in his backfield, Johnson did bounce off penetrating middle linebacker Ronald McKinnon to start his two-yard touchdown run that tied the game at seven with 1:14 left in the half, and Johnson did give them a 12-yard burst they had been lacking late in the first half.
But Anderson knows they couldn't get yards for Johnson when they needed them, too, because he had eight yards on his last four carries during a dreadful second half the Bengals never got past their own 45.
"We have to be able to push guys back and right now we're not doing that," Anderson said. "It's like Coach told us. We're out of our minds if we think we can win passing the ball, and not getting anything out of our running game. It's ridiculous.
"We put Jon Kitna in this position," Anderson said. "He made some great throws."
In the second half, Kitna also threw his first two interceptions since an interception with 3:01 left in the third quarter of the 22-16 overtime loss to Buffalo Oct. 5, a total of 11 quarters. The first one came on a first-and-10 on the first series of the half when he gunned one for wide receiver Peter Warrick double covered at the Cardinals 35 and it got picked by cornerback Renaldo Hill.
The second one also came on first-and-10 on the first play after the two-minute warning, when he tried to get the ball to tight end Matt Schobel in bracket coverage. From his own 37, he overthrew it and free safety Dexter Jackson picked it off at the Cards 49 to all but end it.
"I threw it high. There was a guy underneath him, and then his guy (covering Schobel) and I was trying get it over the guy underneath him, but obviously not as much as I did," Kitna said.
Kitna and Lewis both pointed to third downs as the killer and Lewis wasn't going after his quarterback because he alluded to a lack of a running game when he said, "there were too many long third downs." The Bengals came into the game sixth in the league in converting 43.1 percent of their third downs, but only nailed three out of 10 Sunday.
The Bengals had a quite makeable third-and-two on the game's third snap. Kitna broke the huddle, saw a coverage that he found favorable, but left guard Eric Steinbach false started before he could snap it, and it careened to third-and-12 when right guard Mike Goff false started before getting the play off.
"We had been converting on third down and we haven't been turning it over and today we did both," Kitna said. "So we played ourselves into a box, and they got us right where they wanted us. We didn't get it done at all."
Kitna praised the Arizona defense for "playing downhill all the way.
"Their whole focus is don't worry where the football is, just penetrate into the backfield," Kitna said. "And they did it all day."
Enough that Anderson called out his linemates.
"We have to learn what we did wrong today and correct it," he said.