Down the stretch they come

Updated:
11-23-03, 11:35 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

SAN DIEGO _ Paul Brown's quote about the eternal verities of integrity, honesty, loyalty, truth, and dedication are painted on the wall of strength coach Chip Morton's weight room back at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals founder could have added "endurance for the long haul," because the Bengals are finding their legs for the final six games of a regular season in the holy days of November and December. There is no bigger truth in the NFL that championships are won in those months.

Just look at the perennial AFC powers with the Jeff Fisher-coached Titans, the Bill Cowher-coached Steelers, and the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick-coached Patriots. From 1993-2002, those men were coaching most of the time when Tennessee went 52-34 in November (37-38 in September and October), Pittsburgh went 50-35-1 (48-26), and New England went 50-33 (34-43).

Why have the Dolphins, Colts, and Bills struggled to get a foothold? In that same stretch, Miami is 44-43 in November and December (compared to 52-22 in September and October), Indianapolis is 39-44 (36-39), and Buffalo 42-43 (43-32).

And even though head coach Marvin Lewis has put them through their most physical grind they have ever experienced in the NFL, they don't think they are running into a wall down the stretch.

"The mind controls the body and we've been down so long that we're on such a high right now," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "When every where you go, people are praising you, you can always play through that."

Morton, assistant strength and conditioning coach Kurtis Shultz, and Lewis are confident they have put together a program that should be peaking in the next six weeks and not flagging. The numbers are already say how effective the regimen has been. They are outscoring foes, 69-48, in the fourth quarter, which they haven't done in seven seasons. They have lost just 13 starts to injury this compared to 72 last year.

"It's the strongest I've ever felt at this point in the season," said linebacker Adrian Ross.

Special team Brandon Bennett thinks the expanded conditioning program has cut down on the mistakes that used to haunt this team. After 10 games last season, they had 22 turnovers. They have 12 now.

"You can see the difference in the way we play," Bennett said. "We're still running down on kicks in the fourth quarter and making plays. We're not making those mistakes out of fatigue, like missed blocks or dropped balls , or bad reads."

Morton knows what it takes to win in November and December. That's how the Ravens won a Super Bowl and made the playoffs in 2000 and 2001, and

he was an assistant strength coach on the 1994 Chargers that had enough legs to win an AFC championship game after a cross-country trip to Pittsburgh.

"Marvin has come from programs where they've been able to play their best late," said Morton of Lewis stints in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. "We're doing things by stages in the weight room and Marvin I'm sure probably plans to do the same thing in practice."

The conditioning has helped out the injury situation, but as one long-time Bengals' employee observed, "The two best team doctors we've ever had are Marvin and Forrest Gregg."

Translation: You won't play if you don't practice.

"If you can't practice, you can't play," Lewis said. "We're not mad at you. We just have to move on.

"If you're not going to play, you're not much good to us," he said. "We made that evident in August, whatever that day was.'

That day was Aug. 30, the final cut-down day when Lewis let go players whom historically had trouble staying on the practice and game fields this past offseason and previous regular seasons.

But players say it's not so much missing games, but the practices. "It's not like it's been, where if you were sore you didn't have to practice. Guys know they're not allowed to do that now."

Morton has been tapering back and adjusting to the calendar in subtle ways. Maybe he cuts back the warmup stations from three to two. For instance, he may make Wednesday a lighter day but focuses on the upper body with the idea of strengthening the shoulder capsule.

"You cut down on the number of reps on the upper body work, but you still do the hard effort," Morton said. "You just cut down on the reps, cut down on the warm-ups. But the most important thing is getting the hard work in while also getting proper rest."

Lewis indicated he'll be cutting back practice times, maybe as early as the upcoming week. Ross said he has already noticed that some of the reps are being pared away ever so slightly.

"Because of the hard work we've done in the offseason, the foundation is in the bank," Lewis said. **

TWO-WAY PLAY:** The effective play of the tight ends continues to be a factor in the Bengals winning five of their last seven games. They have put together their most potent rushing days even though starting tight end Reggie Kelly has been on the shelf the past three games with a broken foot and probably won't play until next week in Pittsburgh.

But Matt Schobel, known mainly as a pass catcher, and Tony Stewart, known mainly as a blocker, have stepped up into their other areas. Stewart leads the tight ends with 18 catches, and Schobel is holding his own with 15 catches and a tight-end best 235 yards for a 15.7-yard average that is second on the team only to wide receiver Chad Johnson.

But his blocking is clearly starting to improve with those impressive non-Kelly numbers.

"That's because he's starting to do what I've been telling him," said tight ends coach Jon Hayes, who didn't crack a smile. "Staying low and moving the feet and knowing when he's getting too high."

Plus, the Bengals have gotten some good work out of rookie tackle Scott Kooistra when they've spelled him for Schobel.

"It's a great chance to go in for a couple of snaps next to a guy like Willie (right tackle Anderson) and get a feel for it," Kooistra said. "The blocks are what the tight end would block, but the blocking is still how you would block at tackle, so you're able to get some experience doing some different things."

**

HUNLEY IN THE MIX:** According to various newspaper and internet reports, Bengals linebackers coach Ricky Hunley won't be returning to Cincinnati with the club Sunday night, but will go on to an interview for the head coaching job at his alma mater at the University of Arizona.

AKILI HERE: It just so happens that former Bengals quarterback Akili Smith is back in his hometown this weekend and may attend Sunday's game against the Chargers. Smith, who owns a home in Dallas, returned for the funeral of his paternal grandmother.

Smith, who said he expects to be back in the NFL in January, is pleased at the rise of his old team, tips his hat to offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, advises to keep Carson Palmer on the bench, and says he'll root for the Bengals Sunday even though he's a Charger fan.

"Brat looks to be in a groove right now and they

just look so explosive on offense," Smith said. "I'm happy for them because I just know how miserable it had been in that locker room with all that losing. I've watched about eight of the 10 games."

The Bengals have already won two more games this season than Smith won in his 17 starts since they selected him third in the 1999 draft. He was cut June 2 to soften the salary cap hit of his $10.8 million bonus. He got cut by Green Bay in training camp, but says he has had enough calls from undisclosed teams to know that he'll back in the league next year.

"All the time," said Smith, when asked if he wonders what if? "The one thing I hope is that they stay with (Jon) Kitna the rest of the way. Don't do what they did with me and Klingler, and just throw Carson out there. Let Kitna finish it out and maybe he takes you to the playoffs. Then you've got a quarterbacks controversy next year, but it's not a bad one. You've got a couple of good quarterbacks."

Smith says he speaks regularly to some of his old mates, such as Kitna and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and he saw the difference in the team right away earlier this season. Smith, back in town to prepare to sell his place in Northern Kentucky, stopped at Jillian's, and saw most of the offense come into eat.

"That's part of the stuff we always sat around and said we needed to do, but it never happened," Smith said. "That's good to see. And you can see that Mike Brown is letting Marvin doing a lot of the things we wanted, like flying to the West Coast on Friday. I'm rooting for them because I still have a lot of friends there."

**

MATCHUPS:Cincinnati has to get good games fromBengals DE Justin Smith and ROLB Brian Simmons* o the perimeter against *Chargers QB Doug Flutie and RB LaDainian Tomlinson.* Bngals LOLB Adrian Ross takes on old friend and Pro Bowl Chargers FB Lorenzo Neal against an offense that relies heavily on the running game. After shutting down the Chiefs' vertical game last week, Bengals CB Tory James keeps an eye on mercurial but dangerous Chargers WR David Boston.

The Bengals' offense is trying to take advantage of a defense that is 30th in the league and is looking for Bengals WR Chad Johnson to take advantage of one of the youngest secondaries in the league that includes Chargers QB Quentin Jammer.Bengals RT Willie Anderson* as to make sure *Chargers DE Marcellus Wiley* stys in his sack slump. The suddenly revived Bengals special teams is looking to stay hot with engals PR Peter Warrick and RB Brandon Bennett agaist *Chrgers P Darren Bennett * and his unit that is not.

**

SMITH, SIMMONS VS. FLUTIE, TOMLINSON:** Both have hurt the Bengals , but Tomlinson more than Flutie. He has rolled up 221 yards on 42 carries in San Diego's two victories the last two seasons, but the Bengals are coming off last Sunday's shutdown of Priest Holmes (62 yards on 16 carries) and his offensive line isn't as formidable or experienced as it was in '01 and '02. Tomlinson tries to bounce everything to the outside, and when he gets out there his speed makes him dangerous in one-on-one tackling situations.

"He had huge holes last year and I just don't think that's going to happen again," Smith said of the 34-6 loss in last year's opener in which Tomlinson went for 114 yards. "We're a little more disciplined up front and we fit up better."

Like Holmes, Tomlinson is a threat catching the ball out of the backfield, where he has a team-high 57 catches. But unlike Holmes, he hasn't popped many big ones in averaging six yards per catch with no touchdowns.

Veterans Solomon Page and Jason Ball should return to the line, but it still has two rookies on the right side and the left side isn't particularly athletic.

Flutie pretty much handed off to Tomlinson in the '01 victory, but he looked 21 two weeks ago when he put 42 points up on Minnesota. Then he looked every bit his 41 years last week when San Diego had more penalties than yards against the Broncos in the first half in a 37-8 loss in which Flutie fumbled three times.

But he has never lost to the Bengals in three starts and his athleticism out of the pocket always makes him a threat even at 5-10.

"You have to keep him in the pocket and get your hands up when he gets ready to throw because he's a short guy," Smith said. "What he'll do is step up in the pocket, let the end clear him, and then step where you were. He takes about three steps up in the pocket, then he steps to the side and takes off to give him room so he can see to throw."

Smith got a game ball last week for his work rushing Trent Green against the Chiefs' Willie Roaf and John Tait, with most of his QB pressures coming on slap moves against Tait. **

ROSS VS. NEAL:** Ross knows there will be a lot of talking back and forth with Neal, the former Bengal who shares Ross' Western Athletic Conference college roots. But Ross (Colorado State) also knows Neal (Fresno State) is the most explosive blocking fullback in the NFL and it will come down to flat-out hitting.

"You have to get lower than him and you can't give him the same look all the time," Ross said. "Sometimes you have to butt him and throw him off, or just go through him, or do something else, but you can't give him a target."

Ross has done this before against Neal not only in practice, but also in a game several years ago against the Titans when Neal was blocking for running back Eddie George on a lead play on the first play of the game.

"I hit him in the backfield and he felt it because he fell back a little bit and turned his head to see who it was," Ross said. "I told him, 'That's right, Zo. You and me all day. The WAC all day long.' He laughed and said, 'OK, I see you.' I can't wait." **

JAMES VS. BOSTON:** Boston has more headlines for off-field behavior than catches, but he's still capable of going off. Last month against the Jaguars, he had 14 catches for 181 yards, and threw in 13 yards on a reverse. But at 240 pounds, those flashy days have been few and far between with just three touchdowns and 12 yards per his 42 catches.

JOHNSON VS. JAMMER: Jammer, picked fifth in the '02 draft, has been struggling and may actually end up as a safety because of his speed and physical play. On the other side is rookie Sammy Davis, who is going to be good, but he's not the Candyman yet. Rookie Terrence Kiel is pressed into service because of Kwamie Lassiter's season-ending injury at strong safety, so four of their top five secondary players are first- or second-year players and the numbers suggest it. Foes have already thrown 22 touchdown passes against them, worst in the league by four.

ANDERSON VS. WILEY: The Chargers' two leading sackers are playing the tackle spots and that has hurt the consistency of their pressure. Wiley is capable of having a big day, but he's got just one sack this season and just seven in the last two years after racking up 23.5 in 2000 and 2001.

WARRICK, BENNETT VS. BENNETT: Chargers punter Darren Bennett is a two-time Pro Bowler who is second in the AFC with 17 punts inside the foes' 20 and he's the NFL's fourth all-time punter with a 44-yard average. But the Chargers are in the bottom 10 covering punts after giving up Rod Smith's 65-yard punt return for a touchdown last week.

Warrick also popped one for 68 yards that turned around the Kansas City game last week and earned him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. And the Bengals' punt return team that was mired in last place much of last season is now fifth.

Bengals running back Brandon Bennett also got a game ball from head coach Marvin Lewis for his work containing Chiefs returner Dante Hall in what amounted to a pretty simple scheme.

"We just didn't want him to set any records against us," Bennett said.

BROWNS SELL OUT: When the Bengals don their black pants for the final game of the regular season against Cleveland Dec. 28, they are going to do it in front of a sellout at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals announced the sellout Friday, as well as rapid ticket sales for the other remaining home game Dec. 14 against San Francisco on the heels of Sunday's victory over the Chiefs in front of the third sell-out crowd of the season.

"Sales are good for the 49ers game," said ticket manager Tim Kelly, "and if they continue at this pace, we anticipate that game will sell out as well."

Friday's announcement assures at least four Bengals sellouts at home in 2003. That ties the most PBS sellouts in a season, and all four games have sold out in time for lifting of the local television blackout. In 2001, the other season with four sellouts, only two of the four games were sold out in time for local TV.

The Cleveland game is to be aired live on area CBS affiliates, and prospects are good that the San Francisco game will sell out in time to be aired live on area Fox affiliates.

**

NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game in San Diego, including 22 and 5. The first number is the age of Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie when he threw his most famous pass, the Hail Mary that beat the University of Miami in 1984. The second number is the age of Bengals safety and Miami native Marquand Manuel the day Flutie beat the Hurricanes at the gun.

4.2 _ Average number of victories the next season by the previous 16 teams that went 2-14.

43.4 _ Bengals' AFC-best percentage converting third downs on offense.

42.4 _ Charger defense's AFC-worst percentage allowing offenses to convert third down.

13 _ Years apart Chargers QB Doug Flutie handed the Bengals their first loss of the season. 1988 and 2001.

490 _ Passing yards Bengals QB Boomer Esiason had in the Bengals' last victory in California, a 34-31 OT win over the Rams on Oct. 7, 1990.

233 _ Passing yards combined by Bengals quarterbacks in last two games against San Diego.

221 _ Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson's rushing yards against the Bengals in last two games.

229 _ Bengals RB Corey Dillon's rushing yards this season.

12 _ Touchdown passes Bengals QB Jon Kitna has thrown in last seven games.

11 _ Touchdown passes thrown by Charger QBs this season.

65.5 _ Yards rushing Rudi Johnson needs to average in the last six games to reach 1,000 yards.

4 _ 1,000-yard rushers coached by Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson. (Dillon, Harold Green, James Brooks, Ickey Woods.)

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