Half-empty, half-full

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals gave up 31 unanswered points. They scored one touchdown despite getting to the Miami 21-yard line four times. They had 123 yards in penalties. And they had shoddy enough tackling to allow the Dolphins to convert more than half of their third-down tries.

Yet after Sunday's 31-16 loss at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals had a vague sense they had made progress. In head coach Dick LeBeau's debut, they re-discovered their running game, their offensive line, the end zone and some emotion after rushing for a franchise-low four yards last week in Baltimore.

"We took a big step today," said running back Corey Dillon, after he stepped to his first 100-yard day of the season with 110 on 22 carries.

"Leaving it up to everybody else, we didn't have a prayer," Dillon said. "But we came out and put it to them. The turnovers kind of hurt us, but other than that, I think we did a very good job."

The offense saluted coordinator Ken Anderson's first game calling the plays after the resignation of head coach and chief playcaller Bruce Coslet. Anderson made It as easy as 1-2 and maybe 3 for quarterback Akili Smith in cutting down his pass route progressions. And he gave Dillon his most carries of the season, and the Bengals ended up getting their most yards (350), most points (16) and biggest time of possession with 33:40.

"We had a good game plan," said left tackle Rod Jones. "I guess we ran the ball. We didn't abandon the run right away. Maybe we had a couple of short runs, but we didn't abandon it. We chipped away and got a feel for how they were playing their defense.

"It was electric," said Jones of the 13 points on the Bengals' first three drives. "We finally had success running the ball and got the crowd into it. Hopefully (the fans) will stick with us and come back next week and we can put together (a full game)."

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander said the Dolphins' defensive front, although quick and good, was a good unit to break out of the running game blues because they pretty much play the same alignment.

He also said without injured Pro Bowl middle linebacker Zach Thomas in the Miami center, the Bengals were able to double team the tackles in a tact they never could have taken with Thomas roaming.

Smith said he was told to make the first couple of reads and then, "throw it away or run out of there." It did cost him two flags for intentional grounding.

But he also said the quicker reads slowed the Miami pass rush, and Smith said he felt more confident. He hit eight of his first nine passes, threw his first touchdown pass in three weeks on a nine-yarder to rookie receiver Peter Warrick, and rushed five times for 43 yards.

"I told the offensive line, 2.5 seconds and I can get rid of this ball and they did that with great protection," Smith said. "CD stood up and ran good. We have to score when we get into the red zone. We have to score touchdowns.

"We went right up and down the field all day long," Smith said. "But we still took the loss. I felt better about the way we played, but 0-4 is tough. We beat then all day with the running game, one-on-one with their receivers. We just didn't beat them on the scoreboard."

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COOLED OFF:** Smith started out blazing, hitting eight of his first nine passes, one of them a 9-yard bolt for Warrick's first NFL touchdown as he found him running across the back of the end zone.

But he flogged himself for missing wide-open running back Brandon Bennett on a third-and-nine pass over the middle that turned the Bengals' first series of the second half into a three-and-out. That came after Miami took the lead for the first time, 17-13, by hogging the ball for the first 7:45 of the half.

"We keep that drive going and we answer Miami with every scoring drive they had," Smith said. "I just rushed it. The hardest throw in football is the guy wide open, I promise you that. It was wide open. . .I just tried to guide it instead of just throwing it."

SPIKES KEEPS STARRING: They may have a hard time keeping outside linebacker Takeo Spikes off the AFC Pro Bowl team no matter how many games the Bengals win.

On Sunday, Spikes got his team-leading second interception of the season when he picked off Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler gunning for running back J.J. Johnson in the end zone and the Bengals leading, 13-0. Throw in seven more tackles and what else can the man do?

"I started out split on the two wideouts, then I came back at the last minute," Spikes said of a play that looked like Spikes and middle linebacker Armegis Spearman were both covering Johnson.

But, "I think the back was peeling away from Mego and (Fiedler) didn't even see me," Spikes said. "We made a step today even though we lost. And that step was getting Corey the ball, making Corey run, and make some plays. Now we have to find a way to turn it over to the second half."

LEBEAU PRAISED: From Jones to Smith to right tackle Willie Anderson to nose tackle Oliver Gibson, they praised the lift LeBeau gave them Sunday and during the week.

"He's a spiritual leader," Jones said. "He doesn't say much, but he carries a big stick."

"He's just so positive in what he says and does," Gibson said. "In here after the game, there was a different feeling. A feeling like we're building something, but we wanted to get it right away today."

As for his first game, LeBeau, who has seen 42 years worth of NFL games, shrugged.

"It went a lot easier once the game started than it did waiting on it to start," LeBeau said. "I thought we did the right thing in terms of when we would take (the field goal) and those types of things. I still wish I had run Corey (on the last play of the first half), but then again, that's hindsight."

DILLON DENIES: Dillon, dogged by controversy all season, couldn't avoid it after his most productive game. Dillon was asked by a "Miami Herald," reporter if he told Dolphins linebacker Robert Jones during the game that he wanted to play in Miami.

"(Dillon) could probably be even better if his attitude was better," Jones told "The Herald." "What I mean by that is that he mentioned to me on the field, 'Hey, tell your coach come get me and we'll win it all.' His reason for saying that is that he just didn't want to be here."

But Dillon denied saying that to Jones when the Miami reporter talked to him in the Bengals' locker room.

"Maybe they want me. I don't remember saying nothing about that," Dillon told "The Herald." "I don't even want to get nothing started. That wasn't said by me. I like what I'm doing. I'm here working, trying to get this thing turned around ... You think I would say something like that? I wouldn't say nothing like that.

"I'm one of these players who wants to turn this thing around here right in Cincinnati. I don't know who told, whatever, that I wanted to go to Miami," Dillon said.

Dillon is eligible for free agency next year, but the Bengals could retain the right to match if they use the transition tag on him. That tag may not stop some teams from signing him because a club doesn't have to give up compensation if they get him.

By the way, Jones is the brother-in-law of former Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake.

ROOKIES DAY: Sunday was a big day for two Bengals rookies. After missing his first three NFL field-goal tries, Neil Rackers is suddenly 50 percent for his career this morning after going 3-for-3 from 23, 38 and 34 yards. He had a shot at a 47-yarder that would have put the Bengals up, 16-0, with 4:24 left in the first half. But guard Mike Goff false started and they had to punt.

And then there was Warrick, the club's No. 1 pick, making another of his patented one-handed grabs. But this one was for his first NFL touchdown. He said he broke off a post pattern, caught Smith's eye, and got open running along the back of the end zone.

"I'm happy, but I still would take the win," Warrick said. "No doubt. (The Bengals took a step.) Everybody did what they needed to do. I still can't believe we didn't win that ball game."

FAN POLL UPDATE: Only 25.7 percent predicted Smith would throw for more yards than Fiedler in their showdown of ex-Bengal quarterbacks. Smith won, 178-155, over Fiedler, the poll winner with 44.4 percent. The backups for both didn't play, and Neil O'Donnell watched Steve McNair engineer Tennessee's win over the Giants. Where was Jeff Blake? On a bye week with the Saints.

THIS AND THAT: Bengal tight ends came into the game with just four catches in the first three games, all by Tony McGee. But the Bengals thought the Dolphins were vulnerable over the middle and Smith found McGee six times for 74 yards and Marco Battaglia twice more for 19 yards. It was the most catches McGee has had in a game since the last game of the '96 season, when he had a career-high eight. . .

RT Willie Anderson left for one play when he suffered a knee strain. He came back on the next play, but left later in the game. He showed no signs of a problem after the game. . .CB Artrell Hawkins struggled all day against the run and the pass and got lifted for a time. . .Bengals trainer Paul Sparling missed the game with a stomach illness.

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