12-19-03, 8 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
12-20-03, 7:10 p.m.
Just two months ago, it would have been an Impossible Dream Challenge for the Bengals.
Playing in a frenzied dome where a Super Bowl-caliber team waits with the NFC's best record in a building where it hasn't lost in 15 straight games with an undermanned roster.
But that was before they played in eight of the next nine games that were decided by a touchdown and two-point conversion or less, and won seven of them.
That was before surviving an injury to their best player, Corey Dillon. That was before coming from behind to beat the Steelers on the road in the last minute, staving off the unbeaten Chiefs with 14 fourth-quarter points at home, beating the Niners by grabbing an on-side kick in the snow, and racking up 444 yards to win under the California sun for the first time in 13 years.
That was before this Sunday, when they are 120 minutes from the AFC North title with a victory in St. Louis and a Baltimore loss in Cleveland.
"There's nothing that can happen that we haven't been through. Our guys are kind of dangerous," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "They have not allowed people to set limits on what they can do. We're kind of dangerous that way. We're kind of an unknown animal. There's an element to us that continually answers the bell. Because we go into unchartered waters and like the feel of it."
They face the high-powered Rams without their second-leading receiver (Peter Warrick) and take on their Hall of Fame passing attack (receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt and running back Marshall Faulk) with a banged-up secondary that has watched 22 successful third-down conversions on just 39 tries in the last three games that have included three opposing 100-yard receivers.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier watched three of his defensive backs get hurt before halftime last week as the 49ers assaulted them with 502 yards and 38 points. But he likes the resiliency and toughness.
"They are character guys who know this league is all about bouncing back," said Frazier, a character guy himself who went from college free agent to Super Bowl cornerback. "I think they're going to come back Sunday and play well."
During Thursday's practice, cornerback Artrell Hawkins spoke up to his fellow corners Tory James and Jeff Burris and said it's up to the secondary to stop all the plays and give the ball to the offense. It was a huddle of 24 years of NFL experience.
"Those guys have been around," Lewis said. "They know what's at stake."
When is the last time you heard this? Lewis says the Bengals have more guys with character than just plain characters. And you have to include Dillon in any kind of discussion about character. For the past two months, he has said nothing about sharing the carries with Rudi Johnson in proving he is a team player.
But Lewis can attest to the fact that this week Dillon is, "a very angry and spirited man.
"And that's a good thing for me, bad for the other team," Lewis said. "He's ready to prove that he's the back everyone knows he is."
That has been difficult because of a serious groin injury, an illness, and the rotation of carries. But even though Johnson got 174 yards last week, Lewis is sticking with Dillon and going to start him in St. Louis. Dillon would like it known he is saying nothing about next year, that no speculation is coming from him, and that he is simply trying to run the rock and help the Bengals to the playoffs.
"I'm showing I'm a team player," Dillon said. "I'm showing I'm healthy. The more carries, I'm going to show my sizzle as usual. The less carries, I'm healthy, I'm fresh. I don't see how I can lose."
The game pits Dillon against Rams running back Marshal Faulk. In the previous four seasons, Dillon rolled up the second most rushing yards in the NFL with 5,261. Faulk is third at 5,075. Earlier in the week, the Cincinnati media asked Faulk if he had any comforting words for Dillon. Faulk, like Dillon, the media said, has had to hear the questions about injuries taking their toll.
"If he asks me, I'd love to tell him," said Faulk, who has no use for the media. "At 22, you're too young. At 30, you're too old. At 25, you're in the twilight."
It's that kind of adversity that Lewis says can help a player n his career. Indeed, it's the adversity his team has faced.
"Look at what kind of adversity Artrell Hawkins has gone through this year," said Lewis of a player who has missed games because of a knee, the flu, and most of last Sunday with a thigh bruise.
"It's crazy with what's gone on back there this year," James said. "With all the rotating, it's just been hard. But I think guys have really stepped up and played hard in spots they don't usually play."
Even the coaches are going through the adversity. An early blitz on Niner quarterback Jeff Garcia yielded a defensive touchdown, but it was the last time they were able to dog because of the decimated secondary. Burris got beat for two long touchdown passes and Frazier knows that can't happen against the Rams.
"Jeff was still feeling the affects of the concussion. He didn't think he could turn and run," Frazier said. "Hawk went down on the third play, and (strong safety Rogers Beckett) got sick in pregame. So we had to adjust. We went Cover 2 (zone) to get through the game.
"Pride makes you hate giving up all those yards," Frazier said. "But the idea is to win the game and go to the playoffs. Once we had that two-touchdown lead, we didn't want to get beat with a big play. The main thing is to win the game."
Frazier knows he has to have some back-up plans ready with Burris and Hawkins getting through on pure guts. But there is one plan he's keeping.
"Turnovers," Frazier said. "If the Rams pass for 500 yards and we get turnovers to set up four touchdowns, and we win. . .That's all that counts. Winning and going to the playoffs."
Two months ago, it sounded absurd.
Sunday, they play the offense that has turned it over a NFL-high 35 times. They are plus five for the first time in recent memory.
"We have to match the surge, ride the wave," said Lewis of the game's opening minutes.
Two months ago?
They have scored first in six straight games, including three on the road.
"We like the feel of the challenge," Lewis said.
STUNTS AND SCREENS:** Lewis reiterated surviving the surge Saturday night at halftime of the Kansas City-Minnesota game in an interview with the CBS studio team. Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason advised him to take the team to the old practice site at Spinney Field to give them a sense of history. "That might be a good reality check," Lewis said politely. . .
Bengals long snapper Brad St. Louis, a native of Waverly, Mo., who won Missouri's schoolboy heavyweight wrestling title at Belton High School, returned home Saturday with a six-year contract extension. St. Louis, a four-year player, had been working on a one-year deal. . .
MATCHUPS:** Forget the Rams' fast track, their Madden '04 offense, and the Bengals' beleaguered secondary. This game is going to come down to what Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has been emphasizing this week to his staff and players. The best teams, the winning teams, run the ball and stop the run. Rams head coach Mike Martz figured it out last week when he gave the ball to Marshall Faulk nine times in the clinching drive and would have won one more Super Bowl with that kind of thinking.
So the matchup of the game has to be Bengals ROLB Brian Simmons and SS Rogers Beckett vs. Rams RB Marshall Faulk. In his homecoming, Bengals DE Justin Smith has to stand up in the running game against Pro Bowl Rams LT Orlando Pace. Even with the running game so key, Bengals CBs Tory James and Artrell Hawkins have to revert to their October form against Rams WRs Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.
On offense, the conventional wisdom is the Bengals have to keep their defense off the field by running the ball and controlling the clock. Truth be told, the Rams had the ball for 32 and 33 minutes in two of their three losses, with the difference being their seven turnovers against the Giants and Seattle instead of clock control.
Still, the Bengals have to run it to keep the crowd out of the game using the running game with Bengals FB Jeremi Johnson taking aim at backup Rams MLB Jamie Duncan and Bengals RT Willie Anderson trying to use his size to neutralize Rams LE Leonard Little in a Pro Bowl battle. Bengals QB Jon Kitna tries to keep his mistakes at a minimum against lurking Rams FS Aeneas Williams. Bengals WR Kelley Washington has to make up for the loss of Peter Warrick against Rams CBs Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler
FAULK VS. SIMMONS, BECKETT:** Imagine if Martz had used Faulk like this two years against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, when he touched the ball just 17 times. Since Faulk returned from a five-game absence with knee and hand injuries, he has carried at least 20 times in five out of the last six games, and in the one game he didn't, he still got 108 yards. Since his return, he's had four 100-yard games and how important is that? Since moving to St. Louis in 1996, the Rams are 30-0 with a 100-yard rusher.
Beckett getting sick before last week's game was a huge loss for a secondary that has come to rely on his big plays. He's got three sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and he had a hand in two of Cincinnati's three turnovers in Baltimore, his last game. Turnovers are going to be big in this one with the Rams' offense leading the NFL with 35.
SMITH VS. PACE:. The last time Smith played in the Rams' dome, he helped Jefferson City High School win the Missouri state championship with a few catches as a tight end in the final winning drive as time ran out. The 265-pound Smith goes against the best left tackle in the game and he can't let the 6-7, 325-pound Pace swallow him in the running game. Pace is extremely athletic for such a big man, but if he has had any problems at all this year (and there have been hardly any) it has been against Smith's type of speed rushing.
JAMES, HAWKINS VS. BRUCE, HOLT: The 6-0, 188-pound Bruce is only the franchise receiving leader, and the 6-0, 190-pound Holt only leads the NFL in catches (102) and yards (1,518). The Rams have 58 passes of 20 yards or more and they have 42 of them, and Holt has 26. The Bengals got lit up three weeks ago by Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward in Pittsburgh, and last week by Terrell Owens in 100-yard receiving games.
The karma looks bad, but defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier thinks his secondary is finally healthy again. At least Hawkins, lost on the third play last week with a bruised thigh, can start. Frazier said Jeff Burris was still a bit disoriented from his concussion, which may explain last week's TD bombs to Owens and Tai Streets, and he thinks Burris now has his bearings.
"I think you have to play physical," said James of countering the Rams' speed. "They've got everything. Fast. Hands. Double moves. I even think I saw some triple moves."
Frazier said he had to resort to a Cover 2 to get through the game last week, and the Niners shredded the zone for 344 passing yards. But Frazier took it because he had a 14-point lead and he was trying to stop the big play. He said he really wants to stop the quick strikes this week, so we'll see how, or if, he changes it up. **
JOHNSON VS. DUNCAN:** Rams MLB Robert Thomas is out for the year, and while the 6-1, 238-pound Duncan is a nice player, he doesn't have the speed or the impact of the 6-0, 229-pound Thomas. Without Thomas last week, Seattle ripped them for 135 yards on the ground. In their three losses, the Rams, 22nd in the league against the rush, have given up an average of 136 rushing yards.
With the rookie Johnson's help last week, the Bengals bulled for 225 against the Niners and have logged at least 200 rushing in four of their last five victories. While Johnson and pulling left guard Eric Steinbach are getting high marks for the Bengals' power run at right tackle, the tight ends are also getting rave reviews. Unlike last year, penetration from the defensive line isn't stopping the pulling guard and fullback from getting to their primary blocks.
ANDERSON VS. LITTLE: Little is third in the league in sacks with 12, so the Bengals may try to jar the 260-pounder with the 340-pound Anderson in the running game. Little missed four games last month with a shoulder problem that is apparently still lingering a bit, and the Bengals may be looking to get a strength edge with the run. Anderson knows full well how dangerous Little is on the pass rush, particularly at home, where he has seven sacks, and calls him one of the top three defensive ends in the league.
"I don't think you can say he's just a speed guy," Anderson said. "He sets up other stuff with his speed." **
KITNA VS. WILLIAMS:** If Faulk can go to the Hall of Fame as a back or receiver, the 35-year-old Williams might be able to go as a cornerback or safety. Not only is he a superb tackler, he is smart enough to deceive quarterbacks into making mistakes. When teams go with three or four wide receivers, the Rams sometimes respond with four down linemen, a linebacker, and six DBs, although strong safety Adam Archuleta plays more like a backer in that alignment. But it frees up Williams, and they put him in the slot, where he often blitzes. That's how he got one of his two interceptions against the Browns two weeks ago. Cleveland quarterback Kelly Holcomb saw Williams lined up in the slot, expected blitz, but ended up throwing it right to Williams when he dropped into coverage.
With Williams not having to worry about the injured Peter Warrick in the slot, he may even be more dangerous in the passing game. Kitna has been brilliant in the eight wins with 20 TDs and one pick while Williams has returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns in the last three weeks. **
WASHINGTON VS. FISHER, BUTLER:** With Warrick out, Washington has to give Johnson help down the field, or the Rams are going to sit on Johnson in their Tampa Bay Cover 2. Yes, that's all the more reason to run the ball, but Washington has to draw away some of these DBs in a game the rookie will see his most NFL snaps. Both St. Louis corners got dinged last Sunday and sat out a practice this week.
And, in the last three games, the Rams have allowed 10 passes of at least 20 yards. But, only one for a touchdown, and none longer than 28 yards. The last time they allowed anything longer than 40 was three weeks ago against Arizona's Jeff Blake and Anquan Boldin.
Warrick is also going to be missed on punt returns, where the Rams have allowed two touchdowns and 12 run backs of at least 15 yards. They've also struggled covering kicks, where they've allowed two more touchdowns, and 15 returns of at least 30 yards.
Who is going to replace Warrick on punt return is anyone's guess. Burris has the best hands, but has been struggling with the aftereffects of a concussion. Wide receiver T.J.Houshmandzadeh hasn't played this season yet, and dropped two last year in key situations. Would they put rookie cornerback Terrell Roberts in that situation?
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game in St. Louis, including, 30-0, 15-13, 4-0. The first is the Rams' record when they have a 100-yard rusher since they moved to St. Louis in 1996. The second is the Bengals' record when Corey Dillon rushes for 100 yards, and the third is Cincinnati's record when Rudi Johnson goes for 100.
5,261 _ Bengals running back Corey Dillon's rushing yards from 1999-2002, second best in the NFL.
5,075 _ Rams running back Marshall Faulk's rushing yards from 1999-2002, third best in the NFL.
133-546 _ Faulk's carries and yards in the last six games since returning from knee and hand injuries.
117-615 _ Bengals RB Rudi Johnson's carries and yards in the last six games.
63 _ Yards Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson needs to set the club's single-season receiving record.
12/2/90 _ Bengals' last road victory over a winning team.
10/28/01 _ Bengals' last victory in a non-retractable dome.
1980 _ Last year a team (Detroit) followed a 2-14 season by winning nine games.
35 _ NFL-high turnovers committed by the Rams.
18 _ Turnovers committed by the Bengals, third fewest in the NFL.