Kitna doubts he can play

12-10-01, 12:10 a.m. **

** 12-10-01, 3:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals' offense is in disarray after Sunday's 14-10 loss to the Jaguars. Now with the Bengals out of it all at 4-8, quarterback Jon Kitna knows the Akili Smith questions are going to add to the maze.

But Kitna said Monday that Smith could surface as early as next Sunday in the Meadowlands against the Jets and not because the playoffs are out the door. After an X-Ray showed no break in the middle finger he sprained on his throwing hand during the third quarter, Kitna doesn't think he'll be able to go. Trainer Paul Sparling, who has him listed as probable, said it could improve in a couple of days, but they are also checking for a torn ligament.

"If you asked me if I was going to be able to play this week, I'd say, 'No,'" Kitna said Monday afternoon. "I've had jammed fingers before, but not like this where I can't squeeze the right hand."

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said Monday Smith goes if Kitna can't. But Kitna, who has disagreed with getting pulled, knows management has said it wants to see Smith later in the season.

"It would seem that way," said Kitna after the game when asked if he expected Smith to get the call. "They have to decide what direction they want to go in. I don't think a change would be good if you were in the hunt. I don't know what's going through their minds now."

What is going through everyone's mind is the horrifying slump of the offense since it scored 13 points against these Jags in the first half of a 30-13 loss Nov. 11. In the last 18 quarters, they've scored three touchdowns and 30 points and are on pace to score 217 points, which is two points more than the 1968 expansion team that played 14 games, and the fourth lowest in club history.

Coming into Sunday's game, the Bengals were 12-3 (3-0 this year) when Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon had at least 24 carries. In 12 of those games, he had run for at least 100 yards. In 13 of those games, he had at least rushed for three yards per carry.

So something couldn't have been quite right when Dillon managed just 62 yards on 24 carries Sunday.

"I can't do it all. I need some help," said Dillon after failing to average four yards per carry in his fifth straight game for the first time in his NFL career.

"Until someone can get them from putting eight men in the box and taking the run away, that's the type of game you're going to have," Dillon said. "Let's just people start being accountable. I know I was accountable and the goat and the sacrifice last week."

Dillon fumbled the ball and the game away in overtime last week when Tampa Bay safety John Lynch poked the ball away. The safety played havoc again Sunday with Dillon when Jaguars strong safety Donovin Darius stalked Dillon at the line of scrimmage with no regard for the pass.

With the Bengals missing their four top tight ends, the plan was to use a mix of backup 350-pound tackle Jamain Stephens as a blocking tight end next to 340-pound right tackle Willie Anderson, as well as use a combo of fullback Lorenzo Neal and H-Back Nick Williams.

But the Bengals couldn't pound it all that consistently behind the Anderson-Stephens wall, which has to be a concern for a self-described smashmouth offense

"That was the plan, but that safety was sitting right there," Anderson said. "If it wasn't him, it was the cornerback blitzing the run. All those long runs Corey had last year, he's one man away.

"As a fan, you say, 'Tell Corey to run that guy over.' He can't do that when he's making a move and (the safety) is moving full speed," Anderson said. "They're blitzing guys and blitzing corners off the slot and making Corey adjust."

Anderson says the Bengals are having difficulty accounting for the safety in their blocking schemes. Mainly because defenses are sending

the safety to the line "late," or just before the snap.

"We can't account for that. We don't have a scheme for that," Anderson said. "I assume they are guessing and they are doing a real good job of guessing. You can't do anything about it. Hopefully, the back can get to the line of scrimmage and (you) go to the next play."

Dillon, who led the NFL with a dozen runs of 20 yards or more last season, hasn't had a 20-yarder since he bolted for 96 against the Lions back on the last good day of Oct. 28. Against the Jags, nine of his runs went for a yard or less. Kitna, who is looking for "flow," isn't finding it.

"We got a lot of negative plays right now. At times, we're going backward," Kitna said. "That takes away from our ability to continue to feed Corey. I think that's the frustrating thing.

"They did a good job with their coverages and mixing things up," said Kitna of a Jags' defense that came in ranked No. 25 and gave up 140 yards below its average. "They didn't settle into their defense. They played a lot of cover 2, which means (Darius) wasn't in the box, but it was well timed when we weren't running the ball."

The answer for the safety lies in the passing game, but it looked more inept than ever Sunday against cornerbacks named Jason Craft and Kiwaukee Thomas. Kitna went deep on three of the first four possessions and should have had touchdown passes of 48 yards and 37 yards to wide receivers Chad Johnson and Darnay Scott, respectively.

Remember when the Bengals beat the Patriots and Ravens to open the season? Scott had a 34-yard catch against the Pats and a 41-yarder against the Ravens. The Bengals haven't had as long a pass since.

Johnson had Thomas beat down the sideline on the first series for the 48-yarder. But when Kitna's back foot slipped, he underthrew him at the Jacksonville 10 and didn't understand why Thomas wasn't called for pass interference.

"I don't understand that incidental contact stuff," Kitna said.

Early in the second quarter, Scott was wide open on a post that should have been a 37-yard touchdown pass, but Kitna barely overthrew him at the goal line after getting hit.

Kitna admitted he might have shied away from the long ball later in the game in the bid for first downs.

"When you haven't scored any points late in the second quarter. . .as a quarterback, you're thinking, 'I really want to be out here more than three plays. Unless it's perfect coverage, I'm going to throw it to the back and establish a flow to the offense.'"

And Kitna did get hit even though he got sacked just once. The Jags' tough front line always gives the Bengals a handful and they did again Sunday with stunts.

"What the stunts do, especially against a good offensive line like ours, it softens the pocket a little bit," Kitna said. "I don't think they were beating us, but it does give guys the edges."

The game's signature play came with 10 minutes left and the Bengals getting the ball in great shape at the Jags 49. Dillon ripped off five yards behind Anderson to make it second-and-five. Then they tried a draw to Dillon and Kitna nearly handed it to Darius blowing into the backfield for a five-yard loss. Third-and-10. Incomplete pass.

"I knew when Darius was blitzing, 'Lord, it's going to be a big blowup.' But I (couldn't) do anything about it because my man was right there," he said.

Here's how Anderson figures what it looks like:

"Like the line is getting no push. But the play is designed to go to the right. The (safety) comes off the slot and he's not blocked. What are you going to do? The back cuts it back and it's a two-yard gain because they're crunching up in the middle with it when it's supposed to be off tackle. Lorenzo is on the linebacker and me on the defensive end and we're killing them. But the safety is there everytime. . .Until they fear our passing game. . .

It got Anderson wondering how Pittsburgh is 10-2 and Cincinnati is 4-8. Two teams that live with their running backs. Anderson agreed the Steelers no doubt see a lot of safeties at the line of scrimmage.

"Our offensive line matches up even with them," Anderson said. "All the skill guys (they have) aren't on the same level as ours. . .What makes them 9-2 ? That's the question. What's the difference?"

It turned out there were no answers after the game, either.

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