Leaders on alert

11-19-01, 4:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals are sub-.500 for the first time this season and with the playoffs slipping away with each Jerome Bettis highlight, team leaders are trying to keep together a season that began so brightly at 2-0.

Moments after Sunday's 20-7 loss to the Titans, the fifth in the last seven games, an emotional Takeo Spikes reminded his teammates, "It has to mean something to you." Then the defensive captain said there were some who played as if it didn't.

Offensive captain Willie Anderson said more of his teammates have to "study their craft," and said head coach Dick LeBeau should have ripped the offense during Friday's languid practice.

"He should have got hot with us," Anderson said. "He needed to get hot with us, but he didn't."

Fullback Lorenzo Neal, bitterly disappointed at the loss to his old team, felt there was something wrong from the opening kickoff that the Titans' Derrick Mason took 101 yards for a touchdown. < p="">"We've got to start fast," Neal said. "First play of the game. We knew what kind of return they do. And there's a breakdown. That's not (lack of talent). That's lack of discipline. . .It's frustrating because the talent is here."

For the second straight week, it was hard to find in the second half. The Bengals had a wounded Titans' team at home, off a short Monday night week, and with their leading tackler on the bench, leading receiver hobbled by an ankle injury, and a quarterback who didn't practice all week.

But the Bengals got blanked in the second half again and again squandered a good-enough-to-win defensive effort with an offensive

showing that again failed to generate 100 yards rushing and more than one touchdown.

"If we had 30 guys like this guy we would have won," said Neal, pointing to special teams ace Ron Dugans.

With wide receiver Peter Warrick sidelined for much of the second quarter with a bruised thigh, Dugans stepped up and caught four balls that included a 10-yard diving catch for the Bengals' touchdown on third-and-five. He finished with a career-high five catches for 51 yards and proved a point Anderson tried to make.

"We have more guys doing (extra work) than previous years, but we need more than guys like myself, or Takeo, or Lorenzo being leaders," Anderson said. "If you're on the field, be a leader. It's wearing on guys. . .Be a man. You're a professional football player. Learn your craft. Everybody says, 'That position is hard.' Well, don't play it."

Anderson recalled what Neal is fond of saying: "You've got a life, family, kids. But for six months, damn, sacrifice something now."

Now is now. With the Browns (5-4) completing a sweep of Super Bowl champion Baltimore (6-4) Sunday and Pittsburgh (7-2) separating, the 4-5 Bengals must do or die this upcoming Sunday in Cleveland.

"Next week tells a lot," Spikes said.

"We'll find out what we got now," Neal said. "Who wants to step up or lay down with, 'OK, let's go back to woe is me, woe is me, we didn't get the calls, woe is me.' We have to step up."

Anderson is looking for guys like Dugans. Guys who aren't the stars.

"You can't just look for Corey to do something by himself, or Darnay (Scott) to do something by himself. Or Takeo to make a tackle by himself. Or Oliver Gibson. Guys have to come play ball. . .Don't be afraid to be a good player."

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