12-23-02, 3:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
There are signs that the Bengals gave Dick LeBeau a win Sunday in his last home game for their classy head coach.
Public silence from management in the last year of his deal. Private uncertainty of the assistant coaches heading into the last week of the season. The second smallest crowd ever at Paul Brown Stadium at 43,544. The 2-13 record. His poignant comment after the game.
"It was a very, very special day in my life," LeBeau said.
Only Bengals President Mike Brown knows for sure and he's not talking. No one seemed to think this win was Lexington and Concord. Quarterback Jon Kitna said changes still have to be made and Justin Smith shrugged and said, it's not 1-14, but what's 2-13?"
But even if it is the end, right tackle Willie Anderson came away from the past week extremely impressed with LeBeau and his staff after he saw an angry head coach stop practice Friday when things weren't going right with their short-yardage plays that they would use in the red zone and made them start over.
"Our coaches have tremendous character," Anderson said. "Dick could have let it go and said, 'We're 1-13, forget it,' but he was right on us.
All the offensive coaches were. Bob (Bratkowski) was out there yelling, fussing. So was Paul (Alexander). Jim Anderson. They showed us they still care and are still fighting. The coaches had a lot of energy this week and I think the players picked up on it and it really helped us play as hard as we did."
Anderson had high praise for a game plan the coaches crafted that produced 240 rushing yards, ending a four-game siege in which they had rushed for a total of 280.
"This week we concentrated more on the backs finding the holes," Anderson said. "A lot of times it was just miscommunication between the linemen and the backs. They're thinking holes that we think are somewhere else.
"But I think this week we did a good of job of communicating where the holes were going to be," Anderson said. "The coaches did a great job game planning, making sure the backs knew where the linemen were going and giving them options. Sometimes, Corey (Dillon) took the third option."
The Bengals didn't dominate a great run defense. But the Saints are decent and have a big defensive front, in giving up 119 yards per game on the ground, good for 18th in NFL rushing.
"It was a very detailed game plan and the coaches stressed if we blocked it the right way, we would get good chunks of yardage on a defense that didn't give up chunks," Anderson said. "It was straight on blocking and our guards and center played great."
KITNA UPDATE:** They won't make a movie out of it, but it looks like the key number for Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna next week is 61. The Bengals have to get off 61 plays against the Bills and Kitna has to take all the snaps in order for the 80-percent participation incentive to kick in for $1.65 million next season.
After Sunday's 81 plays, the Bengals now have 999 on the year and Kitna has been in on 787 of them for 78.77 percent. The Bengals are averaging 66.6 plays per game. If they go for 67 in Buffalo, that would put him at 80.11.
ROSTER MOVE: The Bengals put defensive back Mark Roman on injured reserve for the rest of the year Monday morning when he underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies from his right knee. Roman, who has played both cornerback and free safety, re-aggravated a cartilage tear he suffered in the Bengals' first win Nov. 3 in Houston. Trainer Paul Sparling said he would rehab for six weeks.
To take his place on the roster, the Bengals called up rookie Oklahoma State linebacker Dwayne Levels from the practice squad. The 6-2, 259-pound Levels signed a four-year deal that includes Sunday's finale in Buffalo. After signing as a free agent, he had seven tackles on defense and one on special teams during the preseason.
INJURY UPDATE:** RB Corey Dillon (elbow, quad) probable, RB Brandon Bennett (ribs) questionable. CB LaVar Glover (hamstring) questionable, WR Ron Dugans (bruised Achilles) probable. DE Vaughn Booker (rib cage) questionable, CB Artrell Hawkins (ankle) probable.
SLANTS AND SCREENS:** If you thought inside linebacker Takeo Spikes was going to use Sunday's post-game to get up on a soapbox and make a passionate plea to stay in Cincinnati, think again. After helping spearhead the best defensive performance of the season with two fumble recoveries, Spikes had no comment abut going out in such a stand if that, indeed, is his last home game for the Bengals if he goes elsewhere as a free agent. . . .
Wide receiver Chad Johnson had four catches for 47 yards (all in the second half), his lowest yardage in six games. But it was good enough for the first 1,000-yard season
of his career in ending the day with 1,043. But he also had a drop, four penalties and two false starts on one drive.
"He's come such a long way," said receivers coach Steve Mooshagian. "I'm so happy for him to get 1,000 and I think getting that will settle him down some. He's been pressing as he got closer to 1,000. He's almost trying to do too much. It's like he's thinking what would have happened if he'd been in the lineup sooner and he's trying to get it back." . . .
Hit of the game? It had to be Bengals kicker Neil Rackers lowering his shoulder and knocking new NFL record-holder Michael Lewis out-of-bounds after a 23-yard return following the Bengals' winning touchdown with 1:46 left.
They did have their weekly special teams gaffe of the week when Rackers had an extra point blocked on a kick that would have given them a 14-13 lead with 10:42 left. Defensive tackle Grady Jackson blew up the middle to block it.
But even though Lewis broke the league's combined return yardage record for a season at 2,231, the Bengals kept him relatively in check with 98 yards on four punt returns and two kicks. Rackers popped up a couple of semi on-side kicks just beyond the front row and punter Nick Harris even punted short to keep the ball away from him.
"They weren't kicking the ball to me. I felt fine out there. It didn't bother me," Lewis said. "The field wasn't all that great. But you know what? That's football, and so it didn't bother me. We had great field position because of what they were trying to do. We were in pretty good field position all day, so the field didn't bother us." . .
Wide receiver Peter Warrick bounced back from missing his first game last week and did the same thing he did two weeks ago. He opened the game with a 30-yard catch-and-run touchdown to cap the Bengals' first drive. He now has six touchdowns this season after coming into the year with just five in his first two seasons. . .
Bengals running back Corey Dillon missed most of the fourth quarter with a bruised elbow, but he tied the club record with his fifth 100-yard game of the season with 126 on 18 carries. He moved past Cleveland's Mike Pruitt into 31st on the all-time rushing list with 7,467 yards, leaving him 140 yards shy of Terrell Davis at No. 30. With 1,258 yards, Dillon has four of the top five Bengals' rushing seasons in history and is 177 from his career high of 1,435 yards in a season. . .
Rookie left tackle Levi Jones played out his entire rookie season in microcosm Sunday. In the first half, the Saints surprised him by putting Charles Grant over him and he allowed two sacks, one that got quarterback Jon Kitna drilled in the back to cause a fumble. But in the second half, he regrouped and did a nice job in the running game. Four of Nicolas Luchey's 12 runs went over left tackle, including runs of nine and 10 on the last drive. And Jones pushed him into the end zone from one yard out to tie the game.
"I hadn't seen (Grant) on film play on the right side, so I had to get used to him," Jones said. "When I sat down and figured out what he was doing, I was able to do some things back to him. I got mad, but you can either channel it negatively and let it get away from you, or use it to motivate you."
WHY?** Bengals linebacker Canute Curtis and Saints left tackle Kyle Turley summed it up best.
After the NFL's third worst run defense stuffed NFC rushing leader Deuce McAllister on 26 yards for 15 carries, Curtis said, "The question isn't how, but why haven't we done that all year?"
And Turley told reporters after the game, "Everything was in our court today, but we were the Aints and they weren't the Bungles."
The 9-6 Saints now have to beat Carolina Sunday and the Giants or the Falcons have to lose for them to make the playoffs. For the Bengals, they still realize what's up.
"We're 2-13," said Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna "There are things that need to be changed."
The Saints had a hard time digesting it.
"The Bengals?" asked disgusted Saints wide receiver Joe Horn. "I question sometimes if we need to go to the playoffs. I'm not going to watch [other games] to see
who loses. We shouldn't even get to this point where we have to watch and see who loses."
The Saints did nothing after rookie wide receiver Donte' Stallworth burned them for a 57-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field in the first 10 minutes of the game.
That was literally that. From that point, Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks passed for 90 more yards, the Bengals had a season-high four sacks, and forced Brooks to fumble three times.
The Bengals thought Brooks looked uncomfortable in the pocket, threw off the wrong foot, and telegraphed his passes as the Bengals' secondary batted down a number of passes in front of receivers.
After getting fried on Stallworth'sTD, cornerback Jeff Burris rebounded to knock down four passes.
"That play was on me," said rookie free safety Marquand Manuel, who ended up getting the start when Mark Roman's knee didn't respond. "I took a bad angle and missed the tackle. We all ran to the ball and got in the right gaps to stop the run."
Middle linebacker Brian Simmons also had a key knockdown when he stretched out on a fourth-and-sixth at the Bengals 25 to stone Brooks' pass over the middle to Boo Williams late in the third quarter and the Saints trying to extend the 13-7 lead.
"It was just man coverage. I had to cover underneath," Simmons said. "I just had to go over and make the play. There's really nothing special to it. He tried to run an inside route, and I made a play on the ball."
Simmons is one of those guys wondering what might have been if they had played like this most of the year: "The confusing thing is we played like we're capable. There have been a quarter or a half where the defense played well, but this was the first time we put together 60 minutes."
Or, as strong safety JoJuan Armour said after he knocked down two passes himself, "This proves that it wasn't what other teams do to us, but what we do to ourselves."