LeBeau wins turf war

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The day was cold, the field was bad, and Bengals coach Dick LeBeau was in his Glory Days after Cincinnati sent a black-and-white video to NFL Films in Sunday's 24-13 victory over the freeze-dried Cardinals.

After Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon racked up 216 of Cincinnati's 292 rushing yards _ the club's third most of all-time_ the Bengals felt they made a big step in helping their old-time coach keep his job next season.

"Nobody said it, but this was a must game," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes, lobbying hard for LeBeau to be retained. "As far as keeping our morale up."

It was a day for second chances, and not just for LeBeau.

After missing two field goal tries out of the Paul Brown Stadium sand bunker, Bengals rookie kicker Neil Rackers sealed the game with a 32-yard field goal with 1:02 left in the game.

And Bengals cornerback Tom Carter, who gave the Cards life in the fourth quarter with a pass interference call on third down, came back four plays later with an interception at the Bengals 7 that led to Rackers' field goal.

LeBeau isn't sure where he stands, yet he knows his third win in the tenth game since he took over for Bruce Coslet won't hurt him.

But LeBeau seemed right at home in the new stadium's chopped-up grass that turned to sand as the day wore on.

"It reminded me of the Detroit Lions back in the 1960s," said LeBeau, the former Lions Pro Bowl cornerback who roamed Tiger Stadium for 14 years.

"This is going to be a nice field next year. It's not supposed to be easy. It's supposed to be hard. Does a win help me? A win helps everyone around here."

The Bengals are using a temporary field of Bermuda grass because their bluegrass turf died in a drought this past summer while it was being grown in Baltimore.

In the ninth game of the season at the stadium, the turf died a slow death in big chunks of dirt.

"It was like feeding the hogs after a good rain shower," Spikes said. "And the hogs are in the slop and they're just slopping around. It was like playing with the hogs."

One of Dillon's hogs who opened up holes for him all day long, right tackle and offensive captain Willie Anderson, hoped the Bengals made a case for keeping LeBeau.

"I hope it does, I hope it does," Anderson said. "If we had him for the whole training camp, I don't think we would have lost games like the Miami game or the other games we just stunk up.

" Especially on offense. There's no way you could have told me if we had him during training camp, we would have probably won the (season opener) Cleveland game."

Dillon's biggest runs came in the Bengals' last grinding drive, when he converted a third-and-six and fourth-and-two as the Bengals killed all but 1:02 of the game's final 8:27.

Quarterback Scott Mitchell won another start in Tennessee next week when he hit two third-down passes during that ball-hogging drive that chewed up 17 plays and with 1:02 left in the game produced the big field goal by a grateful Rackers.

A gutty Dillon broke two of James Brooks' club records with most career 100-yard games (18) and most rushing yards in a season with 1,278 as Dillon looked to labor with a sore groin.

"It's smashmouth football with him," said Dillon of LeBeau. "I'm more impressed with us fighting for 60 minutes and staying focused. It doesn't matter about yardage and it deals with us winning football games."

Tight end Tony McGee, who had a big third-down catch along with rookie receiver Peter Warrick in that last drive, called the field the Bengals' 12th man. He also thought the Bengals were in better shape as they kept the ball for nearly 36 minites.

"Their pass rushers like Simeon Rice must have felt like they were playing in quicksand," McGee said. "I just think we know that you can't speed out of cuts and have to be alert for the holes. We're used to it, so it gives us a slight advantage."

Anderson sounded like he didn't want to get a new field. Not with a straight-ahead guy like the 225-pound Dillon churning.

Anderson admitted the word had been passed during the week to use the turf to the Bengals' advantage on the offensive line with the leverage on their drive blocks.

"I kind of like having the grit in your teeth, the dirt in the back of your mouth," Anderson said.

Bengals punter Daniel Pope shook his head and said if Dillon had played on a good field, "he could have had 400 yards."

"That running back is a pretty good friend of mine right now," LeBeau said. "We needed every yard of it. We kind of thought we should win this game."

The Bengals are now 3-10 and are no longer in danger of winning only two games in a season for the first time ever.

On fourth-and-two from the Arizona 31 with 2:19 left in the game, the Cards hemmed Dillon in the backfield. But he felt his way to the left perimeter, kept his legs moving and bounced outside for the game-securing 13-yard run.

"He out-abilitied us around the corner," said Arizona coach Dave McGinnis.

But the Bengals couldn't put away Arizona several times during the game.

The Bengals' secondary had a tough day making moves on the field, too, as Boston fried the secondary on back-to-back passes of 33 and 38 yards. The last was wide-open touchdown cutting Cincinnati's lead to 21-7 midway through the third quarter.

Then Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer found Boston beating cornerback Robert Bean for a 15-yard touchdown pass that made it 21-13 with 13:45 left in the game.

But football is a funny game. Bean got benched for Carter and the rest is history.

The Bengals couldn't cash an Arizona gift late in the third quarter when the Cards fumbled a punt deep in their own territory.

The field played havoc with the kicking game ("It was a beach out there," Pope said) and Rackers missed his second field-goal try of the day when he sliced a 45-yarder to the right. Pope's frustration was evident as he hurled a chunk of grass away after holding for the kick.

Throw in a 31-yard field goal miss and an extra-point miss by Arizona kicker Cary Blanchard, and it was a bloopers tape in the making.

Blanchard called it the worst field he's ever kicked on, "and I've been on all of them."

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Dillon's one-yard touchdown with 46 seconds left in the first half capped a 13-play, 70-yard drive dominated by the run.

The Bengals ran the ball 11 times on the drive, so their two incomplete passes didn't hurt them.

And on third-and-6 from the Cards 9, Dillon converted for the first down, for eight yards behind the right side of the offensive line.

After picking up 12 yards on his first two carries of the second half, Dillon appeared to re-aggravate his groin injury and went to the bench

But it didn't matter as the NFL's No. 2 running attack in the NFL kept pounding the undersized right side of the Arizona defensive line.

Backup running back Brandon Bennett ripped of a pair of 14-yard gains before scoring from seven yards out to give the Bengals a 21-0 lead 3:26 in the second half.

Dillon, who set the NFL single-game rushing record on Oct. 22 with 278 yards, was almost halfway there at halftime.

Dillon finished the half just 44 yards shy of Brooks' club season record of 1,239 yards.

Mitchell struggled early in his first outing since he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee two weeks ago. But he delivered when he had to.

He hit seven of 14 passes for 47 yards in the first half and was intercepted by Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams when Warrick went long and Mitchell threw short.

Mitchell finished 11 of 23 for 109 yards, but he hit two big third-down passes in that last drive to tight end McGee and Warrick.

The Bengals had the ball nearly seven minutes longer than Arizona in the first half and when they weren't in sync, the Cards were helpful. A third-down pass interference call on cornerback Corey Chavous kept alive the Bengals' second touchdown drive and Chavous was called for a hold on a punt return for a touchdown that would have put Arizona in a position to tie midway through the fourth quarter.

The Bengals missed a huge chance to put the struggling Arizona offense out of the game all day.

Take the second quarter and the Bengals leading, 7-0, Dillon ripped up the middle for an 18-yard touchdown run. But it was waved off when right guard Mike Goff was called for holding on Arizona strong safety Pat Tillman.

And the score stayed 7-0 when Rackers hooked a 36-yard field goal to the left, his seventh miss in 16 attempts.

Dillon went 57 yards the first time he touched the ball as Cincinnati jumped to a 7-0 lead on its first series of the game.

The Bengals' defense responded by holding the Cardinals to 56 total yards in the entire first quarter and punctuated their effort when defensive end Vaughn Booker and strong safety Chris Carter stuffed Cardinals running back Michael Pittman on a fourth-and-1 from the Cincinnati 34.

Dillon, who rushed for 73 yards in the first quarter, almost took it all the way right away.

Tillman prevented the touchdown when his diving tackle tripped up Dillon at the Cardinals 1.

Two plays later, Mitchell executed a play-action fake and found a wide-open McGee for a two-yard touchdown pass that was McGee's first touchdown of the season.

Booker may be gone for the season with arthroscopic knee surgery. Even if he doesn't get surgery, he's doubtful for next week.

So is cornerback Rodney Heath with a slightly separated shoulder.

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