10-7-02, 9:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Jon Kitna not only lifted the offense in his first start of the season Sunday, but the defense felt the jolt of the 21 points he generated in the 28-21 loss to the Colts.
"Kitna was very encouraging," said linebacker Takeo Spikes. "More than anything else, that was the most encouraging thing. It gives you a chance to believe again."
But the Bengals are 0-5 and no team has ever gone to the playoffs with such a start. And in the seven previous seasons they have opened 0-5, they won no more than four games six times. Only Sam Wyche's first team that finished 8-8 in 1984 avoided a 3-13 or 4-12 record.
Yet, even though they are still the only team in the NFL averaging in single digits at 8.8 points per game, and even though they are third from the bottom in NFL passing and total offense, Kitna revived the scheme with nearly double its average with 410 yards.
There were plenty of reasons, and one of them is that the Bengals streamlined Corey Dillon's Pro Bowl running game with a more compact list of running plays designed for the power game and they were rewarded with a 164-yard day that vaulted him into sixth place in NFL rushing and the team into 19th.
On Sunday, right tackle Willie Anderson said he and fullback Lorenzo Neal suggested the adjustments to the coaches early last week. But on Monday, Neal smiled and said, "I'll let Big Will take that one," and while offensive line coach Paul Alexander loves Anderson, he wasn't ready to let him take all the credit.
"Willie comes in every week and watches film," Alexander said. "Obviously, he saw the same things we did. It was pretty easy to tell they were the best type of runs to use against them. But in case anyone is concerned who puts the game plan together, believe me, it's the coaches."
The major concern for head coach Dick LeBeau was to get a competitive game from a team that had lost by an average of 24 points, and the idea was to put limits on both offensive and
defensive game plans.
"I don't think it's a bad idea when things aren't going your way to contract rather than expand, and that's what we did,." LeBeau said.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski didn't go in with a middle school playbook, but he trimmed where he could. For instance, he usually brings in several "What if?" packages in case his one healthy tight end gets hurt. But Sunday, Bratkowski planned to plug Nick Williams and Brad St. Louis into what he had designed for Matt Schobel if Schobel got hurt.
He did have several runs ready to go for checks that had to be made at the line of scrimmage.
"But their front stayed the same, so we were able to run the same plays over and over because they were in the same front," Bratkowski said. "It gave us a little more confidence."
Kitna only had to look at one of the plays he figures the Colts ran 12 to 15 times Sunday to be reminded football isn't rocket science.
"Just being comfortable with the things everyone knows," Kitna said. "It limits the mental mistakes. Right now, we're still a very young offense in our skilled position area, so to go and change and do a lot of different things each week, sometimes that can cause problems."
The young receivers also responded to the condensed version by making some rare plays upfield early, including two pass interference calls on Chad Johnson for 46 yards to open the second half.
"The thing that helped yesterday was we were able to get a couple of pass plays early in the game, get the ball down field a little bit, set up the running game," Kitna said.
Bratkowski said Kitna's tempo and decisiveness were excellent, and he was pleased to see the ball coming out of his hand quickly enough that some of his throws caught the receivers by surprise because they arrived so quickly.
Two of Kitna's three interceptions probably weren't his fault. Johnson's deflected drop on the Bengals' last play definitely wasn't his fault, and Bratkowski said on the first pick, "Chad probably wouldn't have approached the route the same way if he had to do it over again."
Johnson had a career-day with six catches for 72 yards, but Bratkowski and Kitna aren't ready to anoint him the go-to-guy just yet.
"He showed Sunday why he can be a playmaker in this league," Bratkowski said. "But before he gets there, he has to make those plays more consistently."
From his vantage point, cornerback Artrell Hawkins like the view for the first time this season.
"It showed not only are we not going to give up on Dick (LeBeau) but we're not going to give up on the offense, either," Hawkins said. "They generated 21 points and gave us a chance to win. I noticed that we weren't always on the field. It wasn't three-and-out, three-and-out. They drove, got first downs, scored. Now the onus is on us to give up 17 points or less. If they score 21 points a game, I like our chances."