10-6-03, 8 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' bye week is here, but it might as well be College Week at Paul Brown Stadium.
While the week off before the Oct. 19 game at home against Baltimore figures to return running back Corey Dillon (groin) and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh with a hamstring ("It looks like I'm going to be ready,") to the lineup, head coach Marvin Lewis is going to work his kids and rest his veterans. Rookie quarterback Carson Palmer is going to get the bulk of snaps in practice this week as Lewis plans a spring practice approach that involves self-evaluation and no planning for the Ravens until next week.
Lewis wouldn't reveal his priorities, but believe that the NFL's fifth worst running game is high on the agenda as he stresses "staying with the design of the play."
Then, he'll give his players a three day weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), but he vows they will be a better team after the bye week. And they'll have to be if they are to make a run in that bastion of equality known as the AFC North that Lewis envisions with four of the next five games at PBS.
"We're starting from scratch after the bye week. It's a new season," said quarterback Jon Kitna Monday. "It's like we had a bye week for the opener and everybody in our division won and we're just a game behind."
Cleveland's crushing victory at Pittsburgh Sunday night sent at the same time a discouraging and heartfelt signal. If they had held on to the lead at Buffalo Sunday, they would be tied for second with the Browns and Steelers at 2-3, just a half game behind 2-2 Baltimore.
"That's what makes a loss like yesterday so sickening," said linebacker Brian Simmons. "But it's so close now, we're not out of it."
Of the last 11 foes on their schedule, only undefeated Kansas City and 3-1 Seattle don't have at
least two losses and Lewis is stressing the Bengals are in the NFL mainstream even though they are 1-4.
"We have a chance to shape our own destiny. We've played some good teams, so they say. ... I think other than the Chiefs, everybody else is about where we are right now," Lewis said. "We shouldn't be star struck about anyone — I think we've proven that — (regardless of what) columns are written about the opposing team coming in here now.
"I don't think we need to be in awe of anybody anymore. We don't have to be in awe of Jake Plummer, or Drew Bledsoe, or whoever it may be down the line," Lewis said. "Sometimes these things get written about these guys. We've got good players here too. Our good players are going to win some football games for us shortly."
They have to win them at home. It seems the biggest impact that Lewis' New Day of focus, discipline, and attention to detail has had on the Bengals is on the road. The team with the NFL's worst road record in the decade from 1993-2002 is two plays away from being 3-0 on the road this season.
While losing by a combined 47-20 to Denver and Pittsburgh in their two PBS games, they won in Cleveland, lost in Oakland in the last nine seconds, and in overtime at Buffalo.
"One of the things that helps you on the road is the us against them mentality," Kitna said. "And I think the two teams we've played at home are better than the three teams we've played on the road. Sometimes when you play at home, you're trying to make that big play to get everyone excited and you kind of press a little bit, so that can be a detriment to you."
Lewis knows the Bengals have to make hay in that homestand against Baltimore, Seattle, Houston and Kansas City that is broken up by a Nov. 2 game in Arizona.
"We better be (excited), because after that we have three in a row on the road. It's important to us now," Lewis said. "This is a big game coming up for us in two weeks, and our estimation is that we will play better than we have played at home.
" "I don't know if we necessarily have played better on the road. I think that sometimes you do focus a little bit better, but we do the same thing basically at home as we do on the road," Lewis said. "I don't know if we didn't play as good against Pittsburgh. We had bright lights on us the first weekend here (against Denver). Since then, I think we have had our moments where we go back and forth."
Kitna said the bye week has come at a perfect time with the home games looming, but like he said, "If we had won yesterday, it wouldn't have been a good time, but it worked out that way."
Lewis kept his bye week agenda pretty close to the vest, but it's clear the lack of a running game even without Dillon is disturbing. Sunday was the third straight game and the fourth time this season they rushed for less than 100 yards (67), and they've been outrushed in every game but one.
Lewis gave no indication he's going to end the benching of right guard Matt O'Dwyer, but it's clear he doesn't think the fault lies entirely with the offensive line. He wants his backs as well as the linemen to stick with the spirit of the play and to quit guessing.
"It is a combination, because what happens is you start compensating," Lewis said. "Guys start to come and say, 'Well, last time we tried to run that play and that color flashed in my eyes. I'm going to take it there or vice versa, up front and so forth.' Every play is a new play, and we have to play it as that one particular (play) and not worry about what happened last time. We have to stay with the design of the play and knock the hell out of them, and then go run for some yardage. We get a little tentative in those situations."
But Dillon should be back as he bids for the first 100-yard game of the season against a Ravens' defense he has nicked for 127 and 102 yards, respectively in the last two seasons. His 127-yard day on Dec. 23, 2001 snapped the Ravens' streak of 50 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher under the stewardship of defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.