No rush to panic

9-30-01, 7:30 p.m. Updated:
10-1-01, 5:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

SAN DIEGO _ The Bengals spent a painstaking offseason and a back-to-basics training camp in building their 2-0 start.

But Chargers rookie running back LaDainian Tomlinson took just 12:25 Sunday to send Cincinnati reeling back into the bad old days during a third quarter San Diego buried the Bengals, 14-0, on the way to a 28-14 victory.

Tomlinson ripped off 80 of his 107 yards in that stretch to turn the tables on a Bengals' club that had outscored foes, 27-0, in the third quarter during the first two games.

And against a Cincinnati defense that had given up just two 100-yard rushers in the previous 12 games.

In a break from tradition, none of the major Bengals refused to address the media after the team's eighth loss in the last nine away games. Whatever that means, it had been the norm lately that at least some the regulars wouldn't talk when the club lost on the road.

"If people are looking for us to crumble, it's not going to happen," said running back Corey Dillon.

Dillon took responsibility Sunday for the loss after his third-quarter fumble led to a touchdown that gave the Chargers a 21-7 lead. Quarterback Jon Kitna walked down the hall to an interview room. And defensive captain Takeo Spikes went as far as to say the loss may end up helping.

"This game doesn't determine our whole season," Spikes said. "Who knows? Maybe we needed this right here. It should get us going again. Out of the bad in life, there are positives. My goal is not to be .500 at any point this season. Here we go. We're still 2-1."

Right tackle Willie Anderson said he couldn't wait to see what the Cincinnati media says about a loss reminiscent of many of the 37 that came before it in the past three years.

"A lot of good teams lost today," Anderson said. "It's still Week 3. "Everybody in the locker room, the guys said to put it behind us. In years past I've seen teams come in after losing a game like this with heads down. The guys honestly felt we gave them that game. . .to a man, all 53 players and coaches said they can't wait (until) next week."

Still, there is major concern about how a team that has played the run pretty well the past two years could give up such huge chunks in that 12:25. Head coach Dick LeBeau said it was the worst outing against the run in two years.

"That's the most disappointing thing," Spikes said. "I take pride in

holding people to under 100 yards. And to have a rookie do that you, that's kind of tough. But you give him an inch and he'll take a yard."

Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson said Tomlinson made an adjustment after getting just 19 yards on six carries in the first half.

"The cutback was there on the front side and he took advantage of it," Gibson said. "He's a smart back. He realized it was there and he adjusted. He was doing a good job of getting to the corner. I think there might have been a little overpursuit.

"I figured it out," Gibson said. "I should have done something earlier (by telling the coaches). The turnovers were the defining thing of the game. Credit the back. He had his day and made the adjustment."

Tomlinson tore through the middle of the defense for runs of 23 and 19 yards in a drive he finished off with his third touchdown of the game on a two-yard burst that gave San Diego the three-touchdown lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter.

In addition to the cutbacks, there was also some missed tackles. Cornerback Artrell Hawkins let Tomlinson bounce outside for a long run and Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie kept the ends and linebackers at bay with rare but effective play-action out of the pocket that slowed the Bengals' aggressiveness.

After running just 21 plays in a 7-7 first half, the Chargers reeled off 18 in the second half's first 10 minutes during two touchdown drives. The second score came courtesy of the Bengals' third of four turnovers of the day and resulted in a short 40-yard drive capped by Tomlinson's four-yard run behind fullback Fred McCrary's block on Spikes that made it 21-7 with 4:44 left in the third quarter.

Early in the second half, Flutie took advantage of the Benga1s' soft pass coverage and cashed a 55-yard drive in just 4:28 that broke the 7-7 half-time tie. Flutie finished with just 133 yards on 12 of 19 passing.

But plays like a 28-yard completion to wide receiver Jeff Graham on a shallow crossing pattern that no one seemed to cover in that first scoring drive of the second half hurt.

Flutie made the Bengals' second turnover hurt when he hit wide receiver Curtis Conway for a 19-yard touchdown through a zone defense to give the Chargers a 7-0 lead with 10:43 left in the first half.

Strong safety Cory Hall didn't turn around as Conway caught Flutie's eighth pass of the game. It was Flutie's seventh completion as he racked up some yards against a Bengals' secondary that was playing off Conway and Graham.

The Bengals forged a 7-7 half-time tie with 24 seconds left when rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson caught his first NFL touchdown pass.

Johnson caught an eight-yard fade pattern over Chargers cornerback Ryan McNeil in the left corner of the end zone as the Bengals capped a drive that was all Dillon.

The drive was set up by another Bengals rookie first when defensive end Justin Smith rung up his first NFL sack when he bolted between left tackle Damon McIntosh and left guard Raleigh Roundtree to nail Flutie for a 13-yard loss.

After a shanked punt by the Chargers' Darren Bennett to the San Diego 47, Dillon caught an 11-yard pass and busted a draw for 11 more yards in finishing the half with 46 yards rushing on 10 carries.

The Bengals outgained San Diego in the first half, 139-77, and had the ball for about 18 of the half's 30 minutes.

Kitna hit just 18 of 32 passes in the game, could manage just 135 yards, and threw his first three interceptions of the season. But he emerged upbeat.

"The thing that I like in the locker room is that everybody was together," Kitna said. "The offense was patting the backs of the defense and the defense was doing the same to the offense. The early signs are that this isn't going to break us."

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