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Offense back to drawing board

9-17-02, 4:30 a.m.


In a week the Bengals prepare for their first national television appearance in four years, their coaches are conducting a film festival as they ponder several changes in the passing game of a struggling offense.

Heading the list as the staff convened Monday night is a possible switch at quarterback. But also under discussion are moves at left tackle (No. 1 pick Levi Jones for Richmond Webb?), changes at wide receiver (more extended roles for T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson?), and a re-evaluation of the pass-protection scheme that led to the first five-sack outing in 31 games.

The work is done against the backdrop of the club's seventh 0-2 start in the last dozen seasons. Which makes Sunday night's ESPN game against the winless Falcons (0-2 for the sixth time in the last 12 years) important in the mind of Bengals President Mike Brown.

"There are people out there who refer to us as the 'Bungles, Bagels, whatever, and they've never really seen us or know that much about us," Brown said Monday. "We know we can play better and we know we have to if we're to win and change the attitude.

"If you look at Sunday's game, we ran 30 more plays, had almost 100 more yards, and had (13) more first downs,"

Brown said of the stat sheet in Cleveland. "We must be doing some things right, and now we have to get the rest straightened out to get some wins."

Quarterback Gus Frerotte, in his fourth NFL stop, is shocked at the reaction of media and fans to this 0-2 start. He's also surprised head coach Dick LeBeau is already mulling a quarterback change in the third week. But he continued to act like the starter Monday in urging the veterans to take over the team's comeback and for his receivers to stay after practice so they can develop better timing on their routes.

"(It's surprising) we're two games into the season and everybody thinks we're at a funeral. Everyone thinks that it's over," Frerotte said.

"It's not so much the players," Frerotte said. "No offense to you guys, but the media and fans have been through it for so long here, it's what you know. It's easy to be that way. We really want to change that. Its not the end of the world."

Frerotte, tied with the NFL interception lead at four with Kordell Stewart and Kerry Collins, hopes his receivers will join him after practice this week if they need work on particular routes that don't click during the workout.

"We might need to get all those guys running the same routes," Frerotte said, "or running the routes that they're going to run in the game in practice.

"It's up to everybody," Frerotte said. "If you (just) say, 'OK, OK, we'll go get them this week,' (but) there's more to it. . .The best thing is for the older guys, like Lorenzo, Webb, Willie, Takeo, those guys need to have this team moving."

Frerotte is taking as much blame as anyone else for the Bengals' average of 5.6 yards per pass, which Brown calls "in Moe and Larry range." But he also doesn't think it should cost him his job at this early juncture.

It still doesn't sound like LeBeau is going to make a move Wednesday, but he is concerned about an offense that has scored just 13 points, second lowest in the NFL to Baltimore's seven.

" We were actually moving the ball well. I have confidence in our guys that we will get points, but the bottom line is we did not get points," LeBeau said at his Monday news conference. "You're not going to win in this league with six points one week and seven points the next. We'll have to do a little bit better than that."

LeBeau wouldn't say if the next move would be Jon Kitna or Akili Smith. But Smith doesn't think it's him and Kitna politely declined comment because if he talked about it, "it's not good for the team."

"If there's going to be a change, it's going to be Kitna," Smith said. "My question is if they (change) and Kitna goes in you never want something bad to happen if something happens to Kitna, do they go back to Gus or do I get a shot?"

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski thought the lack of pass protection headed the list of problems Sunday, but he also said Frerotte didn't see some open receivers, and when he had time and did see them, the receivers "didn't win the one-on-one battles."

The Bengals couldn't take advantage of the absence of right end Courtney Brown when his backup, Mark Word, rung up three sacks working against left tackle Richmond Webb. The Bengals allowed five sacks Sunday for the first time since Sept. 17, 2000 in Jacksonville and are on pace to allow 72 after giving up just 28 last season.

"We had pressure from the inside and we've rarely had that problem here," Bratkowski said. "It just wasn't Richmond. We had breakdowns at tight end, too. We're going to evaluate not only personnel, but how we're doing it. We'll look at if we should give help or what."

The Bengals may take a page out of the Browns' book. While Cincinnati pretty much kept their pass protectors on an island with one-on-one blocking, the Browns covered up for their makeshift offensive line by helping their tackles take on pass rushers with a running back or tight end in a double-teaming technique known as "chipping."

With Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb taking three-step drops behind a line with a new right side, they allowed just one sack. On the play where Frerotte got blown up by defensive end Kenard Lang, rookie tight end Sean Brewer found himself one-on-one with Lang.

While the coaches discuss protections, they also will discuss replacing the 35-year-old Webb with Jones at least on a spot basis. Jones played five snaps Sunday at tight end, but it doesn't sound like LeBeau wants to make a move there, either.

"We've been playing Levi (mostly as a blocking TE) and getting him ready to play. Richmond is a much better tackle, and a much better player, than that game Sunday," LeBeau said. "Sometimes playing on the road is tough because it's loud, and a guy will have problems. Richmond's always come back from a game where he's had some problems, and I know he'll come back from this one."

They may also make some firmer decisions when it comes to the wideouts. Johnson, who caught the Bengals' only touchdown Sunday, played well and got open several times but didn't get the ball. Houshmandzadeh had five catches when the Bengals went to four receivers in the last 20 minutes, but they were reluctant to play him earlier because of his tight groin muscle.

Bratkowski doesn't think any of the receivers have taken steps backward, but it's obvious that Michael Westbrook is suffering from his lack of a training camp with his broken left wrist.

"He reverted to some things Sunday where he made some adjustments that they did in Washington and that we don't do here," Bratkowski said. "That just comes from not having the reps from early on in camp."

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