Offense can't convert

12-22-03, 6 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ST. LOUIS _ Rookie left guard Eric Steinbach tried to go Sunday. But the only running he could do during the week with his badly bruised thigh was on the underwater treadmill.

So while the Bengals' offense failed to tread water against the Rams' speedy blitz packages, Steinbach sat. So did wide receiver Peter Warrick (knee) and his 23 third-down catches. And while left tackle Levi Jones played for the second straight week on a surgically-repaired knee, he was clearly hurting more than last week against a Rams' pass rush that logged three sacks and several quarterback pressures.

Then it was probably fitting that the leader of this banged-up crew, quarterback Jon Kitna, emerged from the game with a mild ankle sprain that he says will be fine. His passer rating also came out of it hurting with his first three-interception game of the year and his first hat trick in 22 games.

"Don't even think about pointing any fingers at him. This guy's carried the team for this whole season," said running back Corey Dillon of Kitna. "Dude, if it wasn't for his play, who knows where we'd be? Everybody has a bad game. Everybody has their bad moments."

Kitna didn't get a lot of help around him in a bad moment for an offense that has led the Bengals to the verge of the playoffs. One of his picks was batted by a defender. Another appeared to go off the hands of running back Brandon Bennett.

And, when he did get some time to throw, he just missed on some big plays. At the end of the first half, he put some air under his 47-yard fling to wide receiver Chad Johnson that he had to lay out for.

"If I catch it in stride," Johnson said, "it's six."

The whole day was just a bit off kilter. It was the first time they rushed for less than 100 yards since the Arizona loss even though they averaged 4.3 yards per carry. The Bengals felt they could run the ball on the Rams, but they always seemed searching for a rhythm against St. Louis' constant shifting of its safeties.

The Bengals got 4.8 yards a pop in the first half, but only on 12 carries. After running back Corey Dillon got 28 yards on three carries in the first eight minutes, he didn't run the ball the rest of the half, and ran it just four more times for nine yards.

Right tackle Willie Anderson thinks the blueprint of beating the Rams includes a steadier diet of the run.

"Early on, I thought we were going to run Corey and Rudi (Johnson). They couldn't stop it. We were physically beating them up. Then we got away

from it and that's their game plan," Anderson said. "Somebody is going to come in here and break the streak and they're going to do it running between the tackles. Keep pounding, keep pounding, making it an ugly, boring football game."

But it got ugly for the Bengals on third down, a season-long bright spot with a No. 4 ranking in the NFL. That's thanks to Kitna's 10 touchdowns and two interceptions, good for the NFL's fourth best passer rating on third down.

But he threw all three of his picks on third down Sunday. On the one interception that wasn't tipped, a replica of the Bengals' lone .touchdown in the second quarter , Rams cornerback Jerametrius Butler stepped in front of a one-on-one lob to wide receiver Kelley Washington in the end zone on a play that head coach Marvin Lewis said Kitna probably should have looked elsewhere.

"They had some different pressures today that we hadn't seen and we couldn't pick up with our pass protections today," Kitna said. "We had to make some adjustments at half time for them. They're a smart football team. They've got a lot of smart football players. With Aeneas Williams and Jason Sehorn, they were lined up on the blitz and they were looking to tip the ball, and they did a lot of that today."

Sehorn blitzed from the left side on third-and-seven from the Rams 44 to tip the first interception to linebacker Tommy Polley in the first quarter. That translated into a 7-0 St. Louis lead nine plays later. Then, on third-and-12 from the St. Louis 40 on the first drive of the second half, Kitna threw high off of Bennett's hands, and into the arms Adam Archuleta.

The Bengals thought they could make hay against Archuleta in pass coverage, but that turned out to be his first interception of the season.

"Obviously, it takes out of some of the things that we do without Peter in there," Kitna said of Warrick. "But I don't think that was a huge factor in the game. It was turnovers and their pressure package."

Indeed, the Rams jacked their NFL-best takeaways to 44. And Kitna, who has 20 touchdown passes to one interception in the eight wins, now has six touchdown passes and 13 interceptions in the seven losses.

But even though Jones appeared to give up all of end Grant Wistrom's 2.5 sacks, Kitna praised his work and toughness on the bum knee. The Rams were clearly blitzing the left side of the line to take advantage of the injuries, which is another reason some thought the Bengals would try to run more.

Scott Rehberg appeared to hold up pretty well in Steinbach's spot at left guard, and on the first series helped spring Dillon on a 22-yard run behind his pulling block. Rehberg thought the Bengals might do more of that, but he said he could understand passing when the Rams started to show more eight- and nine-man fronts in the second half.

The Rams said they adjusted by putting more men in the middle to force Dillon and Johnson outside, and put a tighter bracket on Chad Johnson after he got deep at the end of the half.

Steinbach, falling two games short in his bid to become the first rookie offensive lineman since Anthony Munoz to start every game, says he'll try to be back for Wednesday's practice. Steinbach said he very nearly missed the rest of the season after suffering the Grade 3 contusion last week against San Francisco. But since he went to the hospital right after the game, they didn't have to make a season-ending incision to drain it. Similar bruises have been known to keep players out two games.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get out there," Steinbach said.

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