Offense seeks self

11-15-01, 2:05 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski admits there is a certain struggle for the soul of the Bengals' new offense.

The heart of the scheme is Pro Bowler Corey Dillon's running game. But everyone knows his full and devastating potential can't be realized until the extremely talented but just as extremely young and diverse passing game lifts itself from the No. 23 ranking in the NFL.

"There is always going to be a little bit of that," said Bratkowski after Wednesday's practice. "We're looking for our identity. We're in transition. We're in a new offense.

" If you win and the passing game improves, people say, 'Yeah, that's the way to do it.' If you lose, it's 'Oh, too much passing game, not enough run.'"

It's like this. Dillon is on pace for another fine 1,366-yard season and the club's run game is ranked 13th in the NFL. But he's got 55 less yards (683) on 25 more carries (167) in the new offense, compared to last year's halfway point when the Bengals were on the way to finishing second in NFL rushing.

The Bengals wide receivers already have more catches of 20 yards or more (17) than all of last season's 15. But quarterback Jon Kitna's average pass gain of 5.7 is the only one in the AFC less than six.

The transition continues.

"We're halfway through the season and it hasn't gone all the way like we wanted," Bratkowski said. "But I see us going forward. Sometimes two steps forward and one step backwards, but forward."

On Wednesday morning, as he introduced the game plan for Sunday's game against the Titans, head coach Dick LeBeau turned to the offensive line and told them they needed to step up their game and get back in sync after their uneven day against Jacksonville. Bratkowski reinforced the theme in the offensive meeting:

The passing game has to be good enough to win if the running game is shut down.

Which means left tackle Richmond Webb, off one of the worst games of his Pro Bowl career in Tony Brackens' two-sack game last week, has to shut down the guy who has the most sacks in the NFL the last three seasons in Jevon Kearse.

And right tackle Willie Anderson has to contain Kevin Carter, the league's leading sacker since 1998.

"(The line) needs to be more effective in the running game," Anderson said. "We're not effective if we're not giving our runners room at the line of scrimmage to make plays, and that's Tennessee's thing. They wreak havoc. They stop the run and they're being Tennessee."

Which is why the Bengals have to be able to pass against the Titans. Tennessee's aggressive run defense demands it. So does the Titans' last-place ranking in NFL pass defense. So does the recent past, like last year's

game in Cincinnati in which the Titans won, 23-14.

Dillon burned Tennessee's eight-men-in-a-box defense for an 80-yard touchdown run. But while the Titans run blitzed into defenses daring the Bengals to pass, quarterback Akili Smith could only throw for 85 yards the entire game. Which meant Dillon could only get 15 other yards.

"Could we go out and run the ball more? Yeah," Kitna said. "Could we go out and throw it more? Yeah. Would it make us a better team? No. I think you saw that last year. You can't have a more dominant running game, but you only won four games. What does that do?"

Down through the years, former Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake had success against the Titans' aggressiveness by taking advantage of cornerbacks left on an island with his deep ball. And the one game Boomer Esiason quarterbacked for the Bengals against head coach Jeff Fisher's defense, he saw enough holes in the aggressiveness to direct Dillon to a 246-yard game.

"In all the years I've gone against them, it's been either feast or famine," Bratkowski said. "They get you, they get you, and then, boom, you get a big play on them. Hopefully you get enough big plays that it gives you a shot at more intermediate plays. Yeah, they'll give you some one-on-one coverages, but they'll make it hard to predict because they also throw combination coverages at you. When you see (one-on-one), you have to take advantage."

Kitna and Bratkowski are adamant that a great running team can also have an explosive passing game. There can be a split personality. Kitna points to Denver (12th rushing, 12th passing), Indianapolis (seventh rushing, second passing) and San Francisco (second rushing, fourth passing), as well as Bratkowski's track record in Seattle.

"He's making strides in convincing people that this system can produce a 14, 15, 1,600-yard back, plus being in the top 15 or top 10 in the passing game," Kitna said. "That's the thing that is a trademark of his system. You look back and see what (running backs) Chris Warren, Ricky Watters and those guys have done. There was always 11, 12, 13, 1,400 yards (rushing) and we were pretty good in the passing game, too."

Kitna continues to rave about the depth of his receivers. There are the down-field burners in Darnay Scott and Chad Johnson. Peter Warrick is the elusive, big-play slot man. Ron Dugans and Danny Farmer are smart, reliable catchers. T.J. Houshmandzadeh has size and speed.

But if the Bengals are going to throw effectively against the Titans, the two guys who have to have big games are Webb and Scott. Scott, who missed most of the last game with a concussion, is going to have to make the most of his one-on-one chances on the corners when the Titans do what Kitna calls "riverboat gambling."

Scott admitted before Wednesday's practice that the left leg he broke last year still isn't quite 100 percent. He thinks his straight away speed is fine, but wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian noticed a few weeks ago that he wasn't cutting or getting out of his cuts as crisply or aggressively when it involved his left leg. His right side was fine. Now Mooshagian says in the past two or three weeks, Scott seems to be getting that strength back on his left side and is becoming more powerful and precise in his routes.

Webb, 34, a seven-time Pro Bowler from the early and mid-90s, finds himself in a time warp against Kearse, the next generation's great Bruce Smith-Reggie White pass rusher.

Webb played both those guys and they probably never got two sacks off him like Brackens did last week in Jacksonville, when he cut inside past Webb twice.

"I remember giving up three sacks once in Indianapolis," Webb said.

The one common denominator in that game and last week is road noise, which is a decided advantage for the pass rusher because the left tackle can't hear the signals and has to at least look out of the corner of his eye to see when the ball is snapped.

Webb won't say what he did wrong against Brackens ("I can fix it. I probably could have done some things differently"), but he admits it was loud in the end zone where Brackens once poked the ball from Kitna and got him for a safety another time.

"I watched the game Monday night," said Webb of Baltimore's 16-10 win in Tennessee. "I've never played Tennessee, but they tell me how loud it is there and I could feel for (the Ravens) because it sounded loud. That's why it's always good to play at home like (this week)."

The Webb-Kearse matchup is an intriguing one. Webb has 60 pounds on him. Kearse has nine years on him. Webb has five Pro Bowls on him. Kearse has eight sacks this season, five in the last two weeks.

"That's why they call him, 'The Freak,'" Webb said of Kearse's 6-4, 265-pound dimensions. "I don't think you can jump him. You have to set back and see what he does. The guy is quick. That's what you have to stop."

The Bengals know they have to stop Kearse if they want to throw. And they know they have to throw if they want to run.

"That's the idea every week," Bratkowski said. "When you get one dimensional, you get in trouble."

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