Offense spins full cycle

11-26-01, 4:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

CLEVELAND _ This year is suddenly starting to look like last year for a pass offense plummeting again to the bottom of the NFL after finding a season-low and 2000-like 107 yards in Sunday's 18-0 loss here to the Browns.

Coach Dick LeBeau tried all three quarterbacks and it just got worse as the game went on. Jon Kitna threw two interceptions. Scott Mitchell threw three in relief.

And when Akili Smith came into the game for the final 1:13, held on to the ball for a sack, and then took a 22-yard loss on a high shot-gun snap . . .

The booing of the Browns' faithful that recalled Smith beating his chest at the Cleveland sideline two years ago and summed up the state of a lost offense that looks like the one that finished last in the NFL last year.

LeBeau wasted little time after the game in giving Kitna the job back this week.

"I feel bad for the guys on the other side of the ball," said fullback Lorenzo Neal. "I mean, that effort our defense gave us today was un-beee---lievable."

Kitna got benched even though the Bengals had outgained the foe, 157-138, in the first half for the third straight loss. And that was despite three turnovers and two missed field goals.

In the last two games, the Bengals have reached at least the 32-yard line of the foe eight times and have come away with no points seven times.

"We came in at the first half over (150) yards of total offense just feeling terrible about ourselves," Kitna said. "We'd get to around the 30-yard line and we're not able to get points. When you get down to the 30-yard line, you have to get points on the board. It's not happening, so the frustration just continues to mount and the confidence wanes."

When it was suggested that the Bengals are hurt with their top three receivers fighting injuries, right tackle Willie Anderson bristled.

"If the receivers are limping, then 28 (running back Corey Dillon) isn't limping. Lorenzo Neal isn't limping. (Dillon backup) Brandon Bennett isn't liming," Anderson said. "That's the strength of our team. If the receivers are limping, get in the Wishbone. If everybody is limping, get in the Wing T and get in the Wishbone and let's run it 80 percent of the time until you absolutely make them stop it."

Anderson wouldn't say the Bengals got away from the running game too early, although he thought offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski would have preferred running more if not for some penalties. Dillon did get 20 carries, but only six in the second half en route to 63 yards against a team he has hit for an average of 144.

But down 12-0, and the Browns limiting Dillon to seven yards on six carries in what is supposed to be Dillon Time of the second half, what was the alternative?

The Bengals insisted Sunday there is more than enough talent on offense. But Sunday was a microcosm of Anderson's Cincinnati career that has seen seven different starting quarterbacks since the shuffle began in 1997 and the extension of a 35-game streak in which the Bengals have failed to beat a winning team on the road.

"The talent is here," Anderson said. "Speed, strength. We probably have more than most other teams. Something is missing."

What is missing is three things: consistent quarterback play (Kitna and Mitchell were a combined 12-for-31), consistent run blocking (Dillon had 54 yards on his first 10 carries) and consistent receiver play, which hasn't been helped by injuries to Darnay Scott, Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick.

Some Bengals observers thought Johnson looked tentative after missing

four games with a broken collarbone. Scott didn't practice all week with bruised ribs. Warrick left for good with a bruised shoulder in the second quarter to match his bruised thigh from last week.

"It looks bad for Kitna because it looks like the coaches didn't think he was getting the job done," Anderson said. "The thing was we needed a spark. The coaches said there were mistakes with the receivers, on the line. A lot of things broke down. You just can't sit there and blame one guy. I thought we could get a spark, but it didn't."

Mitchell's mates have a lot of confidence in him after he led them to a 2-2 finish last year. And to Mitchell's credit Sunday, he didn't blame rust in his first outing since LeBeau named Kitna the starter after a tight pre-season derby. He hit just four of 12 passes for 38 yards.

The first interception appeared underthrown deep down the middle to Ron Dugans that got picked by cornerback Corey Fuller at about the Cleveland 20 as Mitchell got flushed from the pocket. Then cornerback Daylon McCutcheon pilfered Mitchell's last two passes as he lurked over the middle.

"I don't think so. I think I was just trying to make a play," Mitchell said of the rust factor. "On the first one, (Fuller) made a good play. I thought (Dugans) was going to break across and have a shot at making a catch, but the guy just broke on it.

"The second one I kind of forced in there," Mitchell said. "I was trying to make more of a play than was there. On the last one, I thought Danny (Farmer) was wide open, but the guy came from the back side and picked it off."

Mitchell couldn't get the Bengals into the end zone when they had a first down at the Browns 5 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and Cincinnati leading, 12-0. An incomplete pass and sack sandwiched two Dillon runs that put the ball at the Browns 2. End Courtney Brown and linebacker Dwayne Rudd sacked Mitchell on a bootleg to the left off play-action in which he couldn't find anyone in the end zone.

Mitchell said the Bengals thought the Browns were thinking a run on the play, so they went out of pocket off some action, but "we really didn't get anyone open. They made a great stand down there."

Anderson says there is a bit of a difference when Mitchell comes in because some of the plays have to be reversed because he's a lefty and because he is slower and more of a pocket passer than Kitna.

But that doesn't bother Anderson. What seems to bother him is the offense has been behind the defense pretty much since after the 1997 season.

"We have a quarterback controversy every year," Anderson said. "I've been going through this since 1997. It's my job to protect him and not complain. If he's going to lead us to a win, and get some points on the board and be effective, I don't care who is back there."

Anderson echoed Neal's words about a valiant defense.

"It's embarrassing to look at my friends on defense and to know that they're playing championship football," Anderson said. "And here we go again on offense. It happens year after year."

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