Open and Shut as LeBeau vows changes

9-8-02, 4:05 p.m. Updated:
9-8-02, 6:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals had a big selling job in front of them at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday and it blew up before they could even offer the sales pitch.

Playing in one of only three buildings not sold out on the NFL's Opening Day, the Bengals suffered one of their most embarrassing openers in history and a dangerous blow to their credibility as contenders in offering no resistance to the Chargers' 34-6 victory.

It is their worst loss in a home opener in history. But given the wait-and-see attitude of a community that put just 53,705 in PBS Sunday to watch a veteran team with high expectations, the impact could be more far-reaching than in the record book.

It certainly may have an impact on next week's starting lineup, where a seething head coach Dick LeBeau vowed changes.

"That is not going to happen again," LeBeau said. "We're going to keep the other guy from running, I'll tell you that right now. . . We're going to change that. That was about a disappointing start as you can have."

After the Chargers eased through the Bengals' ninth-ranked defense in the NFL last season at 6.2 yards a clip for 401 yards, the Cincinnati locker room had a hard time believing it.

"I'm hesitant to use the word, 'play,'" said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "It's got be one of the most embarrassing games I've ever been a part of. We've been through a lot of rough times here and to finally reach the point we like to think we're at and to go out there and play the way we did today, it's no excuse. The question is, 'Are we on the verge of something?' and if we play the way we did today, I guarantee you we're not."

They fell behind, 13-0, in the season's first 17 minutes as the first quarter ended in a hail of boos. Then they dragged off the field at halftime in front of what was left of a surly crowd after allowing a 95-yard touchdown drive to a quarterback making his first NFL start. The long haul drained 7:55 off the clock and gave San Diego a 20-0 lead. That drive took 15 plays. The Bengals had 17 snaps in the first half.

How bad was it? The highlight was Neil Rackers' career-long 54-yard field goal with 5:43 left in the game that sliced the lead to four touchdowns.

The second half was more of less when they blew two timeouts in the first three minutes. With 9:14 left in the game, the surreal stat sheet said Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon had five yards rushing and the Chargers had 220. Dillon finished with 10 yards on nine carries and right tackle Willie Anderson wondered if they had short-changed their meal ticket.

"I want to stay positive about it. It's a long season. It's not over with," Anderson said. "I'm not going to dog any of the players out because I start with myself. I'm not going to dog any coaches out. My question to everyone on this team and this organization is, 'What are we? A running team or passing team?'

"Their back had the ball. I'm tired of Corey Dillon first four games every year, he's got 30 carries," Anderson said. "We have to find a way to get him 400 carries this season."

With the Chargers hogging the ball for nearly 38 minutes ("I've never been

part of an offense that came out and dominated like they did today," said 13-year Chargers linebacker Junior Seau), running back LaDainian Tomlinson did what Dillon was supposed to do. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry in his 114-yard day as San Diego rolled up 241 on the ground, the most the Bengals have allowed since the Steelers sliced them up for 275 in last year's fourth game.

On the second half's first drive, Bengals wide receiver Danny Farmer got the team's first catch of 50 yards in 34 straight games on an underneath crossing route that went for 51 yards down the left sideline to put the Bengals at the Chargers 6.

But they could only get a Rackers' field goal out of it and the Chargers steamrolled for 50 yards on their next two snaps against what supposed to be a rested defense. Tomlinson got 30 on a screen pass and 20 came on a reverse to wide receiver Tim Dwight and the Chargers went on to continue their 5.4 yards per gouge on the ground.

To sum up the awful outing, the Chargers got a chance to score their last touchdown when defensive tackle Tony Williams lined up offside, the Bengals' third such penalty of the day.

The Chargers smash-mouthed the Bengals into oblivion. They ended halftime ahead of them in total yardage, 236-61, and wilting their defense in the 90-degree sauna of PBS with a suffocating time-of-possession of 22:07.

And it could have been more. With quarterback Drew Brees looking like a savvy Pro Bowler in his first NFL start as he hit 11 of his 15 passes in the half for 90 yards, the Bengals had to stop San Diego twice inside the 10-yard-line to force two short Steve Christie field goals. Brees finished 15 of 19 for 160 yards and two touchdowns.

Meanwhile, quarterback Gus Frerotte's first completion as a Bengal went to Chargers cornerback Alex Molden when he stepped in front of a quick throw to the outside to wide receiver Peter Warrick for an interception at the Cincinnati 14 to set up Brees' one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Norman running past linebacker Armegis Spearman with 1:18 left in the first quarter for a 10-0 lead.

Frerotte got sacked four times and ended up 18 of 31 for 198 yards.

Nothing went right in what was supposed to be a grand opening for a re-tooled offense and emerging defense. But both sides got blown off the ball in stunning fashion.

While Tomlinson and Terrrell Fletcher ripped off 112 yards on their first 20 carries, Dillon lost two yards on his five carries at halftime.

Penalties? After the Bengals got their only first down of the half without benefit of a penalty (a 12-yard pass to Warrick), wide receiver Michael Westbrook stopped that drive with a late hit on Chargers strong safety Rodney Harrison in the pile.

The Bengals couldn't even get in the end zone with Harrison out of the game with a groin injury. On their three chances from the Chargers 6, Dillon got a yard, a pass to wide receiver Chad Johnson was broken up, and Dillon couldn't get in on a swing pass from the 5.

When Brees rolled out on a bootleg from the Bengals 9, cornerback Jeff Burris lost receiver Curtis Conway behind him for a touchdown pass that gave San Diego a 27-3 lead. And the lights were off and the party was over, if it wasn't already.

It was uglier than a half-time stat sheet showing a Chargers edge of 18-3 in first downs and 148-15 in rushing.

Brees didn't get touched in completing five of his first six passes for 48 yards on a drive that consumed 11 plays and 6:12. The Bengals did get a big play from the middle of their line when they stopped the Chargers on third-and-inches to allow only Christie's 28-yard field goal.

Brees, working quickly out of a three-step drop, made his big play on a third-and-nine, rifling an 11-yarder to Conway in front of Burris just as he went out of bounds at the Bengals 13. The Chargers didn't try to force Brees to go down the field. His longest completion came off the 30-yard screen.

The Bengals went into Sunday's game with just eight defensive backs and five linebackers active in an effort to beef up their passing offense. The Bengals dressed all six wide receivers and all three tight ends.

The biggest surprise on the inactive list might have been rookie strong safety Marquand Manuel, who figures to be a plus on special teams. Running back Rudi Johnson got a seat on the bench even though he led the NFL in rushing during the preseason. That means Ron Dugans is pretty much the only other player who can spell fellow wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh returning kickoffs.

Also named inactive were linebacker Riall Johnson, kicker Travis Dorsch, offensive linemen Victory Leyva and Thatcher Szalay, and defensive end Eric Ogbogu.

In last year's 28-14 loss to the Chargers in San Diego, the Bengals rushed for just 111 yards and got pounded physically by an eight-man front. Jon Kitna, the Bengals quarterback that day, completed just one 20-yard pass and couldn't budge the Chargers from the line of scrimmage.

Frerotte hoped to have more success throwing the ball down field for a team that hasn't had a 50-yard catch in 34 straight games, dating back to the last football game ever at Cinergy Field in 1999.

But the Bengals couldn't get off the ground as the defense couldn't stand up physically. The Bengals looked to be down to four linebackers when left outside linebacker Canute Curtis left with a sprained knee. Plus, right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes appeared to be bothered by the torn pectoral muscle that kept him out of preseason for all but the first 12 plays.

But the only good news is that all the players who left with injury are probable for next week in Cleveland.

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