10-9-02, 6:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Justin Smith's defense has an AFC-low five sacks after five games. And this is after a season he personally had five sacks in back-to-back games.
"It was our worst game rushing the passer," said Smith of last Sunday's sack-less outing in Indianapolis. "I don't see us repeating that performance. We can't let it. We've got to help out our safeties and cornerbacks."
The performance of a pass rush that set a club record with 48 sacks last season and had 13 after five games has been both puzzling and predictable. After five games last year, the Bengals were 3-2 and not 0-5.
"Two years ago we had 26," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "If we don't get going, we're going to have less than that."
They're on pace for 16 this season (which four teams have already) with the same front seven they had last year.
Four of the teams the Bengals have played the Colts (1), the Chargers (5), the Browns (12), the Buccaneers (13) are in the NFL's top 13 for allowing sacks per pass.
"If you're only going to blitz two times in a game," Simmons said, "you better worry about winning those two blitzes and worry about getting there instead of worrying about how many times you're blitzing."
Fallout from getting blown out can be seen in the case of Simmons and fellow inside backer Takeo Spikes. They combined for 12.5 sacks last year, but they have noticed they aren't blitzing up the middle as much as they did last year and wouldn't mind getting the call more often.
"I'm not actively charting it, but it just seems like we aren't going as much," Simmons said. "I think we're (effective) when we do that. We feel
like when they have to put a back on me or Takeo, we ought to win that 50 percent of the time. "
But with teams running instead of throwing to protect leads in the second half, defensive coordinator Mark Duffner's pressure schemes are being dictated heavily by the scoreboard.
"I know those guys like to bring it and we like to bring them. (But) we're not going to blitz them up the middle when we anticipate a lot of the run situations," Duffner said.
Duffner isn't happy with the production ("We have to get there quicker when it's a straight rush or a blitz"), but he's not panicking. The club is ranked 14th in total NFL defense. Last year after five games it was 13th.
"We want to be better than that, but you have to look at this after 16 games," Duffner said. "I'm confident the sacks are going to come. It's not so much sacks, but it's hitting the quarterback as he throws, making him make bad decisions."
Plenty of good teams go through a game without sacking the quick release of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, and the Bengals nearly had him on cornerback Artrell Hawkins' blitz that would have thwarted the back-breaking 69-yard pass to Marvin Harrison if he was a second earlier.
But as Smith said, "I'm not going to set here and tell you everything is OK. Peyton gets the ball out of there in a hurry, but the times he didn't we had to have more pressure."
Smith isn't panicking, either, even though he's got just one sack. He'll point out he had two at this time last year, but then again, he didn't play the first game and he missed all of training camp. And, only two of his sacks came in games the Bengals won. Still, those five sacks in two weeks (Tampa Bay and Jacksonville) came in games the Bengals never got put away in losing by a combined seven points.
"Training camp doesn't matter for a rush end," Smith said. "Either you can do it or you can't. I'm not worried. There are a lot of factors."
One of the factors is the extra attention Smith and Wilson are getting when teams "chip," them with a back or a tight end. The Colts didn't use the tight end much on Smith and he found himself one-on-one much of the day with tackles Tarik Glenn and Adam Meadows, but teams for the most part are chipping them much more than last year.
"It's dang hard," said Smith, when asked how to beat a double team. "You just have to."
Duffner: "It's a situation where you have to bring more people than they've got blocking. And it comes down to rush technique, really, if you have to beat one-one-one, or even two-on-one."
Whenever Smith drops off the end into pass coverage, it always raises the question why the Bengals take away any rushes from their best pass rusher. The idea is to keep the offense guessing, but Duffner says that's not a reason for the drop in sacks.
"He's dropped less this year than last year," said Duffner of about five percent of the pass plays. "And he only did it once last week."