BY GEOFF HOBSON
CLEVELAND _ A half-hour after 0-2 became the real thing, quarterback Gus Frerotte stopped by linebacker Takeo Spikes' locker in the visitors' locker room and they vowed not to leave the other.
"A lot of people outside, the media, they're going to want us to point fingers," Spikes said. "It's not like that. He and I said we're with each other all the way. We're going to hang in there and stick together."
But there was plenty of room for self-examination Sunday after the dismal 20-7 loss here to the Browns. Frerotte admitted the passing game is still in the learning stages after he spent the day soothing his receivers' tempers and right tackle Willie Anderson flat out wondered if the right guys were playing.
"We've got some guys who think they're better than what they are," Anderson said, "but at the same time, you've got guys who are better than those guys who aren't playing."
Anderson wouldn't get specific after a game in which the defense played better, but not solid enough, and the passing game betrayed the running game and their do-it-all running back Corey Dillon. All Dillon did was rush for 108 yards on 22 carries and catch a career-high eight passes for 67 more to lead the Bengals in both departments.
But the Bengals ran 25 more snaps than the Browns in ringing up 13 more first downs, nearly 100 more yards, and nearly twice as many more yards per rush. They had eight drives of at least seven plays and eight drives into Cleveland territory and yet they didn't get their only touchdown until 6:27 left in a 20-0 game.
"It makes you sick not to be able to come out of there with at least three points," Frerotte said.
Dating back to last season, the Bengals have lost nine of their last 11 games under Frerotte and Jon Kitna and the one constant has been the struggles of the pass offense. After Frerotte threw three interceptions Sunday that translated into 10 points, the Bengals have now
thrown 23 interceptions and five touchdown passes in those last 11 games.
On Sunday, wide receiver Peter Warrick had just one catch for three yards, wide receiver Michael Westbrook had more slips than his two catches in his first Bengals' start, and Frerotte suffered the most sacks by a Bengals quarterback (five) since Akili Smith got dumped by Jacksonville five times nearly two years to the day of a 13-0 loss.
And just like last year, the page hasn't turned. The wide receivers and the quarterback aren't on the same page. Frerotte said it wasn't the reason, but for the second straight year, a training-camp long quarterback derby seems to have robbed the passing game of its timing.
On Sunday, Frerotte said the Browns seemed to be in the right coverage for every route as he worked against mostly a zone that didn't allow for big plays. Which is why he checked down to Dillon eight times.
Coverage? Or failure to see the open man? Or failure to get open?
"I'm learning what they're really like. I have to learn how all these guys play," Frerotte said of his receivers. "They're getting to know me and I'm getting to know them."
Warrick and Chad Johnson looked to show the same kind of frustration as last year, but it didn't boil over publicly like it did with Kitna during and after the 16-0 loss in Baltimore.
"That's just being young," Frerotte said. "I talked to them a little bit. I told them they have to be patient, we're getting better. Stick with me, believe in me and it will come. I understand. They want the ball every snap. I'm the only guy getting the ball every play. It's hard for them when they think they're open or they've got something on the defense. . .I tell them, 'Look, sometimes you're in the read, sometimes you're not in the read. If you're open, I'll get you the ball.' They just have to understand."
Warrick didn't seem to understand on a second-and-20 from the Browns 45 early in the second quarter. Frerotte badly threw behind him as he was wide open running across the field to the right sideline. Warrick was literally hopping mad as the pass went wide.
"I had to step to the right (because of pressure) and throw to the left," Frerotte said. "He's running away from me and it made for a hard throw. I wanted to throw to his back shoulder (because) there was no one around him. I told him, 'You're doing the right thing, just gear it down a little if there's no one around you. If you gear it down, it makes things easier for me.'"
Some players said Johnson was open quite a bit down the field and didn't get the ball like he did on his 22-yard touchdown catch. For his part, Johnson wasn't about to stir up anything this time.
"I think we showed that we're coming together and making improvement," Johnson said. "We're getting more consistent. We're close to getting there."
Westbrook appeared to have about three drops, but he denied his cast is giving him problems. He's also probably having some timing issues since he broke his navicular bone in his left wrist the third day of training camp and missed many of the snaps. With Danny Farmer (knee) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (groin) limited, Sunday was the most work Westbrook received as a Bengal and he looked rusty. But he said the cast wasn't a problem.
On the last drive of the first half, he juggled a ball as he stepped out of bounds in the two-minute drill on a play ruled incomplete.
"That was a catch," Westbrook said. "(The defender) got a hand on it and I got it back as I stepped out of bounds."
On the play before Frerotte threw the back-breaking interception to Browns defensive end Kenard Lang in the last minute of the first half, the 6-3 Westbrook nearly got a first down inside the Cleveland 10 when he leaped over cornerback Anthony Henry. But he couldn't bring it down in a juggling contest with Henry.
"He tipped it," Westbrook said.
Westbrook finished with two catches for 21 yards, but it felt like so much more.
"I can't believe we only scored seven points," Westbrook said. "We were on the field a lot. We just have to get big plays. We need three big plays a game."
But Frerotte and the receivers couldn't be blamed for Cleveland's pass rush. The Browns pretty much got the pressure from obscure ends named Mark Word and Lang with hardly any blitzing out of an alternating three- and four-man front.
"When you have to throw," Frerotte said, "that makes it tough because they pin your ears back and it's hard, especially on the tackles."
But even when the game was close and with Dillon getting 4.9 yards per carry, the Browns got pressure. Word, playing for right end Courtney Brown (neck), had three sacks in spending much of the game working against left tackle Richmond Webb.
The Bengals have now given up nine sacks in two games after giving up just four sacks once last year. They're on pace to allow about 60 sacks after giving up just 28 last year.