Reinvent the Titans

9-11-01, 11:30 p.m.

When the Bengals went to the drawing board during the offseason to pick up the pieces of one of the league's worst offenses, they cast an admiring glance at the Tennessee Titans they play Sunday in Nashville.

They saw their AFC Central foes as worthy models because what did they have that they didn't?

A Pro Bowl running back. A mobile quarterback. An above average offensive line. And truth be told, with speedy Darnay Scott healthy, weren't the Bengals' receivers more dangerous?

But beyond personnel, there are other qualities the Bengals like about the Titans. Even the players themselves talk about Tennessee's simplicity, resiliency and solidity.

"You watch them and you always know what you're going to see," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Nothing fancy. It's not always pretty They don't do a lot of things, but they do them well. And they're always in games. They always seem to have a chance at the end. They're a team we should look to."

Floyd Reese, the Titans general manger, agrees on the style points.

"Pretty simple, isn't it?" Reese asked. "In this league, you lose more games than you win."

If there is one Bengal who knows all of this and wants to transfer it to his new locker room, it's fullback Lorenzo Neal. With Neal clearing the way for running back Eddie George and helping make sure there were no killing gaffes on special teams, the Titans went 26-6 and to a Super Bowl the past two seasons.

And with the Titans reeling from an Opening Night loss and the Bengals coming off an Opening Day win that nearly slipped away in the fourth quarter, Neal has a warning.

"We're going to see a different team than the one we saw Sunday night," Neal said. "They're going to be better and we're going to have to be better than we were Sunday. I'm disappointed how we played as an offense in the last four minutes. We let the (the Patriots) back on the field twice. We can't do that. We have to get that four-minute drill down."

In Neal's two seasons in Tennessee, the Titans made sure they put games away in the fourth quarter. In games decided by eight points or less, the Titans were 13-4.

"They're a proven team and we're a team on the rise, so I think we're different," said Neal, but he does see

similarities when it comes to Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau and Titans head coach Jeff Fisher.

"Coach LeBeau and Coach Fisher talk about the same things," Neal said. "Staying together, staying disciplined, and how those are the teams that usually win in the league. The fourth quarter is when they expect to win because they're in shape and they impose their will."

In NFL terms, it's been a generation since the Bengals beat the Titans. In the six games since Cincinnati rolled Tennessee behind Corey Dillon's then rookie-record 246 yards, the Bengals haven't beaten the Titans.

Indeed, since that Dec. 4, 1997 game, the Titans are 35-16 and the Bengals are 14-37.

Yes, the Titans have built their emergence primarily on defense. A top five defense. A defense that just got better with Reese's trade for Pro Bowl end Kevin Carter. That's why the Titans can be so conservative on offense. But then again, the offense is good enough to keep the defense off the field.

Last season, the Titans had the ball more than their foes in 12 of 16 games. In half their games, they had it more than 34 minutes.

Reese, a linebackers coach for Bud Grant in Minnesota back in the day, finds it no coincidence that he and Fisher have defensive backgrounds.

"That has something to do with it," Reese said. "Being in this league, you develop your own ideas and understanding of winning and losing.

"The belief is to be sound," Reese said. "Sound in special teams, sound defense, don't turn the ball over, and you have to be able to run the ball. And don't throw the ball when you have to, but when you want to. If you look at our playbook and count the number of plays, we probably don't have nearly the number of plays as somebody like San Francisco."

Reese sees LeBeau, another defensive guy in the AFC Central, and sees the trend.

"There's three things most of the division seems to have in common," Reese said. "The big running back and great running games, mobile quarterbacks, and aggressive defenses."

Neal thinks the Bengals have "enough special things going on," to turn the corner. He knows Sunday will be a big measuring stick.

"We're going to get their best," Neal said. "And we'll have to play our best and we'll find out. It's going to be hostile and they won't lay down. Especially when they're 0-1."

The last time the Bengals were 1-0?

1997.

The last time the Bengals beat Tennessee.

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