11-9-03, 5:15 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It started in that hushed hour after the sobering loss to the Cardinals last week in Arizona.
The Bengals had just rushed for a paltry 47 yards, their lowest total since the 2002 opener, and right tackle Willie Anderson was telling anybody who would listen, "It's all on the offensive line," and so was Sunday's 34-27 victory fashioned out of Rudi Johnson's franchise-record 43 carries for 182 yards.
"The offensive line told us before the game they were going to make something happen and they did," said running back Brandon Bennett. "They were tired going through games not running the ball and having to hear about it, and they just went out there and moved people."
After getting the most carries in a NFL game in 15 years, the low-key Johnson planned to celebrate with a hot tub Sunday night, a Monday morning lift in the weight room, and then a Monday afternoon flight to Virginia Beach, Va., to visit his seven-year-old daughter on the club's day off. He credited everyone from his line, to rookie fullback Jeremi Johnson, to strength coach Chip Morton.
"Never a doubt," said Johnson after his third NFL start, when asked if he thought he could do what he's doing in the pros. "Never a doubt. But I'm just glad we won. I'm glad for the fans. They were into it and I'm glad they could celebrate."
But even as Johnson low-keyed it like his simple, straight-ahead running style, there was no question this was a loud, high-profile statement game for head coach Marvin Lewis of scoring drives lasting 13, 14, five, nine, 12, and 15 plays.
It was a game with two statement plays, when Lewis eschewed the field goal trailing, 27-24 with 13:04 left on a fourth-and-one from the Houston 7, and then again on fourth-and-5 from the Houston 13 with 32 seconds left and the Bengals leading, 34-27.
It was a game with a statement for Corey Dillon, who raised as many eyebrows for not showing up on the sidelines as his replacement did for carrying the most times ever in a regulation NFL game. Lewis wouldn't reveal his policy on game day rules for inactive players, but clearly Dillon was nowhere to be seen at the stadium while inactive guys like tight end Reggie Kelly on crutches were.
Just as clearly, the statement was pounded behind left and right guards: Winning without Dillon, once thought impossible, has now happened two straight times.
"Rudi is a running back on our football team. We still have Corey Dillon who is recovering from his injury, and when we get Corey back, we will have Corey and Rudi," is all Lewis would say about Dillon.
The Bengals preferred to discuss Johnson's huge day, the offensive line's dominance, and next Sunday's game against the undefeated Chiefs.
"We better start thinking about them," Anderson said. "They're the best damn team in all of football."
It was Anderson who kept pounding the line's importance during the week to his linemates and the coaches responded to the second-worst NFL rush offense by continuing to emphasize the simple, little things in practice.
"They put in some diversity and mixed it up a little bit right and left," Anderson said.
According to the very unofficial play-by-play sheet, Johnson ran 16 times behind right tackle, 11 times behind right guard, seven up the middle, and three times each behind left guard, left tackle, and right end.
"Mostly interior zones," said left guard Eric Steinbach. "We really broke down the inside zones this week and studied them, and you got a down-hill back like Rudi who doesn't hesitate and gets it up the field and it's effective. . .Rudi's a hot back right now."
The play-by-play sheet doesn't give a true indication of what went on in the trenches. Many times, the guys on the other side of the play helped spring the play with blocking on the backside.
"That's what happened on Johnson's tying 17-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.
"Richie made a great block. He took out the linebacker on the backside and I just cut off of him," Johnson said of center Rich Braham. "The guys had great flow on the linebackers and the defensive ends."
Then he walked into end zone on the right side from one yard out with 10:56 left in the game for the winning touchdown that made it 31-27 behind a pulling Steinbach.
"Everybody blocked down and Steinbach just caved it," Johnson said.
The classic way to beat the 3-4 scheme the Texans employ is to pound it in the middle of a defensive line that usually only has one or two linemen: "You have to run it right at them," Anderson said.
"They played two-deep a lot and when teams do that against us, we have to be able to run the football like we did today," said quarterback Jon Kitna of deep zone coverage guarding the pass.
"It comes down to when they have two safeties back there, we have to run the football. When they bring up an extra guy, we have to throw the football. It's a simple game."
It was vintage simple with the no-frills running of the 5-10, 220-pound Johnson, who has been here before. As a freshman at Butler Community College in Kansas, he carried 48 times once. As a sophomore, he gained 373 yards in the junior college national title game.
"Nothing flashy," Kitna said.
"He just keeps going," said wide receiver Chad Johnson. ""There were times I thought he was stopped, and he'd bounce out of there and get four or five extra yards."
Anderson praised wide receiver Peter Warrick for his dirty work of blocking linebackers, safeties, even defensive ends at some points.
"Peter sacrificed his catches," Anderson said. "No one outside of football knows what he did today. Chad got the glory today (with a career-high nine catches), but Peter was the guy who sacrificed so (Johnson) could have a big day. No receiver in the league likes to do what he did at 195 pounds going in there."
Both Anderson and Rudi Johnson attributed the big day to practice snaps and getting timing with the backs and offensive line, which has been missing because Dillon hasn't been able to work much with his groin injury.
"What we did in practice makes possible what we do out here on Sunday," Rudi Johnson said. "To us, it's easier. That's when you get your reads down. That's when you're watching film and you can see how (the defense) plays. When you practice, like with your fullback, you learn where the block is going to be, where they want to put their head to get leverage on a guy, and you read it out. I'm getting a lot more reps (in practice) and, yeah, it helps."
Anderson feels the timing with Johnson is key because Lewis is demanding a faster tempo in practice.
"Rudi is used to the tempo and seeing where everybody is used to be. It's timed up now," Anderson said. "We practice at the same tempo as a game and in the past, our practice tempo had been bad. We took it just as practice. But (Lewis) makes those young defensive linemen work on their technique in practice and they're trying (to get noticed) on Wednesday and Thursday.
"It makes practice much more interesting," Anderson said. "It makes nine-on-seven and you have a successful running game. If you put Corey in there, the same thing would happen."
While Lewis shocked his own quarterback by going for it on fourth-and-one and trailing, 27-24, Rudi Johnson shrugged after knocking off three yards over the right side.
"We do it in practice all the time," he said.
Lewis shrugged, too. It wasn't spur of the moment because as a former defensive coordinator, he wanted to reel off the play quickly.
"I make that decision on third down, prior to, and I tell Bob (Bratkowski, offensive coordinator) that we are going for it on fourth down so get your play ready," Lewis said.
"Those kind of things are things that I kind of have to think ahead on, because offensively you don't want to give the advantage back to the defense when they have an opportunity to adjust. I want ours to stay quick and in a rhythm. I know that when I was on the other side, when they gave me a chance, I'm going to do a little better job of calling — to put the defense in the best position to stop whatever they run. But when I have to hurry up, our players aren't going to see it as well and adjust, so I think we had a chance to catch them off-guard and get the edge on them a little bit."
While many gaped in horror at Kitna's pass to the outside on fourth-and-five from the Texans 13 and 32 seconds left, Lewis and Kitna both thought a quick pass to Chad Johnson at the line of scrimmage was a safe play.
The odd thing was that Lewis told Kitna he could pass, but a running play was called. When Kitna saw the Texans crowd the line, he checked to the Johnson pass . And it almost worked for a touchdown, but Johnson got hauled down at the 1 just before the ball broke the plane.
"It was a heck of a play by Jon and Chad, and it got us the first down and kept the clock rolling," Lewis said. "The field goal wouldn't have helped, other than the fact that if we did not execute it right, we could have given them a chance to get back into the football game. So we chose to go for it on fourth down. Good execution by those guys."
Right guard Mike Goff celebrated the only way an offensive lineman could. After helping Braham blow up the inside for Johnson's 17-yard touchdown, the 305-pound Goff tried to scale the end-zone wall a la Peter Warrick's "PB Plunge," or the Packers' "Lambeau Leap."
"I just wanted to see what it was like," said Goff of his fan foray. "I got a few head slaps. That's what I wanted."
Asked if he landed a bit awkwardly, Goff joked, "Not all, I'm an athlete." Asked if he saw Goff's vault, Anderson joked back, "No, and I'm glad I didn't. I'd probably still be laughing."