9-20-01, 12:50 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Takeo Spikes, the Bengals' defensive captain, may as well have been talking about his offense.
"I don't want to fall into the big hole, 'Oh no, we're playing Baltimore,'" said Spikes of the psyche job that has dogged his team against Baltimore since 1998. "It's time to play, Dog. We're ready to play ball."
Which means the Bengals' offense could be ready to ditch the Xs and Os that have spelled doom against the Ravens' history-making defense in their last three meetings. With Cincinnati fearing what Baltimore's pass rush could do against a spread offense, the Bengals usually went with tight formations while scoring one touchdown in the last 12 quarters against a Ravens' run defense that set an NFL record in 2000 by allowing just 970 yards on the ground and 165 total points.
But the Bengals aren't tipping their hands on how they will try to spring Corey Dillon to the first 100-yard rushing day by a running back against the Ravens in 34 games. Cincinnati knows spreading the field too often against the Ravens isn't the answer either.
(See Super Bowl XXXV).
"Good luck," said Jim McNally, the Giants offensive line coach who saw the Ravens hold his club to 66 rushing yards in the Super Bowl. "When you spread it, you become vulnerable in pass protection and subject your quarterback to a lot of pressure. And trying to run outside on them is almost just as tough as inside because their cornerbacks are excellent players who are quick getting to the run."
But with new Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's multiple formations, players are saying the mindset is more, "Let's do what we do," rather than "Baltimore won't let us do this."
Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau has been stressing to his players that the Ravens also "put on their pants one leg at a time," and fullback Lorenzo Neal warned, "They're great, but don't make them out to be unbeatable."
The Bengals do have the benefit of three people whose offenses beat Baltimore the past two seasons.
As the Steelers receivers coach, Bratkowski was part of Pittsburgh's wins in Baltimore the past two years, the last one turning out to be Baltimore's last loss on the way to winning the Super Bowl.
Neal's Titans actually beat Baltimore last year without Pro Bowl running back Eddie George. And although left tackle Richmond Webb didn't play when his Dolphins beat Baltimore early in the year, he saw Miami rush for 106 yards to win, 19-6.
So here's the blueprint for a Bengals' win:
_Control the ball just enough on the ground. In those three victories, the Steelers' Jerome Bettis was the leading rusher for the winners with 65 yards on 18 carries.
_Make one or two big plays in the passing game, on defense, or special teams because as Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna said, "They're too good to get 15-play drives on them."
The Steelers got their one touchdown in the 9-6 victory on a 45-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Hines Ward and Titans linebacker Randall Godfrey returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown in Tennessee's 14-6 victory.
_Win the turnover battle. In those three wins, the Ravens had a minus-four ratio.
"Let's not beat around the bush said Dillon, who went to the Pro Bowl last year despite gaining just 32 yards on 28 carries in the two losses to the Ravens. "It's been ugly and they've got great players and a good scheme.
"Are they a great defense?" Dillon asked rhetorically. "Yes. Are we scared? No. Nobody has had a good day against them. We are going to do what we have to do, keep the mistakes to a minimum, and try to win it."
In an effort to neutralize the Ravens' massive rotating 1,000 pounds in the middle (Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Lional Dalton) and ultra-quick middle linebacker Ray Lewis vacuuming up behind, teams have had some success running behind three- and four-receiver sets. Not to mention throwing quickly to those wideouts.
"But you can't make that the crux of your game plan," Kitna said. "I imagine we'll do some of that because we have talented receivers. But they'll adjust to that."
Which is Bratkowski's point.
"If you spread it, they can always bring down one more guy than you can block in the running game and make it real difficult," Bratkowski said. "Now, you might be able to counter that with a two-back set, but that's the point. You can't do one thing against them. You have to attack them in multiple ways."
Neal admits the Ravens' gargantuan front has given him problems on the inside plays he has to fight through the forest in an effort to get to Lewis to block him.
"They can occupy two guys and make things difficult," Neal said. "But you just have to patient and be consistent. Keep pounding, don't make many mistakes, and win the turnover game."
Dillon, who had a 100-yard game against Baltimore back in 1998, isn't concerned about breaking the Ravens' century streak.
"Anyway we can beat them," Dillon said. "I don't care what number I get as long as we win."
Kitna thinks the Bengals have a shot with Dillon rushing for a number around 80 yards, combined with a big pass or two.
Bratkowski said the Bengals can't miss when they get that shot down the field.
"There are a few points in every game when you get the right play against the right defense," Bratkowski said. "Maybe two or three times. You have to take advantage against these guys. Against other teams, you might not have the right play, or they may be in the right defense, but you can still make something happen. That's pretty rare against these guys."