Running aground

12-10-02, 8:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Remember when they said all they needed is any kind of passing game – any kind at all _ and the Bengals' estimable running game would absolutely go off and dominate with one of the NFL's best backs in Corey Dillon?

But it just hasn't been that way and it may send right tackle Willie Anderson to the film room as he wonders about an offensive line that is supposed to be one of the strengths of his team.

I want to look at film of Kansas City's offensive line, San Diego's offensive line, all the teams that put up the big numbers every year," Anderson said Monday. "I envy that. We should be getting a 130, 140 yards rushing a game with Corey.

"We're not the strength of this team," said Anderson of his line. "We

never have been. We always wanted to be the strength of the team. Maybe' '96 through '98, maybe. If we were the strength of the team, Corey would consistently be going out and having 100-yard games like (the Chiefs') Priest Holmes is doing it. I tell guys if we can get 120 yards rushing, some of these games would probably be blow-out games."

But in quarterback Jon Kitna's nine virtually seamless starts, the once run –oriented Bengals have rushed for just 111.5 yards per game. In the seven games since the bye week in which Kitna has lit it up for 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, it has been 107.6. In the last three games, when Kitna has averaged 300 yards passing, they have failed to rush for 100.

Yes, the special teams and defense haven't held up their end of the bargain in the last three weeks and put them in passing situations. But they did have fourth-quarter leads against Pittsburgh and Baltimore and the third quarter last Sunday in Carolina.

On his only run in the second half against the Panthers that came with the Bengals within a touchdown, Dillon got nailed for a four-yard loss.

"Corey can't be getting hit six, seven yards in the backfield," Anderson said. "Because we're not able to run the ball, they get a couple of touchdowns us. Now we're in the passing game. The game is now a longer game. If we can run the ball, we can shorten the game. But when we can't run the ball, we make these games longer and give the other team more opportunities to make plays."

This is a proud line and three-fifths of it have been doing superb things in the running game since 1999. That's when the Bengals finished 40 yards out of the NFL team rushing title. In 2000, four of the five linemen were here when the Bengals finished second even though they had the worst passing game in the league with six touchdown passes.

And it's a line that prides itself on depth. The Bengals made that run in 2000, including Dillon's record 278-yard game, with Brock Gutierrez subbing for injured center Rich Braham.

Last year, they allowed just 28 sacks, fourth best in club history, and even this season, despite a rookie left tackle, their protection of Kitna until the Carolina game has been solid.

So the run numbers are mystifying. Mystifying enough that Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, who played all five spots on the Cincinnati line, has questioned the scheme's ability to "capture," the line of scrimmage.

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau defended it Monday.

"If you check our rushing record in recent history, you'll find it's been pretty good," LeBeau said. "We have been the leading rushing team in the league at times. I don't think there's anything wrong with the scheme. We have had trouble running the ball recently, but I don't think it's the scheme.

"We've played against some pretty solid defenses. We have had some guys in and out of the lineup, and it's taken a toll on some of our running plays," LeBeau said. "To their credit though, they play when they can play. Most of the games we've had 100 yards rushing or close to 100 yards. If you look at Carolina's rushing record, no one has run the ball up and down on them."

There's no question people are banged up. Braham has been playing with a bad elbow and ankle, left tackle Levi Jones has had a variety of dings as he adjusts to the pro regimen, and everything on Anderson has hurt for six weeks, from literally his neck to his ankle. Right guard Mike Goff missed three early games with a lacerated knee, and left guard Matt O'Dwyer has spent time in the training room.

But offensive line coach Paul Alexander is offering no excuses, just a vow.

"We're going to get it fixed," Alexander said. "I remember when we could run the ball even though everybody knew we were going to run it."

It wasn't always like that. Alexander's crew helped the club snap a terrible drought in 1997 with five 100-yard games, breaking a streak of four seasons and 67 straight games without a 100-yard rusher.

All of it makes Anderson wonder.

"Every year, Paul tells us we'll be the strength of the team and we've got to be leaders. But we're not," Anderson said. "We'll play hard, we'll play hurt for Paul Alexander, but we haven't lived up to his expectations of the line he wanted us to be. We haven't done that and that starts with individuals.

"Nobody has a perfect game," Anderson said. "I miss plays. I miss blocks. I missed blocks in the game the other day. But your mindset has to be, we want to be dominant. We can't be afraid of any defensive front. We can't sit there and complain about the game plan. We just have to go out and want to be good."

Anderson looks at the numbers. Holmes has 1,454 yards. San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson has 1,375. And this was before Monday night, when the Dolphins'' Ricky Williams became the NFL rushing leader with 1,500 yards in becoming first back in 22 years to get back-to-back 200-yard games.

And Anderson looks at Dillon's 1,073 that is eighth in the AFC and it gets him mad.

"If we were the strength of the team," Anderson said, "you have to want to have a 100-yard day. You have to want that. You have to want to look at the stats and say, ' Hey; our goal, if we don't do anything else, is we're going to get 140 yards rushing. If we don't do anything else, we're going to protect the passer.' We can't worry about the defense not stopping anybody, or whatever. We're going to take care of our situation and we're going to be good."

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