Running in and out of sand

12-1-02, 9:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If Bengals President Mike Brown is looking for any shred of good to keep some of his coaching staff intact for next season, he lost another strand Sunday in the 27-23 loss to Baltimore.

Not only was it in front of the smallest announced crowd ever at two-year-old Paul Brown Stadium (44,878), but the 1-11 Bengals now have to win two of their last four games to avoid finishing with the worst record in franchise history.

Not only that, but head coach Dick LeBeau's run is now officially as bad as the Dave Shula reign-on-your-parade. After Sunday, both have winning percentages of .268.

"We could have won several games, and there were times when we had this one won," LeBeau said. "It does hurt more as you go on. This team deserves better."

So does LeBeau, but only Brown knows what he plans to do in the offseason and he's not saying. Making it tougher on LeBeau is that the defense he has groomed since 1998 hasn't kept up with the offense this season. Until Sunday, but the effort was spoiled by a missed extra point, a blocked punt for a touchdown, and Ravens running back Jamal Lewis' 121 yards on 22 carries.

"We fight so hard trying to put all three parts of the game together — special teams, defense and offense ," said Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes after he led the team with 11 tackles. "Even though Jamal Lewis got over 100 yards today, we played pretty steady. We kept him out of the end zone. We kept them off the scoreboard when we had to, and there's going to be weeks like that."

The Bengals' run defense, ranked next to last in the NFL, gave up 148 yards on the ground, but the pass rush offered its most sustained effort of the

season with a season-high three sacks and several pressures of quarterback Jeff Blake that resulted in just 115 yards passing. They also allowed a season-low 247 total yards. In that sense, it was finally like the old days of last year. It's the fewest yards they had allowed since Oct. 14, 2001, and it was their most sacks since last year's finale.

But more than half of Blake's passing yards came on touchdown passes. The 39-yarder to a wide open wide receiver Travis Taylor streaking past free safety Cory Hall broke the Ravens' skein of 25 straight possessions without a touchdown. The 22-yarder, the winner, came to tight end Todd Heap with 5:12 left in the game after Blake bought Heap about an extra four seconds to work on rookie strong safety Marquand Manuel as he rolled away from the rush.

"I think he broke contain and anytime you give the quarterback that much time, bad things are going to happen," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "He had him covered, but it was a six- or seven-second play. You put me on Deion Sanders for six or seven seconds and I'll shake away from him nine out of 10 times."

Heap, leading all NFL tight ends in production, had to agree.

"You have time to do whatever you want on that play, you could have drawn it up in the sand and run it," Heap said.

Spikes called Blake's performance, "gutty," because he was hit early and often but, "he hung in there."

"The play was actually designed to go to Travis (Taylor), " Blake said of the winning touchdown, "and when I looked up he was double-covered. The line did a great job at that time. I was able to buy some time and looked down field and saw Todd (Heap) and gave him the ball."

Blake was just 10 of 19, but he was four of six for 27 yards on third and fourth down with the help of Lewis. The killer came four plays before the winning touchdown on third-and-seven from the Ravens 49 with seven minutes left in the game.

Last year, the Bengals' defense held 62 percent of the time on third down. This year, it is just 57 percent and on this one Blake hit a 16-yard pass to wide-open running back Chester Taylor underneath a deep zone.

"It was a Cover Two. He just had time to throw the ball," Spikes said. "He had time to throw it. We just have to get more pressure I guess or something. He just made the play when it needed to be made."

Like Spikes, Hawkins felt the defense made one of its best stands of the season, observing it was the fewest points (14) the defense had allowed in a loss this season.

But for the second straight game, the defense came up with no turnovers. Still, they win if there is no interception return or blocked punt.

"I thought we were playing pretty good this past month as far as no turnovers — doing things to kill ourselves," Spikes said. "But if it's in the game, it's in the game. What we have to do is eliminate that and not make it so hard on ourselves in the end where we'll be able to win these type of games."

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