BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has massaged the message not only this week, but last week, and every day as he tries to get his team to play loose and with confidence.
"You can't play like you read the newspapers," said Lewis Monday, back at work after the bye weekend. "Can't play football (like that). Can't do anything. Can't shoot three-pointers, can't hit home runs. Can't pitch. Can't do anything if you're worried about what happens next."
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski pretty much came to the same conclusion when he went back to the tape to figure out this bye week riddle:
Bratkowski spent his bye week like any good offensive coordinator, watching every snap of the first four games, reviewing the mistakes, and emerging with some pretty definitive takes.
"Penalties and sacks are stopping a lot of our drives," said Bratkowski of how the running game has been negated. "We've had an inordinate number of third-and-nines or more. We need to do a better job earlier in the game. The problem is falling behind late in every game and having to throw in the last couple of series to catch up."
The Bengals have already faced 25 third-down plays in which they had to get at least nine yards for a first down. So there are 25 passes right there. Since they are 16th in rushing, 19th in passing, but 25th in scoring, they must be giving up too many negative plays and Bratkowski is looking for accountability to cut down on the lapses.
"You have to be able to keep it about third-and-four so you can run the ball. Or run it twice if you're in four-down territory," Bratkowski said. "But you can't do that on third-and-nine. We are trying to run the ball. We're over the average of NFL teams (with nearly 28 carries per game to the league's 25), but we're not scoring and we have to finish off drives.'
Lewis said Monday that he can be ripped for the play calling because he consults Bratkowski before every drive and gives him an idea of what he wants.
What Lewis is really trying to say came a few moments later as he talked about the heat Rams head coach Mike Martz took for not running the ball enough against Seattle during Sunday's telecast. St. Louis ended up winning in overtime in a 23-point comeback and the announcers went from ripping Martz for three hours to praising him.
"My 14-year-old son could see the difference in the tone and how it changed," Lewis said. "Your goal is to win. Nothing else matters. If you don't win, you're subject to criticism."
Some of Bratkowski's subjects to criticize in the three extra practices (last Wednesday and Thursday, this Monday) were the procedure penalties and pass protection. Lewis has also talked about how keeping the pressure off the quarterback has not been as good it was last year before the bye.
A new quarterback is probably a factor there, too, because he is part of the process in getting people in the right places, but there are other reasons.
"There have been some blitzes missed that should have been picked up, some wrong protection calls, saw a blitz out of a different look and didn't respond quickly enough, the fact we have guys playing with injuries and they haven't been able to play as well as they're able to play," Bratkowski said.
Which gets it back to game situations. The Bengals have had the lead for just about 31 of the season's 240 minutes. Palmer's 48 fourth-quarter throws are still second in the AFC even though he's played just four games. Lewis says playing with that lead can't be underestimated in helping guys play without pressure .
"The balance of the game doesn't seem to hang on each and every play," Lewis said.
They would like to run it more. The Bengals made running the ball a staple after last year's bye (averaging 27-32 before and after), and Lewis keeps talking about it. This week, we might not see the 57-carry extravaganza like happened against last year against Houston the week after they got ripped for just running it 18 times against Arizona. But they did run it 28 times against Baltimore in the first game after last year's bye.
"Of course," said Lewis of trying to build on the run. "We want to make more first downs with it. We want to make more explosive plays in it, which no question that is going to help us in the passing game.
"If people play coverages certain ways, then that should open up more things for some other people, and spread balls around," he said. "(So we can) throw the football or run the football more efficiently and in another manner than what they would like us to do."
Lewis says the focus can't just be on getting Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson the ball ("Get off Chad," he said Monday), noting he has just one fewer catch at this point in the season with 20. He also has two fewer touchdowns (1) and 73 fewer yards (297) in 13th place behind AFC leader Andre Johnson's 525 yards for the Texans.