So close, so far

12-29-03, 4:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

In the aftermath of Sunday's very final 22-14 loss to the Browns, Marvin Lewis assured his shocked team that they had built a foundation for the future this past season at Paul Brown Stadium.

"It was a good year," said Lewis of the club's first non-losing season since 1996, praising his players for working hurt while reaching their highest levels as pros. "It wasn't a great year. We have more to do."

Indeed, by losing three of their last four games, his team also gave him plenty of fodder to fuel his Power Point presentations that he'll use as motivation for all of 2004. While veterans such as right tackle Willie Anderson and defensive tackle John Thornton hoped they learned the terrible lesson of playing timid in December, Lewis hoped they learned the value of focus.

"We learned a valuable lesson," Lewis said. "Even though we played every week one (week) at a time, the things down the stretch – the little things, the minute details _ make the difference. Overcoming some of the things that we had go wrong at the end, we just have to learn from it, and we'll get better.'

The minute things turned into huge things under the magnifying glass of the playoffs:

They had their second most penalties of the season (nine) and when they had a 14-13 point lead early in the fourth quarter, they let Browns quarterback Tim Couch complete passes of third-and-11 and third-and-12 on the way to the winning touchdown. In the last four games, foes converted more than half their third-down plays at 25-for-49.

"We have to figure out how to win these type of games, how to win against Baltimore, how to win against St. Louis. Not to come out and play scared and timid, Anderson said."

Anderson, who has now played in 126 regular-season games without a playoff berth in one of the five longest streaks in the league, couldn't hide his frustration. He reiterated his call after last week's loss in St. Louis for more prime-time players.

"We've got to have more killer instincts on this team," Anderson said. "We can't do it just against Houston.

"I'm sick of playing the Ray Lewises and going to St. Louis and play people like that. We need that. We've got them. I think we've got them. But we've got to do it when it counts. I'm not talking about the obvious guys. The obvious guys. The guys that carried this team. Jon Kitna carried this team. Chad Johnson carried this team. Peter Warrick. Those guys did their job. It has to come from somewhere else."

It certainly didn't come from any of the three phases and Lewis understands that his next task is to get the Bengals to play bigger in the big games. In his three Decembers with Brian Billick in Baltimore, the Ravens lost two games in December. His first December in Cincinnati went 1-3.

"I believe there is a big-game mentality and big players have to step up and play in big games," Lewis said. "Your best players go forward and help you win the big games. Your team grows and understands that kind of thing. They don't let frustration, a bad play, or that sort of thing occur, on either side of the football, or to them, affecting the next play. And that's a maturity thing we're going to go through there."

The place where the tentative, unsure play really showed up on was defense, which secured the off-season spotlight by giving up 801 rushing yards in December. The play where it really showed was Suggs' back-breaking, cut-back touchdown run, where the Bengals turned a fourth-round pick into a star.

"I don't think we were getting out physicaled," said linebacker Riall Johnson. "I think we were playing undisciplined."

It had Thornton feeling badly for defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and his staff.

"They cut back and guys weren't in position to handle it," Thornton said. "They'd run front side and cut it back. That's how they got the big plays. It was poor defense by us, the players. Not the coaches. We've got to get more aggressive play. We've got to stop being so timid. . .I'll start by pointing out myself. . .Honestly, I feel bad for

Coach Frazier because this is a great system. People have to understand how important their responsibilities are every play. Because if you're not in the right gap, it's a big play."

That's how most saw Suggs' big run at the end of the first half that gave the Browns a 13-7 lead. At least one defender thought the Browns surprised the Bengals by running more power formations and not as many three-receiver sets as Cleveland had shown on film.

"Glen and I did a good job of making him cut back," said Thornton of tackle Glen Steele. "And the guy who was supposed to be in the back-side gap wasn't in it, and he was gone."

Suggs started to his left and when there was nothing there, he cut back to his right and went untouched up the right sideline. Strong safety Rogers Beckett, one of those hurt guys Lewis praised, couldn't chase him down with his bruised knee.

"The (line) backers didn't get the call for that formation, so when that type of stuff starts happening, things can slip away on you," Beckett said. "One of the reasons that worked for them is we weren't quite lined up right."

That's the kind of detail Lewis is talking about. Left end Duane Clemons, who played in a NFC title game, admitted, "it's hard to get that kind of (Big Game) experience when you don't have any."

Take, for instance, left outside linebacker Riall Johnson, making his first NFL start in place of the injured Adrian Ross. The Browns, a dominant right-handed running team, made no bones about running in the direction of the new starter.

"I should have done a better job of playing the back side. That's part of my job. You can point the finger at me if you want," Johnson said of the big run.

No one was looking to do that because it didn't appear as if just one man broke down on the play. Plus, Johnson exuded the attitude Lewis hopes to get this offseason.

"I know I'm going to come back in the best shape of my life,:" Johnson said. "You're more motivated. You feel like if you can make the same kind of improvement next year like we did this year, next year we'll be hard to stop."

The offense had its share of self-examination after the blown final series of the first half. With no timeouts and 39 seconds left from the Browns 3, the Bengals tried to shoe-horn three plays for the end zone that included a costly sweep to running back Corey Dillon that lost three yards and 23 seconds.

Kitna flat-out called his play at the end of the half "a mental error," and, 'a poor decision," and Lewis said, "In Jon's mind, he knows he's got to throw the ball away so we can get the field goal." But Lewis examined himself, realizing it was still a one-score game at the end.

"Maybe if I had decided to kick the field goal earlier in the first half, then we wouldn't be down by eight," Lewis said. "But I thought that we could get the touchdown there and try to score."

Kitna said the play happened so quickly and that usually there is time before the play to run through a checklist of options. Not helping the drive were two pass interference calls on wide receiver Chad Johnson. Both Kitna and Johnson thought they were questionable, but Lewis and Johnson insisted Johnson didn't lose his poise through frustration.

"No, he had to go in and get an IV," Lewis said. "There are going to be those days. He was excited and hyped to play. We are learning a lot about Chad. The excitement level is going to drain him, and just understanding all of that."

It seemed to be all part of what had become the December experience.

"We didn't get it done in December," Kitna said. "The thing about playing in December is that you have to be better than you were in November and October. You can't be the same. If you're the same. . ."

And the Bengals can only conclude that they peaked in that giddy 4-1 November they knocked off the unbeaten Chiefs and beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh on a last-minute drive.

"When you look back, you're going to say we had some (missed) opportunities," Kitna said. "But to go from 2-14 to 8-8, it's a good start."

Like his coach and quarterback, linebacker Brian Simmons hopes the missed opportunities teach them something.

"When you play a team like Arizona, you have to go out and win," Simmons said. "When you have to win a game at home to go to the playoffs, you have to take advantage. It's a disappointment. . .but if we take something from it, and we learned when the ball is in your court, you can't let it go by."

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