11-21-01, 10:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The question is on the table.
In the Bengals' bid for balance, have they lost their identity (and effectiveness) as a smash-mouth offense always among the NFL's rushing leaders with one of the game's elite power backs in Corey Dillon?
That's what some close to the offense wonder after back-to-back games in which Dillon has carried just 34 times while quarterback Jon Kitna has thrown 90 passes in producing a mere 20 points. The run offense, second in the league last season, is tied for 16th while Dillon is under four yards per carry for virtually the first time in his life after two straight 17-carry games.
But it's not a view shared by all. There are players who think the Bengals are still committed to the run, but penalties and ineffectiveness have swiped their identity. Holding calls on right guard Mike Goff washed out two runs for 13 yards that could have translated into more carries if the drives hadn't been halted.
"We're a smash-mouth football team that hasn't been smash-mouthing effectively and when we've been taken out of our game, we've had to throw the ball," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "That's how I see it. Other guys might see it differently, but to me we've run the ball 17 times and if we've had the lead we would have run it 17 more times. We're not running the ball. We haven't given him the room to run the last two games. That's on the offensive line. That's on us."
Dillon hasn't talked to the media after the last two games about the numbers that suggest the Bengals have ditched the run. But the play-by-play sheet still shows a rush commitment. In the 20-7 loss to Tennessee last week, Dillon ran the first three plays, four of the first eight, five of the first 12, six of the first 13, seven of the first 16, and eight of the first 19. The problem is eight of his 17 carries went for no gain or lost yardage.
"Tennessee is a running team, too, and when we were tracking it during the game, Corey and Eddie George had almost the same number of carries late in the second quarter," said Dave Lapham, the Bengals' radio analyst and former offensive lineman. "Then the game got out of control in the second half. I still sense a commitment to the run, but I don't get that on half his carries he gets hit behind the line of scrimmage. When that happens, it's hard to call a running play."
Lapham suggests the Bengals may have to adjust their smash-mouth blocking schemes. Solomon Wilcots, a former Bengals defensive back and CBS-TV analyst, sees the offense "in a quandary," over the run and the pass.
"They're trying to develop an offense that's balanced with the quarterback trying to get timed up with the young receivers. How do you bring those guys along if you're only passing the ball a limited amount of time?" Wilcots asked. "But I also think the score in the fourth quarter
dictates how much you're going to run."
The failed fourth-and-one Dillon ran in the second quarter from the Tennessee 29 is a microcosm of the struggle. Eyebrows on the offense were raised when the Bengals sent the north-south Dillon on a toss to the right, a play that Dillon has said for years he doesn't feel as comfortable with as he does running off tackle. Even head coach Dick LeBeau said he now he would run a different play.
The Bengals wanted to stretch Dillon to the right, behind their best run blocker in Anderson. But Anderson admitted he was late getting off the ball because the Titans showed them a new look and Anderson was communicating with center Rich Braham.
Tennessee overloaded to the right for Dillon, something that Kitna says the Titans did all day no matter what formation the Bengals showed. Lapham thinks they have to be more flexible in such cases.
"If the offensive linemen win the matchup on the defensive line, you can still crease them for long runs even if they're overloaded," Lapham said. "When the Bengals have run the ball, the Bengals have blocked the defensive line. When they didn't, Chicago, Jacksonville, Tennessee knocked them back. To me, you have to angle block a little bit more and not just try to drop step or go lateral. You have to mix it up. I don't think you can be too stubborn and say you're going to block it the same way no matter the size and scheme (of the defense)."
But Lapham agrees with the thinking that balance must rule the day. A 300-yard day has to be 175 passing and 125 rushing. A 400-yard day is 250-150.
It's a view shared by Bengals President Mike Brown, who fully endorses the work of new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.
"In this league, if you want to win a championship, you have to throw the ball," Brown said. "There has to be a balance. I think Corey is running extremely hard. We haven't run the ball well the past two games, but we can get back into it."
Kitna thinks the Bengals are close to busting out.
"We have to believe in the system," Kitna said. "We have to stay together. We were inches away from scoring 28 points in the first half. We're this close if we just stay with it."