12-13-03, 2 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Their backs are to the wall. But for the first time in 28 days, at least it's their wall.
The last time we saw the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, Chad Johnson saluted the delirious crowd in the end zone while his teammates danced into the locker room after ending the Chiefs' unbeaten season and transforming themselves into playoff contenders.
Now, Sunday at 1 p.m. against the enigmatic 49ers (6-7) might as well be midnight. One more loss flings the Bengals' season of revival back into rags and pumpkins. Jon Kitna says they have to win all three remaining games to go the playoffs at 10-6. Willie Anderson says they will if 10-6 is what it takes. Kevin Hardy says it will be the bounce-back defense that has to do it for a bounce-back team that is 2-0, and 4-0 after its two losses before last week.
"Our saving grace has been our short memories. Win or lose," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "That's the thing that's been missing that now we have. We don't care what happened before. We're just playing."
The Bengals come off the road into an old home week. Coaching the 49ers is Dennis Erickson, the man who gave Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna his one long shot in the NFL and who molded Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's philosophy at four different stops.
Also coming home are two Cincinnati kids who grew up and went to games when December was always wild and crazy on the river. 49ers cornerback Ahmed Plummer, a Wyoming High School product, was 14 years old and in the stands at Riverfront Stadium the last time San Francisco played the Bengals with the playoffs on the line. Alex Sulfsted, a Mariemont High School grad who came to the game as a fan as late as last month, rejoined the team this week to shore up a thin offensive line.
The Bengals also hope their defense makes a homecoming and returns to its stingy third-down ways at PBS, where they have held foes 33 of 47 times during this four-game winning streak.
"When the defense has played well, it's made us. When it hasn't, it's broken us," Hardy said. "This team is only going to go as far as the defense can take us."
As Kitna closes in on a Pro Bowl-caliber season, he does it in front of Erickson. Back in 1995, Erickson, then the head coach of Seattle, gave his nephew, Central Washington running back Jamie Christian, a workout. Christian took along his college quarterback, Kitna, and when no scouts actually showed up for the workout, not even those from the Seahawks, Erickson gave the NAIA kids the workout himself. Then, Kitna hopped back in his white Escort for the drive back to Yakima to continue his student teaching and the rest of his life.
But the rest, as they say, is history. Christian made it into the NFL, but as a defensive quality control coach on Erickson's staff now. Kitna comes into the game as the NFL leader in touchdown passes with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.
"Coach E has a great mind," Kitna said. "Coordinators and assistant coaches can look at film and get mesmerized, talking about things that are never going to happen. But Coach E would look up in a meeting and say, 'Let's go. That's not going to happen. Let's move on.'"
Erickson gave that tell-it-like-it-is style to Bratkowski, his offensive coordinator during two national title runs at the University of Miami in the late '80s and early '90s, and later with the Seahawks.
"The guy was always on the cutting edge, doing things in college anyone rarely did," Bratkowski said. "He's probably had one of the biggest influences that anyone has had on me."
Now Bratkowski and Kitna try to show Erickson how all those elements have evolved since they left Seattle in the late '90s. The three-step drops. Multiple-receiver sets on first down. And the empty backfield are all staples of Erickson, and now the Bengals.
Erickson has noticed the other influences, such as a little more two-back sets.
"Brat has picked up things from Kenny Anderson and Kenny Zampese that he liked," said Kitna of Bratkowski's two quarterback coaches in Cincinnati. "And this is the running game that was already. So the offense looks a little different than it has."
Kitna likes how Erickson shares one trait with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
"They both want to score a touchdown on every play and I love that as a quarterback," Kitna said.
But Lewis want his defense to stop giving up the big play, which has dogged them since they left on their three-game road trip. The Chargers hit touchdown passes of 26 and 37 yards, the Steelers converted 11 of 17 third downs, and the Ravens stole their momentum with a field-changing 64-yard pass.
Yet the Bengals get a lift with their secondary back intact for the first time since Nov. 2 with two of their top three cornerbacks now full tilt. Cornerback Jeff Burris should play more than the dozen snaps he took last week, and Hawkins doesn't have the knee problem or the illness that kept him out of last week's game.
"We're looking to get back to being aggressive and making plays," said Lewis of his defensive backfield.
Health should help. So should a home crowd that hasn't seen them above .500 this late in the season since 1990, when Cincinnati kids Plummer and Sulfsted were going to the games.
"It's the talk of the town. It's awesome to see again," said Sulfsted, the Miami of Ohio tackle on his third stint with the team. "All my friends are getting up early on Sundays again and coming to the games."
After the Bengals cut Sulfsted after training camp, he went to the opener as a dejected player. He went to the Houston game last month as a fan in the club seats. He had tickets for the last game here against the Chiefs, but couldn't make it and watched it from home.
"I went out to dinner with some guys on the Chiefs the night before because that's the team that drafted me," Sulfsted said. "I had a feeling it would happen all week. It was perfectly set up.
"Now to be on the team in this (run), absolutely a thrill," he said.
Now, they try to get a perfect setup for the ending.
MATCHUPS:** If this is going to be a special day for the Bengals, they may very well have to beat San Francisco in special teams because the 49ers have been superb statistically everywhere else. They've lost three games when a short field goal or extra point would have won it, the punting and kickoffs are inconsistent, the punt returner has dropped the ball more than once, and the holder has failed to catch the ball on three extra-point tries.
Bengals QB Jon Kitna has to keep a wary eye on Niners SS Tony Parrish's interception streak. If Levi Jones can't play, Bengals LT Scott Rehberg can't let what happened last week happen against Niners DE Andre Carter. Bengals FB Jeremi Johnson gets the call against a Pro Bowler in Niners LOLB Julian Peterson. Bengals WR Peter Warrick has to test injured Niners CB Mike Rumph.
The Bengals are going to have to do what they didn't do against Baltimore last week and stop the down-hill running game. Bengals MLB Kevin Hardy goes against one of the league's best in Niners FB Fred Beasley. Bengals CB Tory James tries to keep Niners WR Terrell Owens from celebrating, and Bengals LE Duane Clemons has to put heat on QB Jeff Garcia through Niners RT Scott Gragg.
Although the Niners seemed to have straightened out their field-goal problems, Bengals K Shayne Graham's steel-belted accuracy stands in contrast to what Niners K Todd Peterson inherited when he arrived on a team that six weeks ago had missed two extra points and five field-goal tries under 40
KITNA VS. PARRISH: Kitna's skein of 137 passes without an interception over 17 quarters ended with two fourth-quarter picks last week. Parrish has an interception in five straight games and is looking to tie Kermit Alexander's team record of six straight. Kitna, tied with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre on top of the NFL, is trying to become the first Bengal to lead the league in touchdown passes. **
REHBERG VS. CARTER:** If Jones can't go, Rehberg is one of the options even though he struggled off the bench in Baltimore in allowing two sacks-and-fumbles, and committing two false starts. But they think he'll be better at home, where he'll be able to hear the snap count and be allowed to line up in such a way that takes away Carter's outside move.
How good have Jones and right tackle Willie Anderson been in pass protection? The Bengals haven't had to give them help all season on passing downs, and Kitna is fourth in the NFL in third-down passing with a league-best 984 yards. If Jones can't go, will they abandon that plan and keep receivers in to help block?
Carter has just 5.5 sacks, but he's a season removed from racking up a dozen and twice as many quarterback pressures. He's got long arms that sometimes hamper him in the running game, but provide nice leverage on the rush.
JOHNSON VS. PETERSON: What better way to keep Garcia and an offense that scored 50 points last week off the field than to re-establish a running game that has carried the ball just 46 times in the last two weeks? Peterson is a very athletic, 235-pound guy who lines up all over the place, plays great in space, and can be a problem on the blitz. But the 270-pound Johnson has a good size advantage on him in the running game. **
WARRICK VS. RUMPH:** They've had some problems in the secondary, where they have allowed 20 touchdown passes, third most in the league. Rumph has been hurt the last few weeks (he didn't play two weeks ago) and wasn't supposed to start this week with a foot problem until Jason Webster (chest) got hurt.
They haven't been able to come up with anybody to consistently go along with cornerback Ahmed Plummer on the other side, and the Niners could decide to shadow Chad Johnson with Plummer. But that would be uncharacteristic for a team that has pretty much lined up and kept their corners on one side. Warrick is coming off a career-day 11 catches. **
BEASLEY VS. HARDY:** Let's face it. When the Bengals control the run, they win. In their last two losses, running backs Marcel Shipp and Jamal Lewis had at least 29 carries. In their seven victories, the Bengals haven't allowed a team more than 29 carries. Now, the Niners' Kevan Barlow is coming off a career-high 154 yards against the Cardinals. He's 6-1, 240 pounds, and has excellent balance after he gets hit and has deceptive speed.
He primarily does his damage inside, where the 6-0, 245-pound Beasley is one of the best down-hill blockers in the game. The Niners base a lot of their passing on play-action that stems from the running game in an effort to fool the linebackers. **
JAMES VS. OWENS:James leads a finally healthy secondary into a game against one of the league's dominating receivers. He's looking to regain his physical play from earlier in the season against the 6-3, 215-pound Owens' strength that busts short plays into long ones. But Owens has played in spurts this season. He's had three 100-yard games and four with less than 50 yards. A sore groin has pretty much limited him to one practice a week. The other wideout, Tai Streets, has been hampered by tendonitis in both knees, and he hasn't caught a ball longer than 20 yards in the last seven games.
CLEMONS VS. GRAGG:** Clemons shares the team sack lead with tackle John Thornton with six, and they have to make hay Sunday to make sure Garcia doesn't hurt them. Garcia isn't having a typical year with 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but he's coming off a career-best six touchdown passes in Arizona, four throwing and running.
The game highlights his versatility and how he can make throws when he is outside of the pocket, or gets in a groove in the pocket. They have to make sure he doesn't take off and run, but the first priority is to disrupt his timing. Derrick Deese hasn't allowed a sack in 30 games at left tackle, but Clemons has the athletic edge over the 6-8 Gragg at right tackle. **
GRAHAM VS. PETERSON:** Peterson once visited the Bengals in free agency a few years ago, but can you imagine anyone but Graham kicking for the Bengals? Since arriving off the waiver wire six days before the season started, Graham is 19 of 21 on field-goal tries for 90.5 percent and has an excellent chance of eclipsing Doug Pelfrey's team record of 84.8 set nine years ago.
Peterson showed up in Frisco for the Nov. 2 game after Jeff Chandler didn't satisfy their kick-off needs despite making all but one of his field-goal tries and after Owen Pochman missed five from less than 40 yards. Peterson has made all but one from inside 50.
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game against the Niners, including 154, 155, and 164. The first is the number of yards Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson needs to break Eddie Brown's club record for a season. The second is San Francisco wide receiver Terrell Owens' season-high this season against Pittsburgh. The third is how many yards Owens has in his last three games since going off against the Steelers.
Plus-11 _ The Niners' second-best turnover differential in the NFL.
Plus-2 _ The Bengals' turnover differential, which would put them positive for the first time since a plus-1 in 1997.
7,950 _ Bengals running back Corey Dillon's career rushing yards, 29th on the all-time list.
7,962 _ Former Bengals running back James Brooks' career rushing yards (more than 1,000 came with the Chargers), which is 28th on the list.
152 _ Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson's career high yardage game against Pittsburgh last season.
2 _ Trips the Niners have taken to the eastern time zone in last three weeks.
28 _ Days since last Bengals' home game.
8 _ Games the Niners haven't allowed the foe too rush for 100 yards.
5-2 – Bengals' record when they rush for at least 100 yards.
34 _ Sacks by the Niners, third best in the NFL.
6-3 – Bengals' record when they give up less than four sacks.
85-for-188 _ Bengals' fourth best conversion rate in the NFL on third down.
69-for-173 _ Niners' defense on third down, 25th in NFL.
0-6 _ Niners' road record this season.
4-2 _ Bengals' home record this season