The play's the thing

10-27-02, 10:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Even though Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander said he was standing 80 yards from the Tennessee end zone, when he saw the Titans' defensive alignment on fourth-and-one it was clear to him.

"It's a touchdown," Alexander said.

But it wasn't because as Alexander knows all too well, they don't give you touchdowns in the NFL for guessing right. You have to run the play and when the Bengals ran a power play off right tackle behind pulling left guard Matt O'Dwyer, the play blew up when O'Dwyer tripped and running back Corey Dillon tripped over O'Dwyer in the latest chapter of the Bengals' how-bad-can-it-get season.

Here Dillon had rushed the Bengals back into an honest-to-goodness fourth quarter with 138 yards on 30 carries and they couldn't get him one last yard. Not because somebody on the Titans made an ESPN play. But because the Bengals couldn't literally get out of their own way.

How bad can it get? Dillon may have very well scored anyway when he lunged to the goal line as he fell, nudging the ball into the chalk before he was touched. In fact, quarterback Jon Kitna thought any other NFL home team would have got a touchdown signal.

But the refs said no. The replay was inconclusive. But what is quite clear is that if the Bengals didn't have bad luck, they wouldn't have any at all.

"Yeah. I think I have now," said right tackle Willie Anderson when asked if he had now seen everything in his 101st Bengals' game.

O'Dwyer isn't sure why his feet disappeared from under him. Kitna thought his feet got tangled with O'Dwyer's. Some people on the field reported O'Dwyer simply slipped in the hole that Dillon said was big enough for his entire immediate family of three.

But what is clear is that the Bengals ran the play out of the same triple tight end formation with no wide receivers that produced their touchdown back on

the first drive of the game. On that play, Kitna faked a run to Dillon and hit fullback Lorenzo Neal for a one-yard touchdown pass underneath the linebackers.

This time, the Bengals chose to run wide of Anderson at right tackle and bring O'Dwyer around. Asked if he needed someone to pull, Dillon said, "I just run the plays, I don't draw up the plays. There's no question about the play." Anderson said it was "a good play," and Alexander said it was there.

"We needed a full yard, it wasn't a foot," Alexander said. "To get a full yard by running straight in is hard. It was an off tackle power play. We had good angles, they were washed down. When I saw them pinched down like that in the middle, that's why I thought it was going to go.

"Either there was penetration, or he pulled too tight to the line, or he slipped," said Alexander of O'Dwyer. "I won't know until I see the film."

The Titans expected to see Dillon. With the Bengals looking at second-and-goal from the Tennessee 10 after the two-minute warning, Titans coach Jeff Fisher said they thought the Bengals would go run-pass-run on downs 2-4. Dillon ran up the middle for six yards and then Kitna pulled the ball down on a rollout pass and got three tough yards to set up the fourth down.

"First of all, it was a heck of a run by Corey just to get to that point because Matt clipped the heel of my foot when he was pulling around and made him fall three yards behind the end zone," Kitna said. "I thought Corey was going to fall right on top of him. It looked like he was going to take his legs out. He just did a great job. It looked to me, right away, like he had the ball out over the goal line. Usually you would think the initial call would go your way. But it didn't, and I don't think — either way the call would have went — it would have gotten overturned. But that's how things are."

Things are like this. Dillon stood in front of his locker nearly an hour after the call shaking his head. He admitted he doesn't know what can happen next or what more he can do. The disgust rose from him like steam.

It was just the fifth time in his career he carried the ball at least 30 times, the second time the Bengals had lost doing it, and the first time since a 1998 home loss to Denver. It was his most carries in a year and two weeks, when he had 31 carries for 140 yards in a win over Cleveland.

How tough has this season been? The Bengals came into the year 9-0 in games Dillon rushed for at least 130 yards. Now they are 9-2 after this year's losses to the Colts and Titans.

"Had I walked into the end zone, we would have been in here happy, but we're not," Dillon said. "That's the first time we've ran that play (Sunday). Stuff happens, man. Stuff happens. It ain't nobody's fault. Stuff happens. Things happen, but I know we would have walked in. We would have walked in."

The non-call call had the Bengals muttering about how their black cloud image has them pitted against everyone, including the officials.

Kitna was with Seattle in 1998 when they lost the famous Vinny Testaverde quarterback sneak game against the Jets in New York that spawned instant replay. Replays showed Seattle had stopped Testaverde with 20 seconds left on fourth down before he got into the end zone, but the refs consulted and gave Testaverde the touchdown and the Jets a 32-31 victory.

"When things are borderline, they're going to go against us," Kitna said. "That's how it is. Until you do something to disprove that and get things to go your way, that's how it's going to be. That call right there — you're playing at home — that should have been a touchdown. The initial call should have been hands up. I was at the Vinny Testaverde game. That was before instant replay, but that wasn't even close. But they were at home, and it was momentum, and refs get caught up in the game too. They're human. So you would think that would go our way, but not when you're us."

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