Titans' mirror, mirror on Lewis' wall?

8-22-03, 4:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Lorenzo Neal said it the past two seasons. John Thornton is saying it now. Titans coach Jeff Fisher never made his game plans against the Bengals quantum physics.

"Jeff would tell us when we played the Bengals that we might run for one yard in the first quarter, but then they would wear down and it would be 10 yards in the fourth quarter and that's where Eddie (George) would get his 100 yards," said Thornton earlier this week as the new Bengals defensive tackle recalled his four-year stint in Tennessee.

"And (quarterback) Steve McNair would try to beat them long," Thornton said. "Because they would have somebody hurt or someone wasn't playing well in the secondary. But this is a different defense, different players, different coaches. This game is going to be a great measuring stick for us. It's a team coming off the AFC championship game."

While Thornton wonders at times why the Titans gave up on him and let him go to free agency, he also sees himself on a team beginning to take the same smash-mouth shape. The Titans are a team that has a style new Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis admires and would like his team to emulate, so they better be taking notes at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium even though this is just the third pre-season game.

A big game? Is there such a thing in preseason? Yes. It's the Bengals last chance to show the home crowd what they've got as they bid to sell out the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against Denver at PBS. While their 23-10 victory over the Lions last Saturday came against their first sub-40,000 crowd in the stadium's 31 games, it also marked their best preseason walk-up crowd since PBS's inaugural game three years ago.

Not only would they like to keep the momentum going, but they would like to do it against a team they have beaten just once in the last nine games. But a team that Lewis' defenses have beaten the last five times they have faced the Titans.

Fisher has been to two of the last four AFC title games and a Super Bowl with a mistake-free running game, a lethal defense in the Buddy Ryan tradition, and fast, outstanding play on special teams. And, a team that just a few years ago Lewis was battling for supremacy of the old AFC Central when he was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens.

Lewis may be slickly organized like Ravens head coach Brian Billick. But his playbook is more like the meat and potatoes Fisher and Steelers head coach Bill Cowher have been serving the past decade.

"It's a great challenge for us," Lewis said earlier this week. "They've got an experienced offense, and they've got a defense that's a little different than most that you play against. They play very aggressively. They have great athletes that play on their special teams. It's quite a challenge for us, and a step that we need to take."

The Bengals try to respond to the Titans' physicality that has carried Tennessee in eight of its last nine meetings, including last year's 31-24 regular-season loss in which the Titans fittingly muscled the Bengals out of the end zone on fourth-and-one with 1:08 left. Lewis now hopes his team can power it in with a re-shuffled interior offensive line trying to find its feet, and his new, hardscrabble Titans-like mentality based on toughness and conditioning.

"No question, I think that's the quickest way and the most consistent way to win,

and the way to win for the longest period of time," said Lewis of an effective running game teamed with a stingy defense. "Doing those things gives you control of the football game, and what (the Titans) did was built through the whole (former AFC Central) division. Each team got better to beat the next team, and it just kept getting stronger and stronger. Jeff gets his guys ready to play, and they go out and they play very hard, and they make football plays. And at the end of the day when they look back, if they made more plays than you, they're going to win."

Lewis gets his first crack as Bengals coach to check two guys who have tortured Bengaldom down through the years. Last season, George rang up his sixth 100-yard game against the Bengals (106) on just 21 carries. McNair jacked his career passer rating to 103 against Cincinnati last season with three touchdown passes, giving him 20 TDs compared to three interceptions in his career against the Bengals.

"You've got a seasoned, athletic guy in McNair who is going to be a test for us," said Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "His ability to both run and throw really puts pressure on a defense. If you're even just a little bit out of position because of the slightest hesitation, he's going to take advantage of it."

On the other hand, Lewis has had success stopping McNair and George the last four times he has faced them, in three victories with the Ravens and one last year with the Redskins.

The Ravens scored a touchdown each on special teams and defense to beat the Titans, 24-10, in an AFC playoff game in 2000 on the way to winning the Super Bowl. Last year, the Redskins held George to 26 yards on 10 carries, giving him 214 yards on 72 carries for less than three yards per pop his last four times against a Lewis defense. In the same four games, McNair's passer rating of 63 came on two touchdowns and four interceptions.

That 2000 season is a friendly point of contention for Thornton and Lewis. While Lewis reminds the Bengals that the Ravens' defense set a NFL record for holding foes to just 165 points, Thornton reminds him it was Tennessee that led the NFL in total defense that season while Baltimore finished second.

"It's the same type of philosophy," Thornton said. "It's like Marvin has been telling us. If they don't score, they can't win. Defense is what carried us when we were winning in Tennessee. I liked playing there. They're all about power football and you can see that Marvin is trying to do that here."

But now comes the other component. They have to be able to run the ball at key spots against physical defenses like Tennessee's. Running back Corey Dillon had 138 yards on 30 carries against them last season, but they couldn't get one last push for that 139th yard.

Mike Goff moved from right guard to center in the offseason in an effort to get younger and more athletic inside. Despite the change, the Bengals have been barely able to run the ball at three yards per pop behind the first line in their first three quarters of the preseason.

Lewis changed the practice schedule and spent Tuesday morning banging away in the running game, and the coaches saw sparks. They feel it will come around once the line gets in a rhythm, and Saturday is most likely their last chance to get a lot of time together in a game until the opener.

"They're a very physical team and it's a chance to have some hard hits with a team that's been there," said Goff, who believes the transition is smoothing out. "It's really starting to come around. I'm starting to find a groove and getting into it. Now I just need to brush up on some things I've been working on and polishing up."

He'll be able to do it without Titans sack artist Jevon Kearse in the game because of an ankle injury. Plus, fellow end Carlos Hall isn't expected to play. But Goff and Co., are going to face some formidable tackles in Albert Haynesworth and Robaire Smith. It wasn't that the Titans didn't want Thornton. They just knew they couldn't pay him the $5 million up front that Cincinnati gave him while they already had to pay Kearse and Haynesworth, two first-rounders, and a high-priced free agent in end Kevin Carter.

Now that depth tests the Bengals in a first half all the starters are expected to play.

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