Top this rush

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Is the most amazing stat of the season that the Bengals are 3-10 with the NFL's top-ranked rush offense?

Or that the Bengals have the top-ranked rush offense with the lowest-ranked pass offense?

Take your pick. But the Bengals lead the second-place Denver Broncos, 157.4 to 151.4 in rushing yards per game. And Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander thinks it shows the club is plowing in the right direction.

"The hardest thing to do in football is to run the football," Alexander said. "Many people have said maybe we're a little closer than we think, and maybe this is an example of that. It's the hardest thing to do and we're good at it."

Alexander says rushing the ball is the hardest thing in the game because it takes 11 people to execute on the same play, as well as a running back, linemen and scheme fitting together. There are angles, footwork, and tedious repetition.

When Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon emerged in his rookie year four seasons ago, Alexander remembered how the Bengals changed their scheme to fit Dillon's style based on power and vision.

They went to more straight-ahead runs behind big tackles, instead of using a heavy diet of counters and misdirection, and Dillon is now 80 yards from the AFC rushing crown and the club's first individual rushing title since Paul Robinson led the AFL in 1968.

It's a measure of redemption for Alexander, whose preference for big guys was belittled earlier this year when the running game struggled and the whispers said his linemen were fat and out of shape.

The Bengals' problems with speed pass rushers and adjusting during a game are still issues, but look who's No. 1.

"We don't have fat guys. We don't have sloppy guys," Alexander said. "You can speculate on different things on why we didn't play well early, and probably they're all accurate.

"All I know is we played our best game last week, and the game before that was our best game (209 rushing yards vs. the Steelers)," Alexander said, "so I hope our best game of the year is the last one."

Here is the speculation on the line's slow start:

_Alexander says 340-pound left tackle Rod Jones has come on in recent weeks and has regained some of his quickness lost in arthroscopic knee surgery during the offseason.

"We've got big tackles that can run block," said Alexander, who is pushing 340-pound right tackle Willie Anderson for the Pro Bowl.

_Since center Rich Braham returned from a seven-game absence because of knee problems, the Bengals have averaged 194 yards on the ground in the last four games.

_It's right guard Mike Goff's first year as a starter and he's had to adjust to the role as well as injuries to Braham and the season-ending broken leg to left guard Matt O'Dwyer two weeks ago.

But Scott Rehberg has played well in place of O'Dwyer with the Bengals rushing for more than 200 yards in each of the last two games.

The 330-pound Rehberg is another big guy who wasn't supposed to be quick enough after stints with two other teams. But Alexander said, "Who ever didn't think he could play doesn't know anything about football."

QUARTERBACK QUAGMIRE, PART XXXXXIII: Sunday's game in Tennessee could be a showcase highlighting the Bengals' problems in finding a quarterback for the past decade.

Titans quarterback Steve McNair is limping with a sprained left knee and sprained left ankle. The ankle bothers him the most, so it's shaping up to be a game-time decision.

In the wings is backup Neil O'Donnell and not many with the Bengals can figure out why he couldn't throw the ball down the field (he averaged 10 yards per completion) or win with the 1998 Bengals in a year he went 2-9 as the starter and then went to Nashville and lit it up.

Since leaving after that season, he's 5-1 as a starter in Tennessee and threw for 237 yards in his only start of this season, a 23-20 win in Pittsburgh.

Three starting Bengals quarterbacks Jeff Blake, Akili Smith, and Scott Mitchell have thrown for more than 237 yards just once in the past 16 games.

Mitchell had 236 in New England two weeks ago and gets the call in his bid next season to become the fourth different Opening Day starter in four years. It's been O'Donnell in '98, Blake in '99, and Smith in '00.

THIS AND THAT: Left defensive end Vaughn Booker is tentatively scheduled for arthroscopic knee surgery Wednesday, ending his season and moving Jevon Langford into the starting lineup at right end.

Michael Bankston will move from right end to take Booker's spot on the left. Langford, a fifth-year player, has 11 career starts but none this season.

Booker, who has a cyst in the back of his knee, is expected to be shelved for six to eight weeks. . . .

Secondary coach Ray Horton has some new players to work with in practice Wednesday. Sirr Parker, the quick running back/receiver out of Texas A&M, has been activated off the practice squad and will get some live looks at cornerback.

Free safety Gary Thompkins, a rookie free agent out of West Virginia cut during training camp, has re-surfaced on the practice squad after not getting picked up.

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