To chagrin, these tigers can't change their stripes

September 23, 2001|By Mike Preston

CINCINNATTI - The Ravens play those Same Old Bengals today.

No matter how you dress them up, until they start winning consistently, they're still the worst NFL team of the 1990s, with the worst front office and one of the league's worst secondaries.

So as the Ravens prepare to meet the Bengals today in game No. 2 at Paul Brown Stadium, I will part from my usual advice to Ravens coach Brian Billick of running the football, and suggest he unleash quarterback Elvis Grbac.

Billick should abandon his standard conservative offensive approach on the road and go with three wide-outs early. Take multiple shots at Bengals cornerbacks Rodney Heath and Artrell Hawkins. Score early, shatter their confidence and remind them of who they are:

Same Old Bengals.

The Ravens had a similar identity crisis in Baltimore when they first moved here, but that has changed now. Early season talk around the league has this being a different Bengals team, too. They added fullback Lorenzo Neal. Middle linebacker Brian Simmons is healthy again. They have a new quarterback in Jon Kitna.

They won their opener by beating the New England Patriots, 23-17.

Whoop-eee!

I'm still not convinced. Neither are the Same Old Bengals' fans, who didn't sell out today's game for the eighth time in the past 10 games here. And neither are the Ravens.

"Everything has been happy for them. They're playing like they want to get something accomplished," said Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe. "Now, it's early in the season, but this is a different team on film. But we'll see how they play Sunday. I'm anxious to see that, too."

The Ravens have owned the Bengals the past two times they've played. In their past 15 full possessions, the Ravens have scored four touchdowns and made three field goals. In both games, the Ravens delivered major body blows early. Last November, they got a field goal and three touchdowns on their first five possessions on the way to a 27-7 victory.

Nearly a month earlier, the Ravens scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their first five drives in a 37-0 blowout. In both games, the Bengals folded as easily as aluminum foil.

Last September, they actually quit. Honestly. During the game, then-Bengals coach Bruce Coslet told star running back Corey Dillon to go back into the game, and Dillon told him no. A day later, Coslet pulled a Roberto Duran, too.

He quit.

And since then, the Bengals are supposed to be a new team?

"We've caught them at a couple of unique times," Billick said. "The first game, they had some things going on. Bruce was at wits end, and he and Dillon had some problems. They got it going after that, but in the second game we were in a tough spot. We had lost a couple of games, had not scored and it didn't quite go their way. You could see there was a sense of, `Oh my gosh, here we go again.' They're going to have to fight back through that again."

Football is in good part a mental game, and the Ravens have a huge mental advantage. Not only have they outscored the Bengals, 64-7, in the past two games, but Cincinnati also has to overcome the stigma of being Cincinnati.

The Bengals had a 52-108 record in the 1990s. In that time, they went through three coaches in Sam Wyche, David Shula and Coslet. They have blown numerous first-round draft picks on players such as Houston quarterback Dave Klingler and Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter.

The team's owner won't fire the general manager because the owner, Mike Brown, is the general manager.

Free agents?

Forget about it. They would rather play in Cleveland. The Bengals were in the Elvis Grbac sweepstakes during the off-season, and he chose Baltimore.

Wouldn't you?

That left the Bengals with Kitna, who is just as immobile as No. 2 quarterback Scott Mitchell. Neal is a solid blocker, and Cincinnati added some strength to its offensive line with the addition of left tackle Richmond Webb during the offseason, but the Ravens still have perhaps the best front seven in the game.

The Bengals have two good athletes at defensive tackle in Tony Williams and Oliver Gibson, and Simmons and Takeo Spikes are very active linebackers. But Heath and Hawkins are the Achilles' heel of this team.

"We've got to try to run the football," Sharpe said. "Down the road, we just can't have Elvis back up and throw the ball 40 times. We're asking for trouble. As good as our defense is, if we start leaving them on the field 35 to 40 minutes a game, we're in trouble."

And then Sharpe smiled.

"But don't be surprised if Elvis gets back there and starts chucking," he said.

Go after these guys. Score on them early, and shut the mouths of Bengals players who have been talking quite a bit the past week.

Imagine that. The Ravens won a Super Bowl last year and are considered trash talkers. The Bengals won four games total.

So what does that make them?

Until further notice, the Same Old Bengals who have stepped on the field for the past 12 years.

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