Let's face it, all's not well with Bengals


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - Think of this as a refresher course in reality. Bruce Coslet has revived the Cincinnati Bengals, but he has yet to refine them.

There has been progress made, but the notion of a metamorphosis was a myth. After three weeks of rapture, Coslet's Bengals were reminded Sunday that they remain afflicted by some flaws that did not disappear with Dave Shula. The Buffalo Bills exposed these flaws, exploited them and coasted to a 31-17 victory that rendered the Bengals' remote playoff hopes all but mathematically moot.

''It was going to take almost a perfect game to beat them,'' Coslet said. ''And we were going to try. But let's get realistic - especially with our young linemen playing right into the strength of their team.''

The Bengals could not compete with Buffalo Sunday because they could not contend with their pass rush. Bruce Smith and Friends recorded seven quarterback sacks against Cincinnati's callow line, knocked down two passes at the line of scrimmage, and hurried quarterbacks Jeff Blake and Erik Wilhelm into three interceptions.

Overwhelmed

''I thought we were over the hump there for a while,'' said Paul Alexander, the Bengals offensive line coach. ''I thought we were starting to make progress. But today, they were too much for us. We tried every protection there was and nothing seemed to work. They overwhelmed us.''

Blake did not help matters much. The storybook quarterback continues to demonstrate erratic judgment and an imprecise arm, throwing too often into thick coverage or behind his intended target. He completed only eight of 22 passes for 95 yards, his lowest output in 36 career starts.

Clearly, Blake deserves the chance to be judged behind better blocking, when he can afford to act on sound decisions instead of desperate impulses. Yet it is an open question whether he will still be in one piece when the Bengals' line is sufficiently seasoned to supply him that time.

When Wilhlem replaced Blake in the fourth quarter Sunday, Coslet considered it a tactical retreat.

''It was a protection thing,'' Coslet said. ''I didn't want to get him killed.''

Even if Blake continues to escape serious injury, he risks severe shell shock. The growing pains of his linemen have been excruciating.

Adjustments failed

''As soon as we changed and try to help on a different guy, another guy got beat,'' Alexander said. ''Early in the game, we were concentrating so much on Bruce Smith, that the other side of the line was not holding up. Then we tried to balance things a little more and Bruce Smith starts making plays. They were overwhelming.''

This was not entirely a matter of experience. Anthony Munoz, at the peak of his powers, had much the same problems with Bruce Smith that rookie Willie Anderson experienced Sunday. Still, seven sacks is a lot to overcome.

This game's story was summarized by the Bengals' opening series. Anderson, matched against Smith on Blake's blindside, made a false start on the first scrimmage play. Then, Blake was called for intentional grounding under pressure from linebacker Chris Spielman. On third down, Smith hurried Blake into an incompletion while the Bengals had 12 men on the field.

''When you're successful that early, it gets 'em thinking,'' Spielman said. ''When you get a team thinking, 'Are they coming? Are they not coming?' you're going to have success.''

Panic was the order of the day. By the middle of the first quarter, the Bengals had tried a fake punt and a reverse in a high-risk effort to generate some offense. Later, Blake tried a lateral pass to Ki-Jana Carter that proved lethal when the Bills' David White picked up Carter's fumble and returned it for a touchdown.

''I think their mistake was they were going out and letting us dictate the game to them as opposed to going out and doing what they do best,'' Smith said. ''They got out of their game plan early. You can't do that. You have to stick with what you do best.''

What they do worst, they must learn to do better. That would be blocking.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 18, 1996.