BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals got a taste in Monday's meetings how committed coach Dick LeBeau is to quarterback Akili Smith.
A day after LeBeau benched Smith in favor Scott Mitchell with four minutes left in the third quarter of the 15-0 loss in Pittsburgh, LeBeau told the team even if Mitchell had led the Bengals to a win in Pittsburgh, Smith was still his man.
"Dick said in our meeting that if I had led us to a victory, it wouldn't changed how things would have been this week," Mitchell said. "All I can worry about is what I can control. Those are decisions he has to make."
Even though Smith got the hook, the Bengals were relieved he looked a lot better than he did the previous week against Tennessee.
Smith hit just 10 of 20 passes for 97 yards, but club insiders noted some dropped balls and the inability of the young receivers to adjust to come back for the ball over the middle.
"In many ways, Akili made great progress," LeBeau said. "It didn't register on the scoreboard. When you don't score, it's easy to point the finger at the trigger man. (But) it's everything The (offensive) line, the receivers, the quarterbacks, the defense they're facing that day. I saw some very good things that he executed and we have to continue to build on that."
LeBeau said he took the benching well, but Smith didn't appear in the locker room during Monday's media session.
"We just wanted to try a different chemistry," said LeBeau, who figures he has seen a quarterback pulled "about 478 times," in his 42-year NFL career. "It wasn't intended to be any more than that."
DIFFERENT LOOK: After giving up a 77-yarder on the second play of the game Sunday, the longest pass the Bengals allowed the Steelers was 14 yards. Granted, Steelers quarterback Kent Graham isn't exactly Kurt Warner, but it was a lift for a maligned secondary.
The Bengals blitzed only about three times, compared to last week against the Titans when they came nearly every play and forced the cornerbacks to play one-on-one. But the more help coverage against the Steelers seemed to cut down the mistakes.
"When you blitz you put a lot of pressure on the other team, but you're going to get burned, too," said free safety Darryl Williams.
"We played a solid game," said cornerback Tom Carter.
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, demoted to nickel corner, isn't sulking and moping. He played well from scrimmage, chipped in with three special teams tackles, and has handled the thing like a pro.
"I could look at this as the end and this is it," Hawkins said. "I'm choosing not to mope around. I'm not happy with the situation. I don't want to get accustomed to it. But I don't want to just blend in. I want to be active and contribute and try to help make it better and it will come around."
RECORD STUFF: The Bengals are on pace to score 98 points this season, which would make them the first NFL team since the 1945 Steelers and Cardinals hit less than triple digits in a 10-game season.
The numbers suggest the Bengals will have a hard time avoiding their worst season ever, which would be less than 3-13. The record for the fewest points in a 16-game season belongs to the 2-14 Seahawks, who scored 140 points in 1992. The '90 Patriots went 1-15 scoring 181, the '91 Colts went 1-15 scoring 143 points, and the '98 Eagles were 3-13 after scoring 161. The Bengals' low of 187 in 1993 translated to 3-13.
THIS AND THAT: LeBeau informed defensive tackle Tom Barndt it was unfair to give him so much playing time as he tries to recover from a bicep problem that took him out of all the preseason games. So Glen Steele got Sunday's start and Barndt only played when Steele or Oliver Gibson needed a break. Barndt hopes the rest, less practice time, and more one-on-one work with defensive line coach Tim Krumrie on functional things will aid a recovery. . .
LeBeau said rookie receiver Peter Warrick returned only one punt Sunday because he was getting so much work on offense and they didn't want to sap his energy. . .
DE Vaughn Booker (knee) is probable, as is SS Cory Hall (concussion). S/LB JoJuan Armour is doubtful with a sprained toe.