As the QBs turn

8-30-01, 10:40 p.m.

Updated: 8-30-01, 11:40 p.m.

Updated: 8-31-01, 12:30 a.m.

Updated: 8-31-01, 3:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The two trends Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau hasn't been able to stop this preseason are turnovers and poor special teams play.

Those familiar elements set up two Mike Vanderjagt field goals in the second half and turned a 17-17 game into the Colts' 23-17 victory in the pre-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium.

But the biggest loss may have come when backup quarterback Scott Mitchell severely sprained his left ankle and is lost for at least six weeks and quite possibly longer. With Akili Smith one of the two quarterbacks left and still nursing a sore throwing shoulder that has kept him out of the last dozen practices and two games, the Bengals may have to turn to Scott Covington after cutting him Monday.

Smith said he expects to be back by the Sept. 9 regular-season opener. But he was so sure he couldn't throw Thursday night that when he walked on the field in sweat pants, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski had to tell him to go back in and get dressed in case the Bengals needed him just to hand off.

"Maybe I jinxed them," Smith said.

"It felt better. I threw before the game, but I still don't have the velocity," Smith said. "No length. That's the problem. . .I'm going to come in Sunday and see if I can throw some long balls."

David Dunn, Covington's agent, said early Friday morning that some other clubs are "sniffing around," his client but that he would embrace returning to a team where he knows the offense so thoroughly.

But it all hinges on how Mitchell's injury responds before Sunday's Cutdown Day to 53 players. It's classified as a high ankle sprain, an injury that usually plagues a player all year and might stretch past six weeks. But the Bengals are waiting to check on the MRI and they know he gutted out a sprained knee last year earlier than they thought.

Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel, said there are countless scenarios. But the one he doubts is that the Bengals keep four quarterbacks and go light at another position.

"You could keep Kitna, Smith and Mitchell and just make Mitchell inactive for games," Lippincott said. "But six weeks is a long time for a player to be (on the roster but inactive)."

Or they could end Mitchell's season by putting him on injured reserve and re-signing Covington after his fairly impressive training camp.

One thing is for sure. Smith is now the backup quarterback after being left for the clipboard.

"That's what is so funny about this business, That's what I was talking about last week," said Smith of Monday, when Jon Kitna won the job, Mitchell was named the backup and Smith became No. 3.

"One play and you could be in the game," Smith said. (Quarterbacks coach) Kenny

(Anderson) told me to make sure I get extra treatments because we don't know the status of Mitchell. Be sure I can play and practice."

The Bengals had one last shot when Mitchell drove the Bengals to a fourth-and-five at the Colts 39 with 1:50 left. But he got sacked by end David Warren and badly twisted the ankle.

After watching his team outgain opponents by 323 yards in the first three pre-season games, LeBeau saw the Bengals roll up nearly 200 more than Colts Thursday (442-260) and still drop to 1-3. How? They finished the summer minus-five in turnover differential.

"I think certain players haven't been in that situation enough to learn how to finish games and not waste all of our good plays," said LeBeau, when asked if his team relaxed after bolting to a 14-0 lead in the game's first seven minutes.

"We are not close enough or we would have won these close games," LeBeau said. "Going into this game we have averaged outgaining our opponents by 100 yards a game and we outgained them by 200 yards tonight. When you run 25 (times and) 130 yards more a game, you are supposed to be winning. . .Again, I think it was the turnover situation that let them back into the game."

Receiver Peter Warrick, making his second punt return of the game and preseason, fumbled at his own 30 late in third quarter and the Bengals' third turnover turned into Vanderjagt's 30-yard field goal that gave the Colts a 20-17 lead with 59 seconds left in the third quarter.

The special teams' horrors continued early in the fourth when Neil Rackers had his 47-yard field goal try blocked, giving the Colts the ball at their 49.

The crusher came with about five minutes left in the game when Bengals punter Nick Harris, just picked off waivers Wednesday, may have sealed his fate when he dribbled a wobbler 31 yards and then saw Drew Haddad return it 29 yards. That set up Vanderjagt's 53-yard field goal with 4:20 left for the Colts' 23-17 lead.

The Bengals tied the game earlier in the third quarter on Rackers' 42-yard field goal that was set up by Mitchell's 32-yard pass to wide receiver Danny Farmer.

The first half that started so promising for Kitna, in his first appearance since winning the Bengals quarterbacks derby ended in boos on the last play of the half.

His Hail Mary pass on the half's last play didn't have a prayer when it went nowhere near a receiver or defender as the Bengals left the field trailing, 17-14.

Kitna led the Bengals to touchdowns on the first two possessions and strong safety Chris Carter stopped the Colts on his goal line with an interception as the Bengals broke to a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.

But Kitna's interception on the right sideline on a third-down pass intended for rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson at the Bengals 17 led to 23 straight points.

"I think the guy made a good play, but we have to watch the film," Kitna said of cornerback David Macklin. "It was a blitz and you don't have time. . .you've got to get rid of it."

On their first play after the interception, the Colts sent running back Dominic Rhodes around left end for a touchdown to make it 14-7 with 4:37 left in the first quarter.

To make matters worse for a struggling run defense, tackle Tony Williams left the game for X-Rays on his sprained shoulder. It was just a bruise and he said he'll be back for the opener.

But Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon looked in October form.

As in Oct. 22, 2000, when he broke Walter Payton's single-game rushing record.

Dillon took the second snap of the game, bolted between center Rich Braham and right guard Mike Goff as right tackle Willie Anderson sealed the end, and went 87 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead.

Dillon broke linebacker Marcus Washington's tackle, cut back against rookie free safety Idrees Bashir, and outran strong safety Cory Bird for about the last 60 yards.

The Bengals threw for 215 yards, their second highest of the preseason. But Kitna (10-16, 117 yards) knows the passing game has to become more efficient to take advantage of a running game that had at least 176 yards (227 against the Colts) during the preseason.

" If we hurt the eight-man front in the passing game, how do you stop (Dillon)?," Kitna asked. "So we have to make them pay. We're going to be a running team first. That's going to be our identity. Our identity is going to be pound the ball and give Corey the ball. He's going to get 30 carries a game. That's going to minimize the number of times we throw the ball and so in that, we have to take advantage of the few times we throw the ball — be sharp — and make teams pay."

Dillon, who also had a five-yard carry, was done for the night and left the rest of the first quarter for Brandon Bennett and Curtis Keaton. Kitna figured as much and when he saw Dillon on the bench, he said, "Protect the investment."

Bennett scored the second touchdown on an eight-yard run behind fullback Lorenzo Neal's blocks on both safeties. Kitna looked impressive in hitting four of five passes for 47 yards, including a 25-yarder to Warrick.

That play came off play-action as Bennett and Keaton pounded for 33 yards in a running game that rolled up 147 yards in the first half.

One of the reasons Kitna got the nod over Mitchell was because of his mobility. He flashed it on a first-down play from Bengals 44, when he juked left and right to avoid defensive end Chuck Nwokorie and hit tight end Marco Battaglia over the middle for 11 yards.

But after that second drive, Kitna went 6-for-11 for 70 yards. Warrick helped him with three catches for 56 yards in the first half.

Indianapolis made the short trip and they might as well have not bussed in the Colts' Big Three.

Quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison were expected not to take a snap against the Bengals. Not only that, the Colts decided not to start Chad Bratzke at defensive end, Jeff Burris at left cornerback, and Chad Cota at free safety.

But the Bengals couldn't overcome the turnovers. When fullback Clif Groce fumbled in the second quarter, it spoiled Kitna's 19-yard throw to Warrick and set up the Colts' points that put Indy ahead for good on quarterback Mark Rypien's 21-yard touchdown pass to Trevor Insley that made it 17-14 with 4:31 left in the first half.

Rypien burned a Bengals' blitz of Carter and linebacker Takeo Spikes in beating cornerback Artrell Hawkins on the play.

The Bengals also gave up an exasperating 17-play drive for Vanderjagt's 23-yard field goal in which the Colts converted a third-and-9 and third-and-10, one of those on a Rhodes' run.

The Bengals couldn't stop Rhodes in the first half as he went 79 yards on 14 carries.

The Bengals' new punting race got off to an interesting start.

Incumbent Daniel Pope got off two for a 43-yard average. One was a short 42-yarder that ended up in Terrence Wilkins' 21-yard return. That could have turned into a late field-goal try at the end of the half, but linebacker Adrian Ross tipped an interception to himself.

Harris, picked up on waivers Thursday from Denver, got one punt in the first half and sent it 49 yards inside the 10-yard-line. Then he put one at the Colts' 6 early in the second half.

Replacement officials worked the game, headed by a crew that had Jim Daopoulos as the umpire. Daopoulos, now a supervisor, worked the Super Bowl as an umpire in Atlanta in January of 1999.

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