10-21-01, 4:00 p.m. Updated:
10-21-01, 6:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bears blew away the numbers and took the Bengals with them in a 24-0 rout for Cincinnati's first loss of the season Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals, who seemed on the verge of establishing themselves as an AFC Central contender with a powerful home-field advantage, offered their worst effort of the year in waking up the hollow echoes of recent seasons.
All the signs of a blowout in the trenches were there. The NFL's third worst offense racked up 435 yards on the Bengals' defense and the Bengals' offense endured its worst rushing performance in 20 games with a paltry 35 yards in getting blanked at home for the first time since the 1998 finale.
The 4-1 Bears have won four straight and have the 3-3 Bengals talking to themselves.
"They're going to be a good team when it's all said and done," said Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "Their defense looked like the Bears' '85 defense."
So what was supposed to be a game a playoff contender has to win before a second straight home sellout crowd turned into PBS' first shutout ever before a disappointed crowd of 63,408.
"The season is a long, long experience," said Bengals defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "A learning experience. We have a lot to learn. This is just class No. 6. And we flunked."
For the third time in four games, the Bengals' run defense got lectured by a 100-yard rusher. Bears rookie running back Anthony Thomas, who had carried just 25 times all year, ripped the Bengals up the middle for the bulk of his 188 yards on 22 carries for the sixth biggest ground day ever against the Bengals.
Chicago, which came in averaging less than 80 rush yards per game, crushed the Bengals up front. Cincinnati had few answers in the passing game, too.
Bears quarterback Jim Miller, who had just three touchdown passes this season, scorched the Bengals' undermanned secondary on 23 of 30 passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns. And he lost No. 1 target Marcus Robinson in the second quarter with a serious knee injury after he caught five balls for 50 yards.
"We couldn't block them and we couldn't tackle them," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau. "This is a game of blocking and tackling."
With the Bengals' passing game unable to take advantage of the Bears hounding Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon with eight men at the line of scrimmage, he finished with 30 yards on
16 carries. It was his fewest yards in 13 games, since he got 23 yards on 16 carries against Baltimore.
"They schemed the run very well," said Bengals right guard Mike Goff. "They brought eight in the box and were very conscious of the cutbacks. If you watch Corey run, you know the cutbacks are a big part. They kept their linebackers back side and didn't allow the cutback. Their philosophy this week was if we're going to beat them, it was going to have to be in the air."
But Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna didn't respond with a big passing day even though wide receiver Peter Warrick (eight catches, 84 yards) and tight end Marco Battaglia (four for 57) had career days for catches and yards.
But Kitna, chased a good part of the day by the Bears' blitzing linebackers, could hit on just 19 of his 46 passes for 244 yards.
And one big interception.
"That's one that I'm going to be kicking myself for awhile," Kitna said.
On the first play of the second quarter, the Bengals had a first-and-goal from the Chicago 6 after Kitna converted three straight third-and-long passes to receiver Darnay Scott, Battaglia, and to running back Brandon Bennett, which came when Kitna beat a blitz.
But from the Chicago 6, Kitna lost nine yards when he slipped out of the pocket getting chased by Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. Then on the next play, Kitna had to jump to tip a high shot-gun snap to himself and when he re-loaded, he tried to hit Warrick.
Playing with a safety behind him, Bears cornerback R.W. McQuarters jumped in front of Warrick to intercept and returned it to midfield. Three plays later the Bears had the 10-0 lead three minutes into the first half when Miller hit Fred Baxter on a one-yard flip.
"It's a totally different game," said Kitna, when asked what would have happened if the Bengals scored on the drive.
"Obviously with the way things started on that play, the throw was a little bit late and (McQuarters) got a good break on it," Kitna said. "If it's 7-3 there, or 3-3 there, it's a totally different ball game. It gives your defense a little bit of life and that was a huge swing for us and I'm very disappointed in myself."
The closest thing to a Bengals' score came when kicker Neil Rackers hooked a 39-yard field goal try to the left in the first minute of the fourth quarter and the Bengals couldn't punch in a score from their 2 with 5:26 left in the game.
Miller led the Bears to their second touchdown in the middle of the third quarter in a drive highlighted by rookie receiver David Terrell's 41-yard catch.
Terrell was working on Bengals rookie cornerback Bo Jennings just four days after Jennings joined the club from the Detroit practice squad. He was signed because of the season-ending injury to Rodney Heath and pressed into his first NFL game when Robert Bean injured his hamstring in the second quarter. The injury shelved Bean for the rest of the day and he's doubtful for next Sunday's game in Detroit.
Miller finished off the drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass over the middle to wide receiver Marty Booker to make it 17-0 with 3:25 left in the third quarter.
As much as Thomas dominated on the run, the Bears exploited the Bengals' lack of depth in the secondary. Terrell had a career-best seven catches for 91 yards and Booker added six for 76. Which means their three big receivers bounced the Bengals around for 217 yards.
Thomas finished off the scoring on a 23-yard touchdown run with 9:05 left in the game on a play that underlined how thoroughly the Bears were a step ahead of the Bengals all day.
Chicago caught Simmons and right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes blitzing and when Thomas veered outside around a block on defensive end Justin Smith, there was nobody left.
The Bengals' running game took a blow when right tackle Willie Anderson went to the bench early in the second quarter with a mild concussion. He returned briefly in the second half, but couldn't finish and is questionable for Detroit. Scott is probable with bruised ribs.
The half-time score could have been 13-0, but Paul Edinger's 43-yard field goal at the gun got waved off because of an unnecessary roughness call on Bears tackle Blake Brockermeyer.
The big play came on Thomas' 46-yard run as Bears center Olin Kreutz opened up the middle for a cut-back run. Thomas had 75 yards rushing on his first three carries.
The Bears took a 3-0 lead with 4:29 left in the first quarter on Edinger's 48-yard field goal. Miller hit five of his first nine passes for 44 yards, but missed a chance to cash a touchdown when Booker fumbled trying to switch hands after a 10-yard catch and cornerback Mark Roman picked up the fumble at his own 2.
But the play ended up contributing to the game's first score when the Bengals could go nowhere, punter Nick Harris got off a 29-yard punt from his own end zone and Edinger rescued the Bears with his 48-yarder after a three-and-out.
With the Bengals preparing for the Bears' multiple receiver sets, their pass rush took a hit before Sunday's first snap.
Left end Vaughn Booker couldn't answer the bell with a nagging sprained ankle and went on the inactive list to become the second defensive line starter on the shelf.
Bernard Whittington, who started in place of tackle Tony Williams last Sunday, moved over to replace Booker. Glen Steele came off the bench to make his third NFL start in Williams' spot.
The Bengals came into Sunday's game with 13 sacks, already half of last year's total, with a strategy of rolling all their linemen through a rotation to keep them fresh.
But the Booker and Williams injuries may have had an impact on a day temperatures reached the 70s. Sunday's game was the Bengals' first this season without a sack.
They activated end Jevon Langford for the first time since the opener and dressed rookie tackle Mario Monds for the second straight week. Monds, the 330-pounder out of the University of Cincinnati, took his first NFL snap against the Bears.
Steele, a fourth-year player, came off last week's 24-14 win against Cleveland in which he got a game ball for recovering a fumble and making a stop on third-and-one.
Like Steele, Roman made his third career start and first this season in wake of last week's injury to Heath. Press box stats showed Roman had a team-high 11 tackles along with his fumble recovery, but the Bengals couldn't fend off the Bears' physical receivers once the running game got rolling.