Bengals can't cash in first half

11-18-01, 2:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals couldn't generate any points after passing up field-goal tries on two trips beyond the Titans' 30-yard line in the second quarter and trailed the Titans, 10-7, at halftime before a sell-out crowd at Paul Brown Stadium.

Bengals running back Corey Dillon, who lost yardage or got nothing on the last four times he ran the ball in the half, lost a yard on fourth-and-1 from the Titans 29 with less than four minutes left. The Bengals ran a toss sweep behind right tackle Willie Anderson and fullback Lorenzo, but middle linebacker Randall Godfrey disrupted the slow developing play.

The Pro Bowl showdown between Dillon and Tennessee's Eddie George was a first half wash. Dillon had 29 yards on 12 carries and George had 31 on eight. Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna came out sharp and had two long touchdown passes dropped in the end zone by wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Darnay Scott on the first two series and finished the half 12 for 18 passing for 127 yards.

With wide receiver Peter Warrick's return questionable with a bruised right thigh, third receiver Ron Dugans responded with four catches of 44 yards that included a touchdown.

But it took the Titans just 17 seconds to swipe the home crowd intensity from the Bengals when Derrick Mason raced 101 yards with the opening kickoff as Tennessee leaped to 10-0 lead in the game's first 10 minutes.

The Bengals five-minute lead in time of possession and 34-yard lead in

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offense was negated by seven Bengals' penalties for 55 yards.

The Bengals rallied to 10-7 with 1:06 left in the first quarter Dugans stretched for a diving 10-yard touchdown catch on third-and-5.

The big play in the drive came when former Titan Lorenzo Neal caught a 12-yard pass and the Bengals got 15 more yards on Godfrey's face-mask penalty.

The Bengals could have gone up 14-10 on the next series when defensive linemen Vaughn Booker and Oliver Gibson forced quarterback Steve McNair to hurry an interception to cornerback Artrell Hawkins at the Cincinnati 30.

But on the first play, Warrick lost 14 yards on a reverse when tackle Joe Salave'a blew it up from the backside on the right side of the line. Then with Dillon getting 33 yards on his first eight carries and the Bengals driving to the Titans 15, right guard Mike Goff was called for a hold and for the second time in the game, the Bengals passed up a 49-yard field-goal attempt to punt even though Neil Rackers' last kick was a career-long 52-yarder last week in Jacksonville.

In the second quarter, the Bengals defense offered back-to-back three-and-outs, once when Pro Bowl running back George got stuffed on third-and-one and once when the Titans got the ball at midfield.

But another holding call on Goff stopped another drive.

The Bengals' kick-off team, next to last in the AFC in allowing field position, let Mason field a low kick and roar up the right sideline untouched until he shook off kicker Neil Rackers.

Titans kicker Joe Nedney saved a touchdown on the next play when he dragged down the Bengals' Curtis Keaton at midfield. Instead of attempting a 49-yard field goal, Rackers tried a quick punt that rolled into the end zone. The Titans then overcame two holding calls when quarterback Steve McNair hit his first five passes for 63 yards to get Nedney's 40-yard field goal with about five minutes left in the first quarter. Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes knocked down McNair's sixth pass to set up the field goal.

Even two hours before kickoff, Bengals rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson insisted he could play. But the Bengals, who were looking for more improvement from his broken left collarbone during practice this past week, decided to inactivate him for the fourth straight game.

With Johnson out and tight end Marco Battaglia shelved for the season after Saturday's appendectomy, the Bengals went into the game against the Titans without two of their better third-down receivers. Because Battaglia got sick in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the Bengals virtually had no chance to implement changes into their game plan.

Tight end Kirk McMullen, signed from the practice squad, makes his NFL debut, but it's unclear what he'll be asked to do on third down. He's seen as a comparable blocker to Battaglia, but isn't as accomplished a receiver.

The move could force the Bengals to use more of running back Brandon Bennett with Corey Dillon on third down, or go with more sets of four wide receivers. But that presents problems in pass protection, a key element against the Titans and their pass-rushing tandem of defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter.

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