Bengals can't find a way

Updated: 12-16-07, 12:45 a.m.

SAN FRANCISCO - The Bengals rarely had the ball Saturday night and when they did they couldn't get it into the end zone, leading to a 20-13 defeat to the 49ers at Monster Park.

On fourth-and-three from the San Francisco 24 and trailing, 20-13, with 2:20 left, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer went for it all as he took a shot at wide receiver Chad Johnson racing past cornerback Nate Clements and head coach Marvin Lewis lost the challenge when the officials ruled Johnson didn't have possession when he fell out of bounds after getting both feet in.

"I thought I held on to it. I had control but I hit the ground," Johnson said.

Asked why the Bengals went for the deep ball instead of going to the sticks for the first down, Palmer said, "We were down by seven points. We needed a touchdown to even it up. There were only two minutes left. That's what we wanted to do."

Then salt entered into the wounds when running back Frank Gore broke a 10-yard run on the last play on third-and-nine on the snap before the two-minute warning and the Bengals having no timeouts left.

Deciding to take the punt team off the field with 3:30 left and looking at a fourth-and-five from the 49ers 49-yard line, the Bengals went to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and he made a huge 18-yard catch for his franchise-record 101st catch of the season.

But the Bengals couldn't put to ball into the end zone to tie the game. On first down Palmer overthrew wide receiver Chris Henry in the left corner of the end zone. Johnson hauled in a seven-yard pass on second down to set up a third-and-three. Then Palmer and Johnson couldn't connect on a short out pattern to set up the fateful fourth down play in which Johnson couldn't hold on to Palmer's pass in the end zone.

The Bengals still could have gotten the ball back if the defense could hold the Niners. Gore rushed twice for six yards, setting up a third-and-four with 2:05 remaining. A delay of game penalty against San Francisco made it a third-and-nine, but Gore's 10-yard run sealed the win for the Niners.

The loss drops the Bengals to 5-9 and guarantees the first losing season under Lewis.

"We didn't run it enough or effectively enough offensively. And we didn't tackle well enough on defense," Lewis said.

Niners control the clock

After Palmer gave the Bengals a 10-7 lead late in the second quarter on his longest touchdown pass of the season, a 52-yarder to Henry, he didn't get the ball again until 8:07 left in the third quarter and trailing the 49ers, 17-10.

And that possession blew up on three plays with Palmer and Johnson failing to get timed up on a third-and-one pass over the middle.

Asked about the team's offensive woes that have been prevalent for the most of the season, Palmer said, "You have to be disciplined and you have to execute, and we're not disciplined and we're not executing."

By the time Palmer got it back again, it was 20-10 and there were just 49 seconds left in the third quarter dominated by the Niners' field-goal drives of 6:45 and 6:09.

For the game San Francisco had the ball for 35 minutes and 59 seconds, including five drives of at least 6:15. Conversely, the Bengals had only eight possessions all evening.

Joe Nedney's field goals from 29 and 38 yards gave the Niners the 10-point lead heading into the third quarter in a discouraging stretch for a Bengals defense that turned a San Francisco offense ranked last in the NFL in seven major categories into a juggernaut.

In his first NFL start, Niners quarterback Shaun Hill looked like a combo of Frisco greats Joe Montana and Steve Young, and then Frank Gore took over the third quarter in becoming the first running back to gouge the Bengals for 100 yards since the Bills' Marshawn Lynch back on Nov. 4. Gore finished with 138 yards on 29 carries.

"We weren't good on first down tonight; that was the difference," Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton said of a Cincinnati defense that allowed 156 yards rushing after holding opponents to an average of 76 per game over the last five. "It's like in baseball where you want to get them early in the count, and we didn't do it. When you have a young quarterback like that, that's to their advantage."

After holding Gore to 36 yards on 11 carries, the Bengals defense let him rip off 86 yards on 12 carries in the third quarter with the Cincinnati defense getting pushed back four and five yards off the line.

Houshmandzadeh tied the team record with his 100th catch of the season late in the third quarter. "When you guys started asking me about it, I knew I was going to get it," he said of the record. Asked if it meant anything to him, he said "No, we lost."

Niners close first half with score

The Bengals gave up another brutal touchdown at the end of the first half in falling behind, 14-10, when Hill had time for only one shot into the end zone and he hit tight end Vernon Davis racing past middle linebacker Landon Johnson down the middle and turning in front of strong safety Dexter Jackson for a 17-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left.

"We were in a defense that they had the right call on," Jackson said of the score. "It's a game of chess and they made the right move there. We could have played it better but they made the throw, they made the catch, and it was a touchdown."

Hill drove the 49ers down the field like Joe Montana in the final 4:30 of the half, picking on rookie cornerback Leon Hall for back-to-back plays of 19 and 13 yards, the 19-yarder coming when Hall had his back turned on a third-and-two comeback route.

Hill, who had Joe Cool-like numbers at the half with 14-for-18 for 149 yards and a passer rating of 119, finished off the game's first scoring drive like Steve Young with a three-yard bootleg to give his club a 7-0 lead two minutes into the second quarter.

"They did a good job of protecting the quarterback with quick throws," Jackson said. "Every time we stopped them the quarterback made some big plays on third down. He kept drives alive. When we play man-to-man and the quarterback is scrambling, it's tough when you've got your back turned."

Palmer spiced Saturday night's prime-time slot with the 100th touchdown pass of his career and the longest of the 2007 season when he hit Henry on a 52-yard post pattern to give the Bengals a 10-7 lead with 4:38 left in the first half.

Palmer became the fifth-fastest man in history to reach 100 scoring passes in his 59th game, and he snapped the longest drought of his career without a touchdown pass at nine quarters.

Hill, who completed six of seven passes to four different receivers under a zone in the first scoring drive, capped off a 76-yard march by pulling a play-action fake left and ran a bootleg untouched to the right corner of the end zone. The lone incompletion of the drive could have been intercepted by cornerback Johnathan Joseph, but linebacker Corey Mays was there, too, and broke it up inadverdently.

The Bengals responded with Shayne Graham's 24-yard field goal with 8:27 left in the first half that cut the lead to 7-3, but the Bengals red zone miseries continued.

The Bengals have now scored just two touchdowns in their last 10 trips to the red zone spanning three games.

"We have to look at what we're doing," Lewis said of the red zone woes. "We have to work on the things we do rather than reinventing it down there. We have to run the football down there. I don't think we took the opportunity to do it."

With his first catch of the game, a vintage 13-yarder over the middle that put the Bengals in the red zone, Houshmandzadeh became the fifth Bengal to reach 400 career catches. A 25-yard pass to backup tight end Dan Coats also highlighted the drive, but when Palmer tried to muscle in an eight-yard touchdown pass to Houshmandzadeh on a third-and-goal in a spread formation, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain knocked the ball down in a crowd at the goal line.

Bengals offense struggles again

The Bengals went deep early and often. Their bid for a big play on their first series of the game fell short on third-and-seven from just inside the 50 when Henry was working one-on-one with cornerback Walt Harris at the San Francisco 10 but Palmer was short enough with it for Harris to knock the ball away.

The Bengals converted their first third-and-long when Johnson caught an eight-yard comeback on cornerback Nate Clements. But it was his only catch of the first half. He beat Clements deep right after that, but the ball was outside and Johnson looked inside, although the ball was overthrown and uncatchable.

Palmer had a 122.6 passer rating on 9-of-14 for 145 yards, but the Bengals didn't have a run longer than nine in the half and finished with just three yards per carry on 14 for 42 with Rudi Johnson and Kenny Watson getting five carries each for 30 yards.

The Bengals defense caught a huge break on its first series when 49ers tight end Delanie Walker was called for a motion penalty before he popped a 21-yard gain on third-and-four, forcing a punt.

Palmer took another shot deep to Henry on the first down of the second series. It looked like Henry had a step on safety Michael Lewis in a one-on-one matchup, but he didn't come back on it and find a ball that fell incomplete at the San Francisco 20.

Then on third down linebacker Tully Banta-Cain came flying up the middle to force Palmer out of the pocket and a scramble that forced a punt.

Looking ahead to next Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium against the rival Cleveland Browns, Palmer said, "We've got a chance to hopefully knock our rivalry team out of the playoffs and make things difficult for them. Our fans will be fired up, their fans will be fired up."

PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals' continuity at linebacker over the past fives games took a shot Saturday night before the game against the 49ers when Corey Mays made his first NFL start in place of Rashad Jeanty at strong-side linebacker.

Jeanty, playing with a rod in the leg he broke in the preseason, missed two practices this week before he worked full go in practice Friday and was probable.

With Niners quarterback Shaun Hill making his first NFL start, the loss of Jeanty is a huge concern as the Bengals grappled with running back Frank Gore. Jeanty's strength is in the run game, plus the Bengals may have taken a hit on special teams, where Mays has been solid in the last seven games in piling up the second-most teams tackles (12 as well as a forced fumble) despite playing only eight games since being picked up on waivers from the Patriots Oct. 2.

Five games ago, Jeanty returned to the starting lineup, Landon Johnson moved from the weak side to middle linebacker and Dhani Jones moved from strong to weak and the rushing numbers have dropped from 144 yards per game to 73.

The Frostee Rucker mystery continued with the second-year defensive end inactive for the fifth straight game. Also inactive for the Bengals are wide receiver Marcus Maxwell, cornerback David Jones, center Dan Santucci, tight end Nate Lawrie, and injured right tackle Willie Anderson.

Hill has a broken index finger on his throwing hand, but he got the nod because Trent Dilfer was inactive with a concussion. In the wings is 35-year-old Chris Weinke, only signed earlier in the week.

One indicator how the Bengals defense is going to play Saturday is tackle John Thornton's number of snaps. With the coaches using different combinations in an effort to generate an inside pass rush, Thornton is now being used primarily on running downs rather than all three.

He figures he's down to 20 snaps the last couple of games.

"That means we're playing well. That means we haven't been on the field," Thornton said this week. "That means we're stopping the run on first down."

With the Bengals stingy on the ground the last five weeks, guys like defensive ends Bryan Robinson and Jonathan Fanene have moved to tackle on passing downs, as well as tackles Domata Peko and Michael Myers rotating while Thornton comes off the field.

How this plays into next year, the last of Thornton's deal that is pay him $3.5 million, remains to be seen. There's no question he's playing well and that he'd like to get as many snaps as he can get.

"I do what they ask me to do," Thornton said. "Obviously everybody thinks they are different than what they are. I enjoy playing with the guys. I think it's good we all have different roles. It gives everyone something to work for."

For their first game in San Francisco since 1996 and their first appearance on the NFL Network since last year's 13-7 victory over the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals wore their white jerseys and black pants for a combo that has a 7-6 record.

Head coach Marvin Lewis tapped the offense to be introduced as a unit before the game and he sent out wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and defensive end Robert Geathers as game captains to join Thornton, Jones and a clean-shaven Carson Palmer.

The Bengals won the toss and took the ball with Mays appearing on the receiving team.

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