9-28-03, 4 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
CLEVELAND _ The Bengals fittingly claimed their first victory under head coach Marvin Lewis here Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium with a defensive stand that blanked the Browns in the second half and fashioned a 21-14 victory.
The Bengals tried to salt the game away with one first down when they got the ball back with 2:23 left deep in their territory. But quarterback Jon Kitna's bootleg on third-and-three didn't work and the Browns got the ball on a punt at their own 31-yard line with 1:49 left.
Bengals defensive end Justin Smith saved his first sack of the season for the final series and cornerback Jeff Burris picked off a pass intended for wide receiver Kevin Johnson with 51 seconds left and Lewis got a mini Gatorade shower from linebackers Brian Simmons and Kevin Hardy.
Kitna was superb on hitting 23 of 30 passes for 215 yards, three touchdown passes and no interceptions. Third-year running back Rudi Johnson, who came into the game with 17 pro carries, subbed for Corey Dillon after he was scratched following halftime, and picked up 43 yards on his first 13 carries as the Bengals kept the ball for one five-minute span in the middle of the fourth quarter.
But a delay of game penalty on first down blew up the drive and the Browns had another shot to tie it when they got the ball on their own 32 with 4:49 left, but a Tony Williams' sack thwarted that one.
The Bengals turned to a couple of young players looking to make their first impact in the NFL claim their first lead of the season on the first series of the second half at 21-14. Rookie wide receiver Kelley Washington, a third-round pick, converted a third-and-six for 17 yards to set up a one-yard touchdown pass from Kitna to tight end Reggie Kelly six minutes into the third quarter.
The Bengals then turned to their defense to protect that precious lead and they rebounded after a shaky first half.
Kitna hooked up with the AFC's leading receiver to save an otherwise tough first half when he fired a 55-yard touchdown pass to Chad Johnson with 20 seconds left to send the Bengals and Browns into the locker rooms tied at 14 Sunday here at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
After rookie cornerback Terrell Roberts forced a Browns punt with a tackle three yards shy of a first down, Kitna got the ball with 1:05 left and moved the Bengals to his 45 with passes to tight end Tony Stewart and wide receiver Peter Warrick to set up Johnson's second touchdown of the game against a team that hadn't given up a passing touchdown all season. Kitna, who got the Bengals' first touchdown by hitting eight straight passes on the opening drive, finished the half 13 of 18 passing for 149 yards.
But the Bengals couldn't get a sustained running game going as running back Corey Dillon struggled to stay in the lineup and only played in the first half after four carries for 20 yards. Dillon made his 52nd straight start here Sunday despite missing the last two-and-a-half quarters last week in the 17-10 Steeler victory with a strained groin, but he had to leave the game in the first quarter to get the equipment for his injury adjusted, carried once after he returned, and then was ruled out for the rest of the day after halftime.
The Bengals' defense broke down early against a Cleveland offense ranked next-to-last in the league. After giving up a 71-yard touchdown pass on the second play of the game to wide receiver Quincy Morgan, they gave up a 41-yarder to a wide open Kevin Johnson across the field on a poor series of pass coverage and tackling that led to the Browns quarterback Tim Couch's four-yard touchdown pass for a 14-7 lead with 9:31 left in the second quarter.
Couch, making his first start of the season, was near perfect in the first half, hitting 10 of 13 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns.
With cornerback Jeff Burris in the locker room with a neck strain that delayed his return until the second half, Artrell Hawkins was forced into the regular lineup and Roberts was working at the third corner. Johnson got loose on third and eight from the Bengals 15 on a slant in front of Hawkins and then Hawkins missed the tackle as Johnson picked up the first down to set up the wide-open scoring pass to backup running back Jamal White working in the area of Hawkins and Roberts.
The most befuddling aspect of the first half was the six offsides penalties charged to the Bengals'; defense in the first half, capped off by a play in which tackle Tony Williams was called for "movement unnatural to the game."
Two of the penalties were called in Cleveland's second scoring drive, and four in a curious drive that yielded no points for the Browns, but cost the Bengals a fumble recovery and a forced punt. Back-to-back flags on end Duane Clemons and Hawkins turned a third-and-12 into a third-and-two from the Cincinnati 18. But they escaped when end Justin Smith knocked down a pass at the line, and kicker Phil Dawson sent a 35-yard field-goal attempt wide right.
On the game's first drive, Couch sidearmed the ball across the line of scrimmage to Morgan to set up a wide receiver screen. The defensive backs closest to the play, Burris and strong safety Rogers Beckett, let Morgan bolt through an opening, and Morgan outraced linebacker Adrian Ross and free safety Mark Roman
The Browns shook up their offensive line in an effort to revive the NFL's 27th-rated running attack that is averaging just 65 yards per game. They deactivated left guard Melvin Fowler, moved right guard Shaun O'Hara to left guard, and started Paul Zukauskas at right guard, but the Bengals did a good job holding running back William Green to 35 yards on 12 carries.