BY GEOFF HOBSON
ATLANTA _ Pro Bowl running back Jamal Anderson made his return from reconstructive knee surgery tonight here in the Georgia Dome, but he found the comeback trail littered with the Bengals in the first quarter of their preseason game that ended in a 3-3 tie.
The Bengals went on to take a 6-3 lead with 6:05 left in the first half when Doug Pelfrey kicked a 20-yard field goal to cap a 17-play drive that consumed eight minutes and highlighted again the Bengals' problems in the red zone. Then the Falcons took a 10-6 lead into halftime when a bad night in the Bengals'secondary got worse. Wide receiver Brian Finneran took advantage of blown coverage for a 38-yard touchdown catch with 2:19 left.
But Anderson had no yards on five carries and had three catches for just 15 yards in the first quarter. And his good friend, Bengals outside linebacker Takeo Spikes, made a nice open-field tackle to prevent a first down after Anderson caught a dump pass over the middle. That set up Morten Andersen's 34-yard field goal that tied the game, 3-3, with about five minutes left in the first quarter.
The Bengals took a 3-0 lead in the game's first four minutes when rookie Neil Rackers body englished home a 47-yard field goal after it hit the right upright. The first play of the game was the best of the quarter for the Bengals when quarterback Akili Smith hit rookie receiver Peter Warrick on a 31-yard pass after Warrick deked cornerback Ray Buchanan with an outside-to-inside move.
But Smith, under pressure at times, wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in Buffalo last week. After that completion, he missed on his last seven passes of the quarter.
The Bengals came into this preseason hoping their defense turned over a new leaf by generatating turnovers, a rarity last season. Free safety Darryl Williams, signed during the offseason to do just that with his 29 career interceptions, stopped the Falcons' first drive at the Cincinnati 17 with an acrobatic interception of quarterback Cris Chandler.
Williams batted a pass over the middle into the air and then tracked it down for the Bengals' first interception of the season, equalling the number they had all last preseason.
But it wasn't a good opening quarter for the Cincinnati secondary. Before the interception, Chandler had plenty of time to find wide receiver Tim Dwight third-and-long completions of 13 and 21 yards into a soft zone. Then on the next series to set up Andersen's field goal, wide receiver Shawn Jefferson stopped in front of right cornerback Artrell Hawkins for a 22-yard gain.