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.
"To me, it's more important for our football team," said Lewis, who had done everything in his massive overhaul of the organization but win a regular-season game. "They've bought into everything we've been doing. They've been thankful, they've been appreciative. They're starting to understand what kind of football team we can be. How good we can be, I don't know. But let's not let anybody set any limits. Let's just everyone keep working their tails off."
Besides marking the first NFL victory for Lewis against the team and in the city where Bengals founder Paul Brown began his career, the victory meant:
It was the first time since 1998 in which running back Corey Dillon wasn't their leading rusher in a victory. Dillon, who tried to go on his injured groin, left after four first-half carries for 20 yards and said he doesn't expect to go next week. Third-year running back Rudi Johnson, who came into the game with 17 career NFL carries, finished with 51 yards on 15 carries, and did a good job helping the Bengals control the clock in the fourth quarter. They kept the ball for 5:22 on one scoreless drive in which Johnson carried six times for 26 yards.
There were all sorts of sub-plots networking through this one. There was the Lewis drama, the Dillon medical condition, the coming out of Johnson and rookie wide receiver Kelley Washington, and the season debut of Browns quarterback Tim Couch.
And, there was the trip to the emergency room early Saturday morning of Bengals cornerback Jeff Burris. Burris survived a hairy car accident on Interstate 74 near Indianapolis when he nodded off driving and ended up putting the Browns to bed with an interception on what amounted to the game's final play at the Bengals 28 in the final minute.
The Bengals tried to salt it away with one first down when they got the ball back with 2:23 left on their own 21. 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 Burris picked off Couch's 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.
"I feel good for everybody. At some point you start wondering when you're going to get it, but the guys were great today," Lewis said. "This was a good game for our team. It's a good one to build on."
Kitna was superb on hitting 23 of 31 passes for 215 yards, with three touchdown passes and no interceptions. His passer rating of 125.1 outpointed Couch's 94.7 as Kitna outrated the opposing quarterback for the fourth straight week. Couch was 23 of 36 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. But he couldn't stay away from the mistake that Kitna avoided.
"It's big to be 1-1," Kitna said of the division. "And winning one on the road is like winning two."
Kitna ended up giving Lewis a game ball in the locker room after the game. But right tackle Willie Anderson had already beaten him to the punch.
"Now I've got two," Lewis said. "We'll have to do something about that."
A delay of game penalty on first down blew up the Bengals' 5:22 drive midway through the fourth quarter and the Browns had another shot to tie it when they got the ball on their own 32 with 4:32 left, but a sack by defensive tackle Tony Williams thwarted that one as the defense ended the game by holding the Browns scoreless on their last seven series.
The Bengals turned to a couple of young players looking to make their first impact in the NFL to claim their first lead of the season on the first series of the second half at 21-14. Washington, a third-round pick, converted a third-and-six for 17 yards and a third-and-10 for 11 yards to set up a one-yard touchdown pass from Kitna to tight end Reggie Kelly six minutes into the third quarter to break the 14-14 half-time tie.
Kitna, who got the Bengals to the Browns 1 when cornerback Daylon McCutcheon interfered with wide receiver Peter Warrick on a 37-yard bomb into the end zone, called Washington's catches two of the biggest plays of the game.
The Bengals then turned to their defense to protect that precious lead and they rebounded after a shaky first half.
"When we got that lead," said linebacker Brian Simmons, "we said we were going to take it back on the bus."
The Bengals grounded the Browns on 124 yards in the second half after allowing 215 in the first, with a bevy of weak-side blitzes that got Couch out of his comfort zone behind an offensive line in transition.
But the game's biggest play clearly came when 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. Lewis said it gave his team the confidence it needed the rest of the way.
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 (15 yards) and Warrick (nine) to set up Johnson's second touchdown of the game against a team that hadn't given up a passing touchdown all season as Johnson zipped by strong safety Robert Griffith on a post.
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. Lewis said he talked to offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski after starting that last drive in the first half from the Bengals 20 with a run, and both concluded, "Let's go for it. We've got nothing in the world to lose," and it turned out to be the longest play of the season.
"They were in a zone," said Chad Johnson, who finished with 67 yards on three catches. "And I just ran by the last guy."
But the Bengals couldn't get a sustained running game going in the first half. Dillon made his 52nd straight start despite missing the last two-and-a-half quarters last week in the 17-10 Steeler victory with the 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.
He indicated he's hoping to rest it for three weeks, because the Bengals have a bye after they play in Buffalo next week before coming home to play Baltimore Oct. 19.
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 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.
The beleaguered Burris went into the locker room in the first quarter with a neck strain that delayed his return until the second half, which put Artrell Hawkins into the regular lineup and Roberts into the pass package. Kevin 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 Jamel 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, capped off on a play in which Tony Williams was called for "movement unnatural to the game," as he apparently tried to interfere by yelling and moving during Couch's cadence.
The Bengals got nabbed for seven of those type of penalties that included encroachment, and left end Duane Clemons got three of them. Clemons and Smith blamed movement in the re-tooled interior of the Browns' offensive line, while Lewis cited Couch's head bob and hand movement under center.
Lewis didn't think it was getting called fairly and talked to the officials near halftime. He was apparently satisfied because, "they did a good job of getting it under control," and one was only called on the Bengals in a second half Couch and his linemates got whistled for five false starts or delay of games.
Two of the Bengals' penalties were called in Cleveland's last 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 Clemons and Hawkins turned a third-and-12 into a third-and-two from the Cincinnati 18. But they escaped when 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 Bengals tied the game at seven with their first first-quarter touchdown of the season on the opening drive. Kitna's three-yard timing route to Johnson in the end zone as his arm got whacked by defensive tackle Orpheus Roye ended the Browns' skein of not allowing a touchdown in the red zone all season. It was also a good goal-line call by Bratkowski on third-and-three against a Browns' defense that had held foes to minus four yards on nine snaps beyond their five-yard line.
The Browns shook up their offensive line in an effort to revive the NFL's 27th-rated running attack that came in 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 in the first half and 47 on 16 attempts for the game.