10-14-01, 4:25 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals running back Corey Dillon and his offensive line, along with an inspired defense, staked their claim Sunday in the AFC Central race with a 24-14 victory over Cleveland.
Before the largest crowd ever at a Cincinnati sports event, the balanced Bengals went to 3-2 by piling up 400 yards of offense against the NFL's fifth-best defense with a 199-yard rushing effort captained by Dillon's 140-yard day on 31 carries.
When Neil Rackers knocked home his third field goal of the day on a 21-yarder with 1:55 left in the game before 64,217, the day was complete. The Browns beat the Bengals by the same 24-7 score last year in Paul Brown Stadium's opener.
The Browns added a touchdown with 36 seconds left in the game on quarterback Tim Couch's three-yard pass to fullback Mike Sellers.
But it was a costly win. Cornerback Rodney Heath is probably out for the season with a torn hamstring and rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson's career day with five catches for 68 yards was spoiled with a broken left collarbone that will shelve him for six weeks.
Dillon and the Bengals controlled the clock, keeping it for more than 35 minutes by converting eight of nine third-down tries in the second half. The Bengals scored on all of their possessions in the second half (except the one in the last half minute) and kept the ball on their last drive for 16 plays and 7:25. That's when backup running back Brandon Bennett got most of his 41 yards and Dillon converted a third-and-five by simply bulling up the middle and carrying the Browns' secondary to the first down.
Dillon bolted five yards up the middle for a touchdown 43 seconds into the fourth quarter that gave Cincinnati the two-touchdown lead.
When Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna hit leaping wide receiver Ron Dugas in the right corner of the end zone, they had a 21-7 lead.
After a slow start, Kitna finished 20 of 38 for 201 yards with no interceptions and no sacks.
With defensive captain Takeo Spikes not at the game because of the death of his father, his unit played inspired by not allowing Cleveland to convert a third down until the fourth quarter and allowing just one the whole day.
The second half was vintage Dillon and defense. The touchdown was Dillon's 23rd carry for 127 yards and he highlighted the drive with a 33-yard run up the middle off a draw play the Bengals found to their liking.
Johnson also responded with the best day of his season. He kept the drive alive with a sliding 16-yard catch on third-and-eight at the Browns 9, but that was it for the day because he broke his collarbone on the play.
Wide receiver Darnay Scott's first touchdown in almost two years and Rackers' first field goal beyond 40 yards in more than a month pulled the Bengals from a 7-3 half-time deficit to a 13-7 lead with 6:28 left in the third quarter.
Rackers' 42-yarder came courtesy of Bengals tackle Glen Steele's recovery of Couch's fumble at his own 31.
But Dillon's 15-yard run for a first down off a draw got called back on right guard Mike Goff's hold (the Bengals' ninth penalty of the day) and the Bengals had to settle for Rackers' field goal for a 13-7 lead.
They took a 10-3 lead when Chad Johnson got loose for a 16-yard catch on third-and-10 and Dillon followed with a 21-yarder behind the right side to give him 100 yards on 19 carries. On third-and-goal, Kitna floated a five-yard touchdown pass to Scott when the receiver split a zone and beat cornerback Daylon McCutcheon.
After a slow start, Kitna sharpened his throws. He completed 19 of his first 37 attempts and looked ready to pass the 200-yard mark for the first time since the opener.
The Bengals nearly blew it open when Browns kick returner Ben Gray appeared to bring the ball out of the end zone before downing it. But when the Bengals challenged the call (and lost a timeout), the officials ruled the ball didn't come out and was a touchback. The Bengals ended a mistake-filled first half when Rackers pushed a 23-yard field-goal try to the right on their last play and went into halftime trailing Cleveland, 7-3.
Rackers' miss killed a drive kept alive by Johnson's 16-yard catch on third-and-10, and a 30-yard pass interference call on Cleveland free safety Percy Ellsworth with less than 30 seconds left in the half that put the ball on the Browns' 14.
When Kitna overthrew Johnson twice in the end zone, once when weak-side linebacker Dwyane Rudd pressured him in the pocket. The Bengals then had to turn to the struggling Rackers and he didn't adjust to what appeared to be a snap that holder Nick Harris had to pull down slightly from the inside. He's now missed five of his last six field-goal tries.
The Bengals' offense spent the half not being able to take advantage of their chances and a strong defensive effort without Spikes, back home after the death of his father.
The Bengals shut down the Browns on all five of their third-down chances and held them to just 85 yards and 23 plays. But 30 of the yards accounted for the half's only touchdown.
The Bengals had the ball about four minutes longer than Cleveland and more than twice as many yards, 173-85.
But they had six penalties for 40 yards and Kitna wasn't particularly sharp on 10 of 23 passing for 99 yards and couldn't find anyone for longer than a 16-yard catch.
Dillon did get things going by averaging more than four yards per carry for 62 yards on 14 carries.
But Cleveland had the handle on the special teams. Browns punter Chris Gardocki kept returner Peter Warrick at bay on five punts. With a 20 mile-per-hour wind whipping through Paul Brown Stadium, Cleveland wasted no time using it to the Browns' advantage late in the first quarter.
One play after Harris, the Bengals punter, got off an 18-yard punt from his own end zone into the wind, Couch avoided a blitz from strong safety JoJuan Armour and hit receiver Kevin Johnson with a 30-yard touchdown pass that gave the Browns a 7-3 lead with 3:10 left in the first quarter. Johnson ran past cornerback Robert Bean, in the game after starter Rodney Heath left with a left leg injury.
Penalties hampered the Bengals' offense early. Dillon found some early running room, racking up 54 yards in the first quarter on 10 carries, including a 25-yarder. But a 15-yard penalty on center Rich Braham's altercation with linebacker Brant Boyer killed that drive.
Then early in the second quarter, a 10-yard completion to Warrick got wiped out by an illegal shift.
The Bengals scored their first points of the season in the first quarter and took a 3-0 lead when Rackers ended the game's first drive with a 27-yard field goal.
Rackers, who had missed his last four tries, didn't get a chance earlier in the drive when the Bengals opted to go for it on fourth-and-seven from the Cleveland 31. The Bengals came up two yards short on a pass to wide receiver Ron Dugans, but Browns safety Percy Ellsworth kept the drive alive on the play when he hit Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna hit in the head after the pass.
Dillon picked up 18 yards on his first three carries, but lost six yards on his next three.
Spikes missed the first game of his career Sunday to be with his family after the death of his father.
Jimmie Spikes lost a 10-month battle with brain cancer Friday and Spikes returned home to Sandersville, Ga., this weekend.
Spikes, who had made 52 straight starts, was replaced by Adrian Ross in the lineup against the Browns at right outside linebacker. Ross had a quadricep injury after last Sunday's game in Pittsburgh and missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, but worked Friday. He's starting his 16th game in four seasons after making four starts last year at middle linebacker.
"Takeo chose to be with his family today and we certainly understand that," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "Families are more important than football. I wasn't playing, but I knew what I went through when my Dad died."
Brown has missed only one game in Bengals' history, a preseason game in Detroit
in 1991. He stayed in Cincinnati to be with his ailing father and Paul Brown died three days later.
If Ross had trouble with his quad, the Bengals are going to be extremely thin with just five active linebackers.
Middle linebacker Brian Simmons could be forced to move to right outside and be replaced by Canute Curtis in the middle.
The fifth backer is rookie Riall Johnson, a sixth-round pick whom the Bengals are hoping to give more seasoning before he gets a bigger role. One option could be JoJuan Armour, who made his first NFL start at strong safety Sunday. Armour is a converted linebacker who made the switch in the offseason.
The absence of Spikes comes at a difficult time for a Bengals' defense that is reeling from two straight poor efforts against the run. Last week in Pittsburgh, Jerome Bettis and the Steelers rolled up 274 yards on the ground, the biggest rushing day against the Bengals since 1972.