9-22-02, 10:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
ATLANTA _ The Bengals, stalking nationwide acceptance, buried themselves in a flurry of undisciplined mistakes in a dreadful first half here Sunday night in the Georgia Dome that put them back in the punch-line business.
In a shockingly sloppy performance that could put the current coaching regime in jeopardy, the Bengals fell behind, 20-0, in the game's first 20 minutes, which marked them being outscored, 57-0, in the first half this season.
They did manage to get a 24-yard field goal from Rackers with four seconds left in the half as backup quarterback Jon Kitna hit six of his first nine passes for 34 yards to make it 20-3.
But it did little to soften a performance by the Bengals that simply lacked being competitive for the third straight week.
Before the game, Bengals President Mike Brown, reacting to newspaper reports that new Falcons owner Arthur Blank had grown impatient with his team's 0-2 start, said, "impatience is not the magic solution.
"You have to look at the whole and not just the first two games," Brown said. "You can't judge it on just 12 and a half percent of the schedule. I don't know if it does anybody any good to panic."
But that was before the atrocious display that bordered on anarchy. By the time Falcons quarterback Michael Vick scrambled out of the pocket to hit wide receiver Brian Finneran with a 13-yard touchdown pass to make it 20-0, the Bengals had gone through two quarterbacks, six penalties, a 17-yard punt, and an interception.
The Falcons' last score in the first half came off special teams confusion. They weren't sure of their personnel on the field for a Nick Harris punt and then didn't adjust when cornerback Kevin Mathis moved into the slot to blitz. Harries had to hurry and it resulted in 17 yards.
The Bengals tried to change the cast on ESPN when they benched Gus Frerotte in favor of Kitna in the middle of dreadful second quarter.
With Frerotte missing his first seven passes while throwing an interception and getting sacked, the Bengals turned to Kitna and he fittingly took over with his back to the wall on his own two-yard-line with 7:54 left in the first half.
But by then, they had trotted out
their tired old rerun in falling behind quickly with no resistance to the 0-2 Falcons. When Vick executed a play-action fake and Finneran beat cornerback Jeff Burris for a 20-yard touchdown with just under two minutes left in the first quarter, it was already 13-0.
Vick was immense. The Bengals couldn't keep him in the pocket as he he bobbed and weaved in out of the pocket. He converted one third-and-nine on basic sweep around his left side, and hit Finneran on a big pass when he faked defensive end Reinard Wilson to the turf and straightened up throw a bullet to on the sideline.
His three runs rung up 31 yards and he hit 10 of 18 passes for 109 yards. Still, the Bengals defense held the Falcons to just 161yards, but their offense was so inept it didn't help.
They didn't complete a pass until seven minutes left in the half and the wide receivers caught just three passes with the longest one a nine-yarder.
In fact, they had as many catches as drops in the half. Michael Westbrook dropped two and Peter Warrick dropped one from Frerotte over the middle that would have gone for about 50 yards.
Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon was the only thing standing between the Bengals and a network cancellation. Dillon had nowhere to go on 12 carries for 40 yards. How fouled up is the offense? Dillon came into the game as their leading receiver and his three catches for 12 yards led them.
The Bengals came on in prime time, but it started out as Saturday morning cartoons when they picked up five penalties in the game's first six minutes and and fell behind, 6-0, on two Jay Feely field goals.
No doubt the question of the Bengals' lack of discipline will carry the day Monday. After a taunting penalty on the first play of the game on defensive tackle Oliver Gibson and an offsides penalty on the man next to him a few plays later on Tony Williams, Feely kicked a 44-yarder five minutes into the game.
Then Bengals backup guard Brock Gutierrez was called for holding on the ensuing kickoff to push the Bengals to the 13 and when the Bengals' offensive line couldn't hear the signals because of the crowd, right guard Mike Goff and left tackle Richmond Webb each had a false start and Frerotte served up an interception on third-and-20 to Mathis, a nickel back playing his first game for the Falcons..
Frerotte tried to hit Warrick over the middle, but underthrew him and Mathis took it to the Bengals 15, which resulted in Feely's 26-yard field goal.
Webb gave up a sack of both Frerotte and Kitna, the Bengals never got to Vick and the defense had yet to generate a turnover this season by the time the game neared the 40-minute mark.