12-14-03, 3:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Jeff Garcia waged a snowy shootout at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday as the Bengals escaped with a 21-17 half-time lead when their defense forced a Todd Peterson 23-yard field goal as time expired.
Although the Bengals supplied their first defensive touchdown of the season, defense was few and far between on a freezing day here on the river. Garcia riddled the Bengals' secondary for 182 yards on 13 of 16 passing in the first half, including touchdown bombs of 58 and 41 yards in a span of four and a half minutes in the second quarter that tied the game at 14 with 7:29 left in the half.
Kitna responded four minutes later with his career-high 25th touchdown pass, a 31-yarder to wide receiver Peter Warrick that gave the Bengals a 21-14 lead with 3:26 left. Kitna, eight of 13 passing for 95 yards, kept that drive going on a fourth-and-three from the Niners 36 when he pumped fake before hitting Warrick over the middle for a five-yard gain.
On the next snap, Kitna had to roll to his left to get out of trouble, free-lanced, and then found Warrick running away from linebacker Derek Smith in the corner of the end zone.
But it took Garcia less than three minutes to wheel the 49ers 70 yards the other way to the Bengals 9, where Cincinnati got alert plays from middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, and cornerbacks Kevin Kaesviharn and Terrell Roberts against the pass to hold them to a field goal.
The Bengals got their first defensive touchdown of the season and the guy who scored it wore the same number of the guy who scored the last one last year in Carolina when Takeo Spikes took a fumble all the way against the Panthers.
On Sunday, Hardy plucked Garcia's fumble off the San Francisco 10 and walked in for his first touchdown in eight NFL seasons. Roberts, the free-agent rookie, produced the turnover with a blitz off the defense's left corner when he knocked the ball out of Garcia's hand before he could take it back to throw.
Roberts was playing because cornerback Artrell Hawkins was lost on the game's first series with a bruised quadricep, and the Niners wasted no time regrouping against the beleaguered Cincinnati secondary. Hawkins returned for that last stand, but Kaesviharn was also moving between safety and corner, and Garcia knew he had the Bengals on the run.
About a minute and a half after his gaffe, Garcia sucked it up and isolated wide receiver Terrell Owens on cornerback Jeff Burris and got a 58-yard touchdown bomb down the right sideline. Owens raced past Burris, caught it over his shoulder, and cut
in front of Kaesviharn to the middle of the field to finish it off.
After a three-and-out, Garcia again went after Burris, this time for a 41-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tai Streets. Streets came into the game without a catch longer than 18 yards in the past seven weeks, but he had no problems getting past Burris to tie the game at 14.
Bengals outside linebacker Brian Simmons, who may very well have turned this season around with a fumble recovery against the Ravens back on Oct. 19, did it again Sunday. With the 49ers making mincemeat of the Bengals' defense on the game's first drive, defensive tackle Tony Williams forced a fumble from running back Kevan Barlow at the Bengals 15 and Simmons wrestled it out of the air and took it back to his own 30.
After getting his foot stepped on by Warrick as he blocked at the end of Warrick's 16-yard run off a reverse, wide receiver Chad Johnson grabbed two balls for 30 yards and scored the first touchdown of the game as he and Kitna free-lanced in the back of the end zone for a 10-yard completion that gave Kitna his career-high 24th touchdown pass.
After Kitna bobbed and weaved in the pocket to buy some time, he found Johnson running across the back of the end zone. In this game pitting two of the NFL's more celebrated celebrators, Johnson went one up on Owens when he saluted his 10th touchdown catch of the season by going into the stands and grabbing an orange placard that read, "Dear NFL, Please don't fine me again. Chad Johnson."
In no particular order, head coach Marvin Lewis gave him an earful and a hug.
In one of the more amazing medical stories in Bengals' history, left tackle Levi Jones got the start Sunday just six days after arthroscopic knee surgery. Jones tore cartilage in his right knee in the first series of the second half a week ago in Baltimore and underwent the procedure Monday morning. He kept his streak intact of playing in every game of his career (30) and extended his starting streak to 26.
The Niners, who came into the game with the third most sacks in the NFL, did get to Kitna twice in the first half and Jones' man, defensive end Andre Carter, got to him once. But that was more of a coverage sack than a misplay.