BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals opened Paul Brown Stadium today before a crowd of 64,006. But the Cleveland Browns never let them get their foot in the door as they stunned Cincinnati, 24-7, on both sides of the ball.
Today was supposed to not only be a stadium grand opening and Cincinnati's regular-season opener of the millenium, but also the unveiling of the Bengals' 21st century offense with franchise quarterback Akili Smith at the controls.
But the offense never get off the dime against the NFL's worst defense last season. With the game grinding to an end, the Bengals had allowed five sacks, three turnovers, a blocked field goal and only 88 yards rushing in the first three quarters with Smith their leading runner as the Browns whipped them in both trenches.
To make matters worse, middle linebacker Brian Simmons, one of their best defensive players, left the game late in the third quarter with a sprained right knee and got wheeled into the locker room for X-Rays.
While Bengals left tackle Rod Jones struggled in his matchup with Browns right end Keith McKenzie, the Bengals could muster no pass rush against Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch as he hit 21 of 21 passes for 159 yards in the first half. The Bengals played the second half with backup John Jackson playing left tackle.
Smith didn't have near the time Couch did and threw two interceptions. When rookie cornerback Lewis Sanders leaped in front of rookie receiver Ron Dugans to intercept a pass in the end zone, it marked the seventh straight pass he missed of the third quarter.
The Bengals had to walk off the field at halftime feeling fortunate they trailed the Browns by just 14-7.
Despite one blocked field goal, a fumbled punt, No. 1 pick Peter Warrick dropping a pass that would have been a first down inside the Cleveland 5-yard-line, and two sacks, the Bengals took the second half kickoff with a chance to tie the game.
With the Browns' revamped front holding Bengals running back Corey Dillon to 15 yards on seven carries in the first half, Smith was only 8 of 19 passing for 124 yards before moving into the disastrous second half. Last year, Dillon got 6.4 yards per carry against the Browns on 56 carries.
Maybe it was meant to be for Browns rookie running back Travis Prentice to score the first regular-season touchdown in Paul Brown Stadium history.
Prentice, a Miami of Ohio product like Paul Brown, raced 16 yards around the right side of the Bengals defense and went into the end zone virtually untouched to give Cleveland a 7-0 lead with 3:43 left in the first quarter.
The Browns later upped their lead to 14-7 early in the second quarter, moments after the Bengals' Craig Yeast fumbled a punt at his own 21. Four plays later Couch hit tight end Mark Campbell on a five-yard touchdown pass a split-second before defensive end John Copeland drilled the Browns quarterback.
The Bengals had a shaky first 20 or so minutes in their new building. No. 1 pick Peter Warrick dropped a pass that would have been a first down, and on the next play rookie kicker Neil Rackers had his first NFL field goal try blocked from 45 yards out on a low kick.
The Bengals rookies receivers did respond on the drive after Prentice's touchdown with Cincinnati going 78 yards on eight plays tie the score at 7 just 28 seconds in the second quarter when quarterback Akili Smith hit Ron Dugans over the middle for a four-yard touchdown pass.
On the previous play, Smith hit Warrick on a come-back route for a 13-yard pickup in front of cornerback Corey Fuller.
But the key receiver in the drive was Craig Yeast. After converting a long third-down a few plays before, Yeast hopped on running back Brandon Bennett's fumble at the Browns 17 after Bennett ripped off 23 yards on a shovel pass.
Prentice gave the Browns' offense juice in a six-play, 76-yard drive that included a 20-yard pass interference call on Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, one of three Cincinnati penalties in the first quarter.
Hawkins had a tough first quarter. On the first play from scrimmage in the stadium, Browns quarterback Tim Couch hit receiver David Patten racing past Hawkins for a 64-yard gain to put the ball on the Bengals' 11.
But on a fourth-and-2 from the Bengals' 3, outside linebacker Adrian Ross and nose tackle Oliver Gibson teamed to stop Browns running back Errict Rhett for a one-yard gain.