8-4-01, 11:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
CHICAGO _ Akili Smith literally ran his way back into the quarterback derby Saturday night against the Bears when he forced overtime in a pre-season opener that ended in a curious 16-13 loss to the Bears here at Soldier Field.
Smith burst out of the pocket for an eight-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 13 with 1:53 left in regulation. But the Bears Paul Edinger hit a 48-yard field goal with 41 seconds left in the OT.
Smith couldn't move the Bengals in overtime, but he hit his first four passes, finished four of five for 35 yards, and may have earned the start Friday in Detroit.
"Akili looked very good out there," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau. "He made some good decisions. He led us to a touchdown when we needed it."
LeBeau said he has not made a decision yet on who will start Friday.
Smith said he has heard rumors he will get the start, but he's not sure. "I'm trying to show them I can run," Smith said. "I think it's something that can seperate me from Mitch and Kitna. I think this game does a lot for my confidence."
There wasn't much separation at the top of the Bengals quarterback derby, which Smith entered running third and where he may now see a crack of daylight.
Jon Kitna, pressured all night, finished 8-for-16 passing for 65 yards in his one half of play. Yet his mobility saved a few sacks.
Working behind the second offensive line in the third quarter, quarterback Scott Mitchell completed two of four passes for 13 yards. But he was hurt by two holding calls on rookie right guard Victor Leyva and wide receiver Craig Yeast's drop over the middle.
Smith's heroics should have been enough for the Bengals' first victory on the road in the preseason since 1997. Bengals cornerback Robert Bean stepped in front of wide receiver Glyn Milburn on the sideline with what looked to be a 65-yard or so interception return that would at least set up a last-play field goal.
But Bean couldn't outrun Bears quarterback Danny Wuerffel and he ended up fumbling inside the Chicago 10 to send the game into overtime.
Smith, who had vowed to use his mobility once the games started, entered the game with about 10 minutes left and sent the Bengals on their first touchdown drive that consumed nearly nine minutes. He kept it alive early on third-and-long by hitting wide receiver Malcolm Johnson on an 18-yard play over the middle
But Smith did it with his legs, converting two third-down situations by shooting through the middle of the pocket and finishing the drive with 31 yards on four carries. On his last third- down run, Smith looked like a running back in breaking safety Larry Whigham's tackle for a nine-yard gain at the two-minute warning.
The brightest light of the Bengals' night came on the ground despite the decision not to play Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon. Curtis Keaton finished regulation with 61 yards on 11 carries and fourth-rounder Rudi
Johnson added 53 on 10 carries. Rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson also spiced things with four catches for 62 yards.
The Bengals' new season flashed some of the same disturbing elements that marked last year's 4-12 run as Cincinnati trailed the Bears, 13-6, in the fourth quartrer.
The second half didn't start out much better on special teams after the offense's first half struggles.
The Bengals couldn't cash a 15-yard penalty on the second half's opening kickoff when Keaton couldn't cover a kick quick enough to prevent it from rolling into the end zone. And they couldn't cover Will Brice's 64-yard punt before it went into the end zone.
But Keaton and the specialists rebounded later in the half. Keaton flashed his quickness on some cut-backs, including a 13-yard run that put Richie Cunningham in position to make a 30-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"We can do better," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau at half time. "Most of what they got in the first half, we gave them. We had 30 yards in penalties on their touchdown drive and we dropped the ball on offense to set up a field goal."
Unabale to adjust to the Bears' packages of blitzes and stunts that pressured Kitna all first half, the new offense looked much like the unit that scored a franchise-low 185 points last season. Before the hurryup offense commenced with 47 seconds left in the half, the Bengals had managed just three first downs and whiffed on their first four third-down tries.
The defense, which played well much of the night, lost its cool late in the half. Defensive tackle Glen Steele was given a 15-yard penalty for going after backup quarterback Cade McNown's knees and then middle linebacker Brian Simmons was flagged for taunting in the face of Bears tackle Chris Brown.
That led to McNown's six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dez White late in the half.
Kitna did heat up on his fifth series, finding the rookie Chad Johnson on passes of 12 and 25 yards. Johnson, relieving Darnay Scott in the two-receiver set, set up Neil Rackers' 47-yard field goal with 8:28 left in the second quarter.
Kitna later found Johnson for a 16-yard leaper over the middle.
"For a guy playing his first half in the NFL, Chad had a good effort," LeBeau said. "He made a couple of good plays."
The Bengals did do some damage on the ground by racking up 126 yards rushing in the first three quarters. Running back Michael Basnight - 35 yards on nine carries _ did the bulk of the damage on one drive with runs of 14, six and five yards.
But when the Bengals nosed past the Bears' 30, Basnight got stuffed on 4rth-and-1.
Chicago took a 3-0 first-quarter lead courtesy of a turnover as the Bengals managed just one first down on their first 13 plays.
The Bears' defense came out twisting and stunting and the Bengals had trouble picking it up in the passing game.
On the first two series, Kitna was immediately flushed out of out the pocket on third-and-long once up the middle and once from the right and only his mobility saved a sack.
Kitna completed two of his first six passes for 12 yards, but deserved a better fate. He hit tight end Tony McGee on third down over the middle, but McGee lost the first down when he dropped the ball on middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's hit.
But it was a mistake in the running game that led to the game's first score. Running back Brandon Bennett allowed Khari Samuel to strip the ball out of his arm in a fumble recovered by linebacker Bryan Robinson at the Bengals' 25. That led to Paul Edinger's 44-yard field goal despite free safety Chris Carter's pop on running back Marlon Barnes that jarred the ball loose out of bounds.
On the third-and-long play before Rackers' field goal, Kitna was again chased from the pocket instantly and he had to throw the pass away.
The Bengals' first-team defense played pretty much into the middle of the second quarter and pretty much held up. Right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes led one charge on 3rd-and-one, standing up 230-pound Skip Hicks for no gain.
Playing for the second-team defense, Steele batted two passes at the line of scrimmage.
LeBeau, after not playing Dillon in last week's intrasquad scrimmage, has reasons that are twofold for holding off Dillon until as late as the Aug. 25 home opener against the Bills. He has indicated he doesn't want to beat up the offense's meal ticket, but he does want to take a long look at veteran backups such as Bennett, Curtis Keaton and Michael Basnight, as well as fourth-round pick Rudi Johnson, a tight roster fight.
In the first half Saturday night, Bennett ran it three times for 19 yards and Keaton had 10 yards on four carries.
There's a good chance Dillon won't play this Friday in Detroit because the Silverdome Astroturf has been extremely unkind to the Bengals in recent preseasons. It's where the NFL Draft's overall No. 1 pick, Ki-Jana Carter, ripped up a knee ACL on the third carry of his career in 1995.
Bengals rookie tight end Sean Brewer didn't play after pulling a hamstring in Wednesday night's practice.
With Marco Battaglia out with a knee cartilage tear, the Bengals were down to basically two tight ends in Tony McGee and Kirk McMullen, a first-year player who has yet to take a snap in an NFL regular-season game. Still, the Bengals have want to see if Brad St. Louis, who is used mainly as a long snapper, can play significant amount of time from scrimmage.