Bengals make eight great
Updated: 12-14-03, 7:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals turned to running back Rudi Johnson to take the ball away from 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia and transform Sunday's snowy shootout at Paul Brown Stadium into Cincinnati's eighth win in 11 games, a 41-38 winter wonderland in front of a sellout crowd of 64,666.
The Bengals needed one final heroic run from Johnson with 1:13 left and he gave it to them when he grabbed a bouncing onside kick at the 49ers 38 as the Bengals staved off San Francisco's relentless 502-yard assault and marked the most points Cincinnati has ever allowed in a victory.
"I'm usually blocking on that play," said Johnson with a smile after he piled up 163 of his 174 yards on 14 second-half carries. "But I saw it coming at me and thought I could make a play."
The fans stayed behind to holly-jolly the club's 8-6 record that guaranteed the Bengals' first non-losing season since 1996 and put them back into a first-place tie with the Ravens after Baltimore's loss in Oakland.
But the players seemed to have already started thinking about next Sunday's game against the Rams in the unfriendly confines of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis in the wake of Garcia's 395-yard all-purpose effort. Two PBS firsts for the Bengals (40 points and five straight home victories in the same season) put them 60 minutes from their first winning season in 13 years.
"It's huge. It went right over the guys' heads, which is a good thing," said head coach Marvin Lewis of win No. 8. "They are not satisfied. And I think that is a hell of a statement. If Jon Kitna hadn't even brought it up in there, they would not have even thought of it. It went right over their heads, and that's big. Like I said, losing hurts."
For a minute, Kitna seemed to think he was in the losing locker room after he jacked his numbers to 20 touchdowns and one interception in the eight victories with two scoring throws and another no-pick game.
"I was mainly trying to make sure guys understood that we did win that football game," Kitna said. "It was a little bit solemn, somber. I just wanted to remind guys you're going to have games you didn't feel like you played your best. But the bottom line is to win. To win that football game today is nice."
The Bengals won because they made an adjustment at halftime, and gave the ball to Johnson on some of their most basic running plays against a top 10 defense against the run. With the concept of left guard Eric Steinbach pulling to the right side so Johnson could read both the front- and back-side blocks, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski called one of them for Johnson's 49-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and a 47-yarder in the fourth quarter.
"Sometimes offensive coordinators are mad geniuses and sometimes they might think running the same play over and over is not the sensible thing to do," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "But if you give them confidence, Bratkowski will do it all the time."
The Bengals also won because in one of the more amazing medical stories in franchise history, left tackle Levi Jones got the start just six days after arthroscopic knee surgery, and responded brilliantly against old college rival Andre Carter. 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.
After Jones kept his streak intact of playing in every game of his career (30) and extending his starting streak to 26, Anderson called for Jones to get the game ball.
"And he was the emotional leader for us before the game today," Kitna said of Jones. "It's not very hard to get up for a game when you see a guy who could barely walk two days ago be the most excited person in your locker room."
The Niners, who came into the game with the third-most sacks in the NFL, did get to Kitna twice, and Carter got to him once. But it appeared to be more of a coverage sack than a Jones misplay.
With Garcia personally sifting the Bengals on 344 yards passing and 51 yards rushing, the 49ers cut the lead to 34-31 with 3:49 left. But Johnson saved the day with a 47-yard bolt off right tackle that set up his three-yard touchdown run seconds later to make it cozy again with 2:18 left in the game.
With Corey Dillon hampered by illness (he was sent home Friday before practice), Johnson racked up his fourth 100-yard day of the season, and, as if to symbolize Lewis' all-out quest to erase the past in his first season, it was Johnson's 49-yard touchdown burst off right tackle on fourth-and-one on the first series of the second half that swung the momentum to Cincinnati with a 28-17 lead.
On the previous play—third-and-one—Kitna went for it all on a deep ball to wide receiver Chad Johnson, but the ball was overthrown. Then the Bengals came back with what looked to be the same play they would run over and over on their last series. Steinbach pulled to the right, and Rudi Johnson followed fullback Jeremi Johnson, tight ends Reggie Kelly and Tony Stewart, right guard Mike Goff and Anderson.
"It was not the fourth-down call, it was the third-down call," Lewis said. "Our offensive coaches felt like there were some things we could do, (but) they did a nice job of countering it. ... Once we decided to take the shot down the field, I'm making the decision. At that point, we were in the football game, let's go get a first down."
Not Dillon, not James Brooks and not even Ickey Woods in 1988 did what Johnson has done this season. He became the first Bengal to have three 150-yard rushing games in a season after going for 182 and 165 in back-to-back games last month against Houston and Kansas City. And even though he had just 31 carries since those two games, he never uttered a word.
"I don't worry about that stuff," Johnson said.
But Garcia, who hit 26 of 33 passes for 344 yards, kept willing the 6-8 49ers back into the game. After Rudi Johnson's 55 yards on eight carries set up Shayne Graham's 34-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 31-17 lead with 1:52 left in the third quarter, Garcia capped a whirlwind drive on a six-yard keeper that cut the lead to 31-24 early in the fourth quarter.
Kitna, who went 18-of-25 for 189 yards, hooked up with Chad Johnson for two plays of 37 yards to get another Graham field goal—from 30 yards—to jack the lead to 10 again (34-24) with 6:58 left.
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, 8-of-13 passing for 95 yards in the half, kept that drive going on a fourth-and-three from the Niners 36 when he pump-faked 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, freelanced, 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 San Francisco 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 the first of two fumbles 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 of his 91 yards, and scored the first touchdown of the game as he and Kitna freelanced 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, Lewis gave him an earful and a hug.
"Not very good," said Lewis of Johnson's sign. "We are getting a little bit caught up in things ... he should just be Chad."