11-8-02, 11:50 p.m.
This Sunday in Baltimore, that hostile planet where four different quarterbacks have been incinerated the past three seasons, the Bengals Past meets its. . .
Well, what exactly is Jon Kitna? Like his foe Sunday, Ravens quarterback Jeff Blake, is Kitna a QB of Bengals Past? Or is he Bengals Future even with Akili Smith fuming and the NFL's No. 1 draft pick looming?
"If he keeps playing like this or anywhere near it," said Bengals President Mike Brown of Kitna, "you'd have to say he'd be your quarterback this year, next year, whatever. In the last two weeks, he's played the position about as well as anyone could."
OK, so the Bengals Past meets the Bengals Present. . . and the Future if Kitna keeps stringing together games like the last two, in which he has six touchdown passes and no interceptions.
The last Bengal to throw six TDs in back-to-back games was Ta Da (and this is why Sunday should be so fun) is Blake himself when he threw three each against Houston and Miami in 1995.
Are Blake and Kitna the answers to why the Bengals have run in place for so long? Has the club been too hasty to change QBs in search of Mr. Right? In Kitna's 19 starts as a Bengal
that has featured two benchings, the Bengals are 7-12. In Blake's last 19 Bengal starts, which featured two benchings, the Bengals are 6-13.
"That's the chicken-and-egg argument, isn't it? Brown asked during Friday's practice. "Do quarterbacks not play well because they don't play, or because they don't play well when they're in there? It's a second guess. I've always felt it was the responsibility of the quarterback to perform when he gets in there."
And Kitna is doing it since he got the job back after losing it in the offseason to last year's passer rating of 61.1. In his four starts this year, he has a rating of 91.3 and 82.3 for the season. Blake's best over 16 games was 82.1 in 1995, and he went to the Pro Bowl.
Their styles couldn't be any more different. Blake is Vegas. Kitna is Victorian. When Blake is on top of his game, he is scrambling out of the pocket, and gambling and torturing defensive backs at the same time with a perplexing, deadly accurate deep ball.
In the last two games, Kitna's longest conmpletion has been a 33-yard run-and-catch by Peter Warrick that was mostly run. He has taken no sacks and has forced no interceptions by checking down to his secondary receivers.
"When I get in trouble and try to make things happen and force a ball, it's on those third-and-15 plays," Kitna said. "But our third downs have been so manageable, and that's really a credit to the line."
But in Baltimore, Kitna faces a defense that feasts on adverse down-and-distance. This Ravens' defense that shut down the entire NFL in 2000 to win the Super Bowl no longer has the anchors in the middle like Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, and Rob Burnett, the man who knocked Akili Smith cold at Ravens Field with a sack under the chin two years ago.
Linebacker Jamie Sharper and safety Rod Woodson are also gone from the defense that has blanked the Bengals in three straight home games. End Michael McCrary and middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the NFL's best defender who ripped the heart out of the Bengals at Ravens Field a year ago by intercepting Kitna twice and going the other way for 94 yards, haven't played in weeks and aren't supposed to play Sunday.
Even their defensive guru (Marvin Lewis) is gone and their alignment (now a 3-4) is different.
But they are still very good.
"They shut down Michael Vick (holding him to 129 total yards) and dominated Denver (with three interceptions)," said Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson. "These are young guys who are trying to prove themselves that they are worthy playing defense for them. Their line is more active as far as making plays. They don't have those big guys hunkered down keeping guys off Ray."
Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski says they could line up anywhere at anytime. They don't sit in the traditional 3-4 like the Steelers and that can put you in a second-and-20 in a hurry.
"They don't give up big plays and they make negative plays that put you in a hole," Bratkowski said. "They are faster overall than they have been and they fly around to the ball. They're playing extremely hard. They've confused everyone they've played at some point and that's how they can get you in the big negative plays."
Those are the plays Kitna wants to avoid so he can be third-and-short. The one break for the Bengals is they are playing their fourth 3-4 defense in six games, and last week in Houston they solved a multi-look 3-4 defense by paring down their number of plays and simplifying.
"I would think we're going to keep doing what is successful," Kitna said, but Bratkowski won't tip his hand after rolling up 38 points last week.
"We're going against the same defense," Bratkowski said. "But we'll look different."
The Bengals know what Blake will look like.
"He'll be eager to show off that arm," said linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "We'll be expecting him to go long all day."
Where Bengals Past meets. . .Bengals Future Maybe.