10-14-01, 4:25 p.m.
Updated: 10-14-01, 5:45 p.m.
Updated: 10-14-01, 7:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals running back Corey Dillon and his offensive line, along with an inspired defense, staked their claim Sunday in the AFC Central race with a 24-14 victory over Cleveland.
Before the largest crowd ever at a Cincinnati sports event, the balanced Bengals went to 3-2 by piling up 400 yards of offense against the NFL's fifth-best defense with a 199-yard rushing effort captained by Dillon's 140-yard day on 31 carries.
"There's no place like home," said Dillon after his sixth 100-yard day in 11 PBS games gave the Bengals 400 yards for the first time since Dillon broke the all-time rushing record here last year against the Broncos.
"I love this place."
The Bengals' fifth straight home victory also put them in strange surroundings. For the first time in 11 years and their last playoff run, the Bengals are over .500 in October and in second place in the Central.
"We've never been 3-2 here. We usually win our third game in November," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "It's a good feeling because we understand how we're doing it. We're doing it with hard work. We've got one star on offense and we've got a couple of good guys on defense. We're doing it with a real good defensive effort, a solid running game, and special teams aren't beating us."
In a game the Bengals had to have to move to 2-1 in the division past the 1-1 (3-2 overall) Browns, they didn't even have one of their good guys on defense. In fact, they didn't have their heart and soul when defensive captain Takeo Spikes went home to be with his family after Friday's death of his father.
In fact, at the end, they didn't have three defensive starters on the field with Spikes and tackle Tony Williams not active.
"It was crucial. We knew what was at stake," Dillon said. "Our identity was on the line. It was a must-win just to contend in our conference. And not only that, we wanted to go out and win for Spikes and his family. We went out there and showed character and heart and we pulled it off. . .Our character (was on the line). We took some losses on the road and we don't want people to let that mentality creep into their brain that we're the same old Bengals. We had to step it up and it was a must win and we got it done."
But it was costly. Cornerback Rodney Heath is probably out for the season after tearing his hamstring in the first quarter and rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson's career day with five catches for 68 yards was spoiled with a broken left collarbone that will shelve him for six weeks.
With Adrian Ross playing in Spikes' spot at right outside linebacker, the run defense regrouped after two bad efforts to stymie the Browns on just 40 yards in 19 rushes.
They also sacked quarterback Tim Couch three times, the last one coming early in the fourth quarter with the Browns at the Cincinnati 21 and trailing, 21-7. Rookie defensive end Justin Smith threw Couch for a 12-yard loss and a play later Smith forced a hold on left tackle Roman Oben to kill Cleveland's last, best hope.
After five games, the Bengals have 13 sacks, half of last year's AFC-last 26. They also allowed no sacks Sunday and have given up seven all year. They allowed seven right away last year in the dreadful PBS opener to these same Browns.
"I thought about Takeo before the game and I thought about him during the game," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "Especially when we broke the huddle because he's always yapping at us. Sure it was. Sure, we used it as a boost. We wanted to give him a chance to smile a little bit. I think we did."
Middle linebacker Brian Simmons isn't sure if he'll take one of the game balls to Tuesday's funeral in Sandersville, Ga. But Simmons is definitely going and Spikes at some point is getting the ball.
"We weren't going off the walls before the game," Simmons said. "But we definitely felt it and we wanted to get it for Spikes and I know he's got to feel a little better. We were a little bit emotional."
When Neil Rackers knocked home his third field goal of the day on a 21-yarder with 1:55 left in the game before 64,217, the day was complete. The Browns beat the Bengals by the same 24-7 score in last year in Paul Brown Stadium's opener.
The Browns added a
touchdown with 36 seconds left in the game on Couch's three-yard pass to fullback Mike Sellers.
Dillon and the Bengals controlled the clock, keeping it for more than 36 minutes by converting eight of 10 third-down tries in the second half. The Bengals scored on all of their possessions in the second half (except the one in the last half minute) and kept the ball on their last drive for 16 plays and 7:25. That's when backup running back Brandon Bennett got most of his 41 yards and Dillon converted a third-and-five by simply bulling up the middle and carrying the Browns' secondary to the first down.
Dillon bolted five yards up the middle for a touchdown 43 seconds into the fourth quarter that gave Cincinnati the two-touchdown lead.
When Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna hit leaping wide receiver Ron Dugans in the right corner of the end zone, they had a 21-7 lead.
After a slow start, Kitna finished 20 of 38 for 201 yards with no interceptions and no sacks.
Cleveland failed to convert a third down until the fourth quarter and got just two the whole day.
The second half was vintage Dillon and defense. The touchdown was Dillon's 23rd carry for 127 yards and he highlighted the drive with a 22-yard run up the middle off a draw play the Bengals found to their liking.
"I think they were trying to take away our outside plays," Dillon said, "which left the middle kind of vulnerable."
Johnson also responded with the best day of his season. He kept the drive alive with a sliding 16-yard catch on third-and-eight at the Browns 9, but that was it because he broke his collarbone on the play.
Wide receiver Darnay Scott's first touchdown in almost two years and Rackers' first field goal beyond 40 yards in more than a month pulled the Bengals from a 7-3 half-time deficit to a 13-7 lead with 6:28 left in the third quarter.
Rackers' 42-yarder came courtesy of Bengals tackle Glen Steele's recovery of Couch's fumble at his own 31.
But Dillon's 15-yard run for a first down off a draw got called back on right guard Mike Goff's hold (the Bengals' ninth penalty of the day) and the Bengals had to settle for Rackers' field goal for a 13-7 lead.
They took a 10-3 lead when Johnson got loose for a 16-yard catch on third-and-10 and Dillon followed with a 21-yarder behind the right side to give him 100 yards on 19 carries. On third-and-goal, Kitna floated a five-yard touchdown pass to Scott when the receiver split a zone and beat cornerback Daylon McCutcheon.
After a slow start, Kitna sharpened his throws hit the 200-yard mark for the first time since the opener.
The Bengals nearly blew it open when Browns kick returner Ben Gay appeared to bring the ball out of the end zone before downing it. But when the Bengals challenged the call (and lost a timeout), the officials ruled the ball didn't come out and was a touchback.
The Bengals ended a mistake-filled first half when Rackers pushed a 22-yard field-goal try to the right on their last play and went into halftime trailing, 7-3.
Rackers' miss killed a drive kept alive by Johnson's 16-yard catch on third-and-10, and a 30-yard pass interference call on Cleveland free safety Percy Ellsworth with less than 30 seconds left in the half that put the ball on the Browns' 14.
Kitna overthrew Johnson twice in the end zone, once when weak-side linebacker Dwyane Rudd pressured him in the pocket. The Bengals then had to turn to the struggling Rackers and he didn't adjust to what appeared to be a snap that holder Nick Harris had to pull down slightly from the inside.
The Bengals' offense spent the half not being able to take advantage of their chances and strong defense.
The Bengals shut down the Browns on all five of their third-down chances in the first half and held them to just 85 yards on 23 plays. But 30 of the yards accounted for the half's only touchdown.
The Bengals had the ball about four minutes longer than Cleveland and more than twice as many yards, 173-85.
But they had six penalties for 40 yards and Kitna wasn't particularly sharp on 10 of 23 passing for 99 yards and couldn't find anyone for longer than a 16-yard catch.
Dillon did get things going by averaging more than four yards per carry for 62 yards on 14 carries.
But Cleveland had the handle on the special teams. Browns punter Chris Gardocki kept returner Peter Warrick at bay on five punts. With a 20 mile-per-hour wind whipping, Cleveland wasted no time using it to the Browns' advantage late in the first quarter.
One play after Harris, the Bengals punter, got off an 18-yard punt from his own end zone into the wind, Couch avoided a blitz from strong safety JoJuan Armour and hit receiver Kevin Johnson with a 30-yard touchdown pass that gave the Browns a 7-3 lead with 3:10 left in the first quarter. Johnson ran past cornerback Robert Bean, in for the injured Heath.
Penalties hampered the Bengals' offense much of the day. Dillon found some early running room, racking up 54 yards in the first quarter on 10 carries, including a 25-yarder. But a 15-yard penalty on center Rich Braham's altercation with linebacker Brant Boyer killed that drive.
Then early in the second quarter, a 10-yard completion to Warrick got wiped out by an illegal shift.
The Bengals scored their first points of the season in the first quarter and took a 3-0 lead when Rackers ended the game's first drive with a 27-yard field goal.
Rackers, who had missed his last four tries, didn't get a chance earlier in the drive when the Bengals opted to go for it on fourth-and-seven from the Cleveland 31. The Bengals came up two yards short on a pass to Dugans, but Browns safety Percy Ellsworth kept the drive alive on the play when he Kitna hit in the head after the pass.
It was the first game and start Spikes has missed in his 52-game career. Jimmie Spikes lost a 10-month battle with brain cancer and Spikes returned home Saturday morning.
"Takeo chose to be with his family today and we certainly understand that," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "Families are more important than football. I wasn't playing, but I knew what I went through when my Dad died."
Brown has missed only one game in Bengals' history, a preseason game in Detroit in 1991. He stayed in Cincinnati to be with his ailing father and Paul Brown died three days later.