12-23-01, 4:10 p.m. Updated:
12-23-01, 11:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
BALTIMORE _ The frustration of a seven-game losing streak is now boiling publicly into finger pointing as Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau warned Sunday's 16-0 loss to the Ravens is just the kind of game that can "fracture," a team.
The fissures began to show in the final moments of the Bengals' third shutout of the season and sixth in the last two years.
After Bengals rookie receiver Chad Johnson dropped his second pass of the game that could have gone a long way, Corey Dillon separated Johnson and Kitna when they were engaged in a shouting match. Later, Johnson said Kitna said something inappropriate for a team leader while Kitna predicted he could be gone in the next season or two with Akili Smith looming.
Another angry wide receiver, Peter Warrick, had a post-game talk with LeBeau about being benched after catching a punt on his own three-yard line with 47 seconds left in the third quarter.
"Yeah, I'm upset," Warrick said. "It was wrong I got benched and (LeBeau) knows it. I admit when I'm wrong. I should have just made better decisions. If he was going to bench me, bench me for punt returns. Don't bench me for what I do."
The Bengals' passing game, which hasn't busted a play for more than 20 yards since Warrick fumbled a 22-yarder Nov. 25, continued to do nothing. Which is how the Ravens (9-5) survived Dillon's fourth 100-yard day of the season and another terrific effort from the Bengals' defense that held a foe to less than 19 points for the fifth straight week. Even though the Ravens had an average drive start of their own 46.
Dillon broke the Ravens' streak of 50 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher with 127 yards on 24 carries. It was the first time a running back gouged the Ravens for a 100-yard day since James Allen got 163 yards for the Bears on Dec. 20, 1998.
Yet the Bengals' goal coming in was not only a 100-yard rusher, but a 100-yard receiver and the closest thing turned out to be Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis' 94 yards on his two interception returns. Kitna's woes continued when his three interceptions killed Cincinnati's three drives into the red zone, giving him 13 interceptions in the losing streak. He also fumbled the ball away on a sack on the Bengals' next-to-last possession to set up Matt Stover's 43-yard field goal with two minutes left in the game.
"This is the kind of game that can fracture you," LeBeau said. "This is a test, a challenge for us to stay together. We have to address it. We can't bury our head in the sand. And we won't let it happen."
The series that straddled the third and fourth quarters summed up why the Bengals got beat Sunday. And the misery of a passing game that came into the game without a 20-yard play in the month of December and without a 40-yard play since the second game of the season and has the quarterback and receivers jawing at each other.
On first down from the Bengals 3, Kitna stood in his end zone and saw Johnson running past Ravens cornerback Duane Starks at the Cincinnati 40. But Johnson dropped the ball delivered over his shoulder.
Then on third down, Johnson had Starks beat again, this time by a good five to 10 yards. But Johnson had to wait for the underthrown ball and the play was broken up. In the fourth quarter, Johnson, who had three catches for 28 yards, dropped a ball over the middle for what looked to be at least a 20-yard gain.
"He said something I didn't like, so I said something back," Johnson said of the heated sideline talk with Kitna. "I didn't come down with them You all always hear me talking about
making big plays. You hear me talking about my speed and running by people. It was just one of those days. I didn't come through with a big play. I'm human just like everybody else.
"Because I didn't come down with those two plays there was some frustration let out on me," Johnson said. "So I let out some frustration, too. After we've been here 14 games, don't fuss with me because I made two mistakes."
Asked if the receivers feel Kitna isn't getting it done, Johnson shot back, "How many games have we've played? You've seen every game we've played, right?"
As for Kitna, he wouldn't get into the beef with Johnson.
"If he wants to talk about it in the media, that's fine," Kitna said. "I say what I have to say to somebody. . .My thing is to rectify the situation and be a man."
The defense forced the Ravens to punt the first six times they had the ball in the second half. In that same stretch, the Bengals got the ball three straight times inside their own 10.
Lewis punctuated his feud with Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes on the two interceptions, the last with six minutes left in the game. Kitna, on first down from the Baltimore 8, tried to hit running back Brandon Bennett over the middle. But Bennett slipped, linebacker Jamie Sharper tipped it, and Lewis caught it before returning it 64 yards.
"He played great," said Spikes, who led everyone with 14 tackles according to the press box stats. "That's the whole thing. I don't compare myself with Ray Lewis."
With 7:16 left in the game, Dillon broke a draw play for 19 yards that put him over 100. And it was only the second time in the 12 games that Dillon has rushed for more than 125 yards that the Bengals lost.
This one wasn't pretty. In the first half, the Bengals had eight penalties (two were declined), struggling Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac hit 12 of 18 passes for 139 yards, and Kitna's passing rating for the half was 33.9 when he completed eight of 14 passes for 80 yards. He finished with a 20.6 rating and four passes tipped at the line.
Bengals defensive end Reinard Wilson was a bright spot. He picked up his third of the team's five sacks early in the second half, giving him a career-high and team-leading nine for the season. The Bengals now have 43 sacks for the season, three off the 1976 team record.
Working out of the two-minute drill at the end of the half, Kitna directed the Bengals to the Baltimore 20 with the help of rookie receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh's leaping 20-yard catch over the middle.
Then with 1:13 left in the half, Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett tipped Kitna's pass and the ball went high into the air. Kitna followed the ball and tried to spike it into the ground, but he batted it right into the arms of Lewis.
Lewis' 30-yard return set up Stover's 29-yard field goal as time ran out in the half.
"That's the story of our season," Kitna said. "I questioned God a little bit. How can you have that happen? . . .Anything that can go wrong has gone wrong.
"You're always coached to bat the ball down in that situation," said Kitna, when asked if he thought about catching it. "Maybe if there was more time on the clock and we had another timeout, I might have tried to catch it. . . .It's amazing all that stuff ran through my head during the play. But I just didn't think that would be the thing because I'd be tackled right where I was."
The Bengals' defense came in with their own streak of seven straight games without giving up a 100-yard rusher and their mastery against the run failed only in an early part of the game.
Ravens running back Terry Allen, playing in place leading rusher Jason Brookins, hurt them on the Ravens' second drive of the game. Allen ripped off a 22-yard run, the longest the Bengals have allowed a running back since Oct. 21, and it produced Stover's 43-yard field goal with 6:51 left in the first quarter to give the Ravens a 3-0 lead.
Allen, who had 34 yards on eight carries in the half, finished off a nine-play, 80-yard drive by walking in from four yards out for a touchdown that gave the Ravens a 10-0 lead with 13:35 left in the first half.
The Bengals had three penalties on the drive, two for first downs, with the biggest one a 15-yarder on tackle Oliver Gibson for grabbing Grbac's facemask in the pocket.
The Bengals had success running against the NFL's second-best rush defense, some of the runs coming on draw plays against the blitz and others to the perimeter. Dillon ripped off 60 yards on his first nine carries and Bennett picked up nine yards on a run that put the ball at the Ravens 17 when receiver Darnay Scott recovered his fumble.
But on first down, Kitna went for Johnson in the back right corner of the end zone on a fade route and Starks leaped with Johnson and intercepted it in front of him.
Some observers wondered why Johnson wasn't more aggressive going after the ball and why he didn't at least try to knock it down.
"That's a one-on-one matchup you dream about," Kitna said. "I threw it exactly how I wanted to throw it."
Baltimore deactivated defensive tackle Tony Siragusa with an injury, which gave Dillon more room to run. The other huge tackle, Sam Adams, played a limited amount of time in the second half because of injury.
Spikes went nose-to-nose with Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe verbally early and often. That continued the feud that erupted last week when Spikes objected to the objections of Sharpe and Lewis when Spikes was compared favorably to Lewis. Sharpe had all of his three catches for 32 yards in the first half, one a big 12-yarder on the last drive.
The Bengals opted to deactivate running back Curtis Keaton for the first time this season in a move to get six receivers into the game. It also gave the Bengals a shot to look at Houshmandzadeh returning kicks, where Keaton hasn't broken many of his 42 tries with a 21.2-yard average.
Houshmandzadeh also returned punts Sunday and made bad decisions when he caught two punts inside his 10-yard line.
When the Bengals have dressed five wide receivers, Danny Farmer has often been the odd man out. They want to give him more chances in a passing game that hasn't produced a play longer than 19 yards in December.
Plus, with the outside shot that Warrick might have to play quarterback if Kitna and Scott Covington get hurt, they wanted to have a full complement of wideouts.