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Bengals tipped at end

10-6-02, 6:40 p.m.


INDIANAPOLIS _ An odd brew of anger, frustration, and relief swamped the Bengals after they fell to 0-5 Sunday here in the RCA Dome during a 28-21 loss to the Colts that teased the faithful until 23 seconds left in the game.

That's when wide receiver Chad Johnson let Jon Kitna's pass tip off his hands at the Colts 20, allowing safety Idrees Bashir to pick it off and spoil Cincinnati's best effort of an underachieving season.

Head coach Dick LeBeau's move to Kitna, his third starting quarterback in three games, paid off in 410 total yards, a virtual treasure trove after four games of averaging just 229. Kitna gave him 244 on 31 of 43 passing for the Bengals' best passing day of '02, and Corey Dillon went Pro Bowling with a new, streamlined running game that produced 164 yards on 23 carries.

"Jon gave us that look in the huddle today," said right tackle Willie Anderson.

Yet the Bengals are still winless because of a galling lack of fundamentals. Peter Warrick's fumbled punt inside the Bengals 5 gave the Colts one touchdown and they gave them another one when they somehow let Pro Bowl wideout Marvin Harrison run wide open down the sideline on third-and-six for a 69-yard play on the last play of the third quarter in a 21-14 game.

Still, for a team averaging more Late Night jokes than points per game (5.8), there were signs as they get ready to play the Steelers next Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, their last game before the bye week.

"I'm proud of our guys, we played them on even terms," said Bengals President Mike Brown, who has been enveloped by questions about coach Dick LeBeau's job security. "They made plays. Peyton Manning is going to make plays. But our guys made plays, too. It could have gone either way."

Or, as middle linebacker Brian Simmons said, "We're not happy we lost, but it was just good to be in a damn game for once. We hadn't done a damn thing all season. We still gave gave it to them on one or two plays. Once we stop doing that, we're going to do something around here."

Anderson and fullback Lorenzo Neal went to the coaches last week and requested a smaller amount of running plays, as well as plays that were more designed for power blocks than angle blocks.

It was one of those plays, off Anderson's inside leg, that sprung Dillon for the fourth longest run of his career, a 67-yard touchdown down the right sideline that pulled the Bengals within 21-14 with 5:55 left in the third quarter.

"The big guy can run," said Dillon, whose acceleration left Bashir

and cornerback David Macklin in his wake. "We fought for four quarters. This is the team that I know.

"It's something to build on and move on to next week," Dillon said. "We actually fought, we didn't go in the tank. They jumped up on us by 21 points, but we fought back, and made it close, made it interesting, and had a chance to win it."

But the team the league knows has a reputation for finding a way to lose it, and it happened five minutes later to a defense that played superbly most of the game.

On third-and-six from the Colts 24, the Bengals rushed cornerback Artrell Hawkins off the slot in what they call their nickel blitz. But just before he got there and with rookie free safety Lamont Thompson frozen in the middle of the field, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning saw Harrison running by himself past old friend Jeff Burris, the former Colts cornerback who signed with the Bengals in the offseason.

Harrison, who had 145 yards on nine catches, grabbed it for a 69-yard play that set up running back Edgerrin James' three-yard touchdown run on the next play, the first of the fourth quarter.

"He's one of the toughest corners that I face," Harrison said of Burris. "He doesn't have the help that a lot of other DBs have in this league. He's out there by himself."

That made it 28-14 and Manning said, "When they have momentum, you've got to do something to stop it. They had some momentum on their defense, we stopped it with the big play to Marvin."

Thompson, who plays on passing downs, took the blame. He said he was "too short," and should have gone over to Burris' side to help.

Warrick could have used help on the bobbled punt on the Bengals 5 early in the second quarter and the Colts leading, 14-0.

The rule is not to catch a punt inside your own 10. Warrick said he took his eyes off the ball at the last instant , but that he probably shouldn't have tried to make the catch.

"When you've got the momentum and you're looking up, you don't feel yourself drifting back," Warrick said. "You just try to focus on what you're trying to do."

Former Bengal Clifton Crosby recovered at the 4 and Manning found Harrison for a three-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-0.

Kitna gave life to the offense when he generated their first offensive touchdown in the first half and second of the season. Dillon capped a 13-play drive that took 7:10 off the clock on a two-yard touchdown smash up the middle with 46 seconds left in the half to make it 21-7

But they still have been outscored, 99-17, in the first half this season.

With the Colts not giving the Bengals anything long in the passing game, Kitna doled out completions to eight receivers (led by Ron Dugans' seven) for a 7.9-yard average. Sunday's 5.7 yards per attempt pales to Manning's 6.6 (21-for-34 for 224 yards), but Kitna got points out of it. He hit Warrick with his longest pass of the day, a 30-yard touchdown pass (the longest of Warrick's career and his first score in 17 games) to cut the lead to 28-21 with 59 seconds left.

Kicker Neil Rackers then skied an onsides kick that Dugans punched into the air and rookie strong safety Marquand Manuel recovered at the Bengals 43. Manuel, who got his first NFL start Sunday, said "Ron Dugans went high and I went low," to give the Bengals life.

Kitna hit Dugans for 12 yards and then found Johnson stopped and open over the middle. Johnson, who had a career-high six catches for 72 yards, couldn't get this one.

"I don't know what happened," Johnson said. "Trying to run before I had it."

The Bengals' defense, led by right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes' eight tackles, stopped James' home streak of 10 straight 100-yard games. He finished with 60 on 22 carries, a 2.7 average.

Wide receiver Danny Farmer (knee) thought he could have played for the first time in three games and had been cleared medically, but LeBeau's game-time decision was to make him inactive.

Middle linebacker Brian Simmons missed the second half with a "stinger," in his neck and he's to get a MRI when he gets back to Cincinnati Monday. He's questionable for the Steelers, as is linebacker Armegis Spearman (hyperextended knee)and cornerback Artrell Hawkins with a swollen knee. Both are also to get MRIs Monday. Anderson (cervical strain) is probable, as is defensive tackles Oliver Gibson (groin) and Tony Williams (eye).

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