BY GEOFF HOBSON
ATLANTA _ Akili Smith is expected to have the ups and downs associated with any career of a young quarterback. Consider the roller coaster on the way after tonight's outing here against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
But another rookie, kicker Neil Rackers, only seems to be on the way up after he made a major move to take veteran Doug Pelfrey's job with field goals of 47 and 41 yards, the last one pulling the Bengals to within 10-9 after three quarters.
Smith, under pressure at times, wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in Buffalo last week during a first half the Bengals fell behind, 10-6. He hit rookie receiver Peter Warrick on a 31-yard pass on the first play of the game after Warrick deked cornerback Ray Buchanan with an outside-to-inside move. But after that, Smith missed on his next seven passes and finished his half of play completing just nine of 19 throws for 94 yards.
It only got uglier on offense when Smith left the game in the third quarter. After Falcons kicker Jake Arians missed a 52-yard field goal try to give the Bengals great field position, backup quarterback Scott Mitchell was victimized by holding calls on tight end Steve Bush and backup right tackle Jamain Stephens.
Then, on the next series, after Bengals linebacker Canute Curtis recovered a botched handoff inside the Falcon 30, rookier receiver LaVell Boyd false started and Rackers had to kick his 41-yarder to cut the lead to 10-9.
Smith was at his best against the Falcons creating plays out of the pocket as the Bengals' offensive line allowed much more pressure than it did against Buffalo. The fact he wasn't sacked was a testament to his athleticism, producing on-the-run throws of 17 and 11 yards to wide receiver Damon Griffn during a 17-play drive that consumed eight minutes of the second quarter.
With a second-and-6 on the Atlanta 7, Smith had to take a timeout at the line of scrimmage and the offense didn't recover. Smith and receiver Craig Yeast ran out of room on the sidelines when they couldn't connect on a third-down pass and Pelfrey had to kick a 20-yard field goal to give the Bengals a 6-3 lead with 6:05 left in the first half.
The stalled drive came after last week's game in which they scored just two touchdowns and got blanked twice on six red-zone drives.
While the Bengals'secondary had trouble much of the night, the run defense opened strongly. Falcons Pro Bowl running back Jamal Anderson made his return from reconstructive knee surgery, but he found the comeback trail littered with the Bengals in the first quarter that ended in a 3-3 tie.
Anderson had no yards on five carries and had three catches for just 15 yards in the first quarter. And his good friend, Bengals outside linebacker Takeo Spikes, made a nice open-field tackle to prevent a first down after Anderson caught a dump pass over the middle. That set up Morten Andersen's 34-yard field goal that tied the game, 3-3, with about five minutes left in the first quarter.
But the the Falcons took a 10-6 lead into halftime when a bad night in the Bengals'secondary got worse. Wide receiver Brian Finneran took advantage of blown coverage for a 38-yard touchdown catch with 2:19 left.
The Bengals took a 3-0 lead in the game's first four minutes when Rackers body englished home a 47-yard field goal after it hit the right upright.
The Bengals came into this preseason hoping their defense turned over a new leaf by generatating turnovers, a rarity last season. Free safety Darryl Williams, signed during the offseason to do just that with his 29 career interceptions, stopped the Falcons' first drive at the Cincinnati 17 with an acrobatic interception of quarterback Cris Chandler.
Williams batted a pass over the middle into the air and then tracked it down for the Bengals' first interception of the season, equalling the number they had all last preseason.
But it wasn't a good opening quarter for the Cincinnati secondary. Before the interception, Chandler had plenty of time to find wide receiver Tim Dwight third-and-long completions of 13 and 21 yards into a soft zone. Then on the next series to set up Andersen's field goal, wide receiver Shawn Jefferson stopped in front of right cornerback Artrell Hawkins for a 22-yard gain.
Rookie cornerback Robert Bean, the Bengals' surprising fifth-round pick, returned to his hometown of Atlanta to help save some of the secondary's night when he picked off quarterback Danny Kanell in the end zone early in the third quarter.
How tough of a night for the secondary? Nickel back Rodney Heath sprained his right shoulder in the second quarter and had to leave, but he's probable for next week.