Bengals trail at half

10-14-01, 3:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals ended a mistake-filled first half Sunday when Neil Rackers pushed a 23-yard field-goal try to the right on their last play and went into halftime trailing Cleveland, 7-3, at Paul Brown Stadium.

Rackers' miss killed a drive kept alive by rookie receiver Chad 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.

When Bengals quarterback Jon 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. He's now missed five of his last six field-goal tries.

The Bengals' offense spent the half not being able to take advantage of their chances and a strong defensive effort without captain Takeo Spikes, back home after the death of his father.

The Bengals shut down the Browns on all five of their third-down chances and held them to just 85 yards o 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.

Running back Corey 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 through Paul Brown Stadium, 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, Browns quarterback Tim 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 the game after starter Rodney Heath left with a left leg injury.

Penalties hampered the Bengals' offense early. 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 wide receiver Ron Dugans, but Browns safety Percy Ellsworth kept the drive alive on the play when he hit Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna hit in the head after the pass.

Dillon picked up 18 yards on his first three carries, but lost six yards on his next three.

Spikes missed the first game of his career Sunday to be with his family after the death of his father.

Jimmie Spikes lost a 10-month battle with brain cancer Friday and Spikes returned home to Sandersville, Ga., this weekend.

Spikes, who had made 52 straight starts, was replaced by Adrian Ross in the lineup against the Browns at right outside linebacker. Ross had a quadricep injury after last Sunday's game in Pittsburgh and missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, but worked Friday. He's starting his 16th game in four seasons after making four starts last year at middle linebacker.

"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

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in 1991. He stayed in Cincinnati to be with his ailing father and Paul Brown died three days later.

If Ross had trouble with his quad, the Bengals are going to be extremely thin with just five active linebackers.

Middle linebacker Brian Simmons could be forced to move to right outside and be replaced by Canute Curtis in the middle.

The fifth backer is rookie Riall Johnson, a sixth-round pick whom the Bengals are hoping to give more seasoning before he gets a bigger role. One option could be JoJuan Armour, who made his first NFL start at strong safety Sunday. Armour is a converted linebacker who made the switch in the offseason.

The absence of Spikes comes at a difficult time for a Bengals' defense that is reeling from two straight poor efforts against the run. Last week in Pittsburgh, Jerome Bettis and the Steelers rolled up 274 yards on the ground, the biggest rushing day against the Bengals since 1972.

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