Blocked punt foils Bengals

12-02-01, 2:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Kicker Neil Rackers gave the Bengals a 3-0 lead Sunday, but special teams still found a way to swipe Cincinnati's momentum when Tampa Bay grabbed the lead early in the second quarter on a blocked punt for a touchdown and held it for a 7-3 half-time edge.

Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, ignoring the Bengals' outside defender, moved inside and rushed off the slot to block Nick Harris' punt. Todd Yoder picked it up at the Bengals 11 and ran in for the score Tampa Bay couldn't get in its first drive that consumed 18 plays and 11:15.

More woes piled up during the game. The Bengals probably lost their only pure tight end when Tony McGee injured his right knee on the first play of the half's two-minute drill. And that drive for a field goal got short-circuited when quarterback Jon Kitna's completion to Ron Dugans in field-goal range got wiped out by left guard Scott Rehberg's holding penalty.

Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson killed the Bengals softly with short, quick routes. He hit all of his dozen passes in the first half for 97 yards, but got sacked four times, twice by rookie end Justin Smith. The first one came when Johnson tripped on his own lineman and the second when Bucs rookie left tackle Kenyatta Walker chose to block rushing outside linebacker Takeo Spikes and let Smith whiz by him.

The Bengals snapped their skein of seven straight scoreless quarter by keeping the ball for the first 8:10 and 14 plays in taking the lead on Rackers' 23-yard field goal.

But after a drive that went inside the Tampa Bay 1 with running back Corey Dillon proving effective off tackle behind fullback Lorenzo Neal and new H-Back Nick Williams, the Bengals tried Dillon on a toss sweep on second down. He got nailed for a four-yard loss as he got wrestled out of bounds.

Kitna, 9 of 13 passing in the half for 69 yards, then short-hopped a

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throw to McGee in the end zone and the Bengals went on to end the half with nine straight quarters without a touchdown.

Dillon, who had 20 yards on his eight carries before the sweep, finished the half with 33 yards on 14 carries.

The Bengals had got a huge lift in the Bucs' first drive when Tampa Bay faced a third-and-two from the Bengals 24 and defensive tackle Oliver Gibson came up with a sack of Johnson as Johnson got the snap. Kicker Martin Gramatica pushed a 43-yard field-goal attempt to the right.

But in that first drive, the Bengals let Tampa Bay wriggle out of a third-and-27 when rookie cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn's pass interference call negated safety Chris Carter's interception.

The Bengals made it official Sunday morning and put down an injured starter each on offense in left guard Matt O'Dwyer and on defense in right cornerback Artrell Hawkins.

The two moves should affect the major themes of the matchup between the Bengals and Buccaneers. Cincinnati came in trying to snap a skein of seven straight scoreless quarters and the Bucs tried to get the NFC's leading receiver into the end zone for the first time this season as Keyshawn Johnson pitted his 76 catches against the Bengals' depleted secondary.

Johnson and his cousin, Bengals rookie receiver Chad Johnson, offered an interesting interlude during the week as Chad sat in quietly while the Cincinnati media interviewed Keyshawn over the phone. If Chad wrote a book, such as Keyshawn did in his early days with the Jets, what would the title be?

"I Want the Damn Ball, Also," Chad said.

But it's been hard this season getting the darn thing. Not only for Chad, but for the rest of the receivers who took heat after Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell threw five interceptions last week in Cleveland. Bengals receivers coach Steve Mooshagian defended his players this week after that 18-0 loss in Cleveland.

"They have not been as bad as publicly perceived," Mooshagian said of his six wideouts. "Because people don't know all the things that we're asking them to do. . .They're young receivers and they're not only learning a new offense, but also getting the timing down with the quarterback and how he anticipates."

Three of the six are also hurt (Peter Warrick) or coming off injury ( Chad Johnson, Darnay Scott) and as one club insider observed, "We were nicked and it showed."

Keyshawn has been preaching patience to Chad during their three or four so weekly phone calls and is urging him not to be stereotyped as a speed receiver.

"I do so many different things on the football field," Keyshawn said. "I'm asked to do a lot of different things. I'm not asked just to catch the football. From blocking to running a route knowing I'm not going to get the football to just being a pure leader. I think (Chad's) game will come to that level. Overall, his game is going to grow each year.

"You don't have to be the fastest guy in this league to be dominant," Keyshawn said. "Not only have I proved that, but Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Chris Carter."

Chad says he's over the broken left collarbone that wiped out four games between Oct. 21 and Nov. 18.

"As far a rookie," Chad said, "I'm crawling until they let me walk."

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