BY GEOFF HOBSON
Doug Pelfrey had been waiting three years for this exact moment. A last-play field goal. Just like the good old days, when his kicks were the last plays of six Bengals' victories from 1994 to 1996.
You make it, you go home a winner. You miss it, you just go home. Friday night, Pelfrey just went home, his future as the Bengals kicker up in the air higher than his 29-yard attempt that got blocked by Buffalo tackle Erik Flowers as time expired in Cincinnati's 21-20 loss in its pre-season opener.
"This is what I've been working hard for," said Pelfrey, as always in front of his locker no matter the outcome. "That's what I've been working hard for. I was hoping they would do that. That's what I wanted the game to come down to. I was excited. I was looking forward to the kick. That's the first thing everyone wants to know. Is it low? Were you slow? All that stuff. You can't tell until you see the film.
"I don't even think about that stuff," Pelfrey said of the impact of the block on his roster fight with sixth-round pick Neil Rackers. "I felt like I hit the ball. I felt like I was on time."
After watching the film, coach Bruce Coslet and club president Mike Brown discovered it was linebacker Corey Moore who made the block and not Flowers. And while they weren't happy with Pelfrey's speed to the ball, Brown felt Pelfrey didn't have much of a shot when rookie free agent offensive lineman Doug Dorley let Moore get by him.
"I don't think it was primarily Doug's fault, no," Brown said. "It was penetration. One of our lineman didn't follow through on his assignment. A young rookie lineman not knowing how to shore up the front."
A blocked field goal can be as puzzling as a good murder mystery. Rookie Brad St. Louis had a good snap. Punter Brad Costello, Pelfrey's favorite holder, got it on the ground. Some on the Bengals' sideline thought Pelfrey hit it low. But Bills rookie kicker Jon Hilbert, a Louisville rookie, told Kentucky's Pelfrey right after the play that it looked as if Buffalo had penetration up the middle.
"It was a combination," Coslet said. "There was penetration, but the operation was slow." Pelfrey insists his confidence isn't shot, but some with the Bengals wonder and say he isn't on time at all. They still think he's smarting from last season's disaster in which he missed nine of 27 field goals, largely because there was no continuity at snapper and holder. Pelfrey slowed down his approach because he was never sure of the snap, and even though the snaps and holds are better this year, he's still in the slow mode, some inside the club feel. The Bengals clocked the field goal operation on the last play Friday in the 1.5-second range when 1.2-1.3 is considered what has to be done to get off an NFL field goal.
Of his last five kicks, Pelfrey pushed a 31-yard field goal try to the right and had an extra point blocked in last week's scrimmage, and against the Bills he hit a 26-yard field goal and an extra point before the block. Rackers had a 20-yard field goal and an extra point Friday. Special teams coach Al Roberts absolved Pelfrey of blame on the blocked PAT because wing man Tony McGee let rookie cornerback Robert Bean get past him.
"I don't make that decision," said Pelfrey of his job. "I'm sure it doesn't help. But like I said, I learned from last year all I can do is control what I do. All I can say is I thought I hit the thing on time. Yes, I'm still confident. On the second PAT, it was a little shaky but I hung with it and got it through. . .It's one thing if I was mishitting the ball, but I'm not. I don't know what to tell you."
Today, Brown said the Pelfrey-Rackers duel "still has a long way to go."
VIEW FROM THE TOP:Brown and Coslet saw enough positive signs Friday that they aren't going to quit their day jobs. Both were pleased with quarterback Akili Smith's high percentage passing, and Brown noticed many of the things missing last season start to surface.
"The quarterbacks completed two-thirds of their passes and made third downs and we haven't had that at the quarterback position lately," Brown said. "There were a lot of encouraging signs. We moved the ball well. We stopped them. We kicked off and punted well enough and covered. Our secondary covered closer than it has in recent times. It all needs to get better, but it's an encouraging first step."
For the first time in two years, Coslet saw plays on both sides of the ball. The Bengals converted 9 of 19 third-down tries while the Bills could only manage 2-for-11 against the Cincinnati defense.
"We've got more of a chance athletically to do some of the things we haven't been able to do before," Coslet said.
BEAN CHIP:The Bengals think they have a bargaining chip in the holdout of cornerback Mark Roman, a second-rounder thought to be fighting to play nickel corner now. But fifth-rounder Robert Bean of Mississippi State keeps making plays. Last week he blocked a field goal and had an interception in the scrimmage. Friday night he had two passes defenses and three tackles.
"It's strange," Brown said. "We've been chasing our tail for years to get cornerbacks and suddenly it appears we've got two of them. One's a late-rounbd pick and the other (Brian Gray) is a rookie free agent. I don't know if (Roman) can beat them out."
DEFENSE DEFENSIVE: Coach Bruce Coslet wasn't pleased that his defense decided not to show tha gamne until the second series, but today he thought they played solid after the first six plays. Outside linebacker Takeo Spikes said the Bengals were caught flat-footed early because they couldn't adjust to the speed of the game. On the season's first possession, the Bills ripped off 72 yards in 2:45, with running back Antowain Smith accounting for nearly half that on the ground. The Bengals held the Bills to 222 yards after that, but 107 came on two big touchdown plays via short passes and runs.
"After our first defensive series, we settled down," Coslet said after the game. "We didn't see what we practiced against. (In the first drive), we lost contain at key times and it was different guys each time. We're too far along on defense to do that."
STEPPING UP: **Everyone was looking for somebody to step up with the season-ending injury to flanker Darnay Scott, and the next two flankers did the job. Starter Craig Yeast, who came into the game with three NFL catches, had five for 75 yards. James Hundon, the fourth-year veteran who had one catch all last season, had four for 74. Both hooked up with backup quarterback Scott Mitchell for long bombs down the right side, Yeast for 37 and Hundon for 40.
Both players moved in and out of the slot when the Bengals went to three wides. For instance, Hundon's 40-yarder came as a flanker. His leaping and diving catch for an 18-yarder on the sideline came off a corner route out of the slot. And a leaping first down catch over the middle came as a flanker.
"I've been here four years now and there's no excuse for me not to contribute that way," Hundon said. "That's part of being a professional. This game is about making plays. On that third down, I kept my balance to make the leaping catch. After last year, I was anxious. Thank God I had the opportunity to make some plays."
WHAT IF?: **Coslet didn't try for a field goal with about five minutes left in the first half on a fourth-and-1 from the Bills 3 and running back Sedrick Shaw got stuffed. Coslet lost a challenge with the replay booth when he thought Shaw's forward progress got him to the 2.
"I could have went for a field goal and it might have been a different outcome," Coslet said. "You never know. I thought we converted."
KEEP AN EYE ON: **Some interesting things happened in the running game besides starter Brandon Bennett's solid 4.7-yard per his seven carries. Fullback Nick Williams looked sharp at tailback in short yardage, and fourth-rounder Curtis Keaton flashed some quick moves. Keaton did have a fumble, but he also had 29 yards on five carries in the fourth quarter.
Coslet was encouraged by the running game because it went against an always tough Bills' defense that plays are rare and pure type of 3-4 defense that stunts a lot.
"We've got to work on our angles and running into the hole," Coslet said.