Browns frustrate Bengals

11-25-01, 4:15 p.m.

Updated: 11-26-01, 2:00 a.m. BR>Updated: 11-26-01, 3:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

CLEVELAND _ Fitting, isn't it?

After their punchless offense went through three quarterbacks, five interceptions, a season-high seven turnovers, and a season-low 191 total yards, the Bengals had to bus back to Cincinnati Sunday night when their airplane's battery wouldn't re-charge before takeoff.

Which is about right because the Bengals never got off the ground in an 18-0 loss to the Browns that all but short-circuited their chances at the playoffs.

The Bengals, 4-6 after dropping their third straight against AFC Central rivals since going into the bye week 4-3, have scored just two touchdowns and 20 points in the losing streak and have gone seven straight quarters without scoring.

"What makes it so hard is we dug our own ditch," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "Right now, it's up to us to dig out of it or jump in it."

Not to mention spoiling a defensive masterpiece in which the Bengals allowed one touchdown, 39 rushing yards, and 249 total yards in holding the Browns nearly 70 percent of the time on third down while generating three turnovers.

Press box statistics had middle linebacker Brian Simmons with a team-high 10 tackles, along with a sack and forced fumble while Spikes had eight tackles at outside linebacker and Oliver Gibson had seven at tackle. Cornerback Mark Roman also came up with his first career interception, an end-zone job that kept the game 12-0 late in the third quarter. The performance lifted the Bengals' defense into the NFL's top 10, where they haven't finished a season since the 1989 defense rankled seventh. They are giving up 305.7 yards per game, their best since the 1983 unit finished first in the league.

"The defense is the strong point of our team. The offense is the weakest link," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Our defense is carrying us. It's like (coach Dick) LeBeau said, our defense has to find a way to score because we're not. Put that defense on any other damn team and they're (going to the) playoffs. Deep into the playoffs. Not the offense. . . It's sad."

After two Jon Kitna interceptions in the first half, LeBeau made his first quarterback change of the season at halftime. Then after three Scott Mitchell interceptions, he made his second when Akili Smith came into the game for the last 1:13.

"I just wanted to try and fire all of our guns," said LeBeau, who then said Kitna would start next week at home against Tampa Bay. "It just wasn't the first half. We've got a streak going of not scoring in the last (several) quarters."

The last time Bengals quarterbacks blew up for five interceptions, it cost the coach his job. After Ken Anderson and John Reaves threw five during a 28-12 loss in San Francisco Oct. 1, 1978, Tiger Johnson either got fired or resigned. That day, the Bengals had a club-record eight turnovers. The Bengals haven't had seven turnovers in a game since that 1978 team did it a month later on the way to a 4-12 season.

Although the Bengals have lost six of their last eight and are now 8-15 under LeBeau, he's safe for now. But kicker Neil Rackers may not be. In a first half the Bengals couldn't match two Phil Dawson field goals, Rackers badly missed a 43-yard field goal into the wind short and to the left and then saw a 47-yard try with the wind gust into the left upright.

Rackers, who has missed nine of his last 15 tries, insisted he hit both well.

"I feel like I hit two good balls," Rackers said, "and didn't play the wind quite enough."

Throw in game-ending injuries to No. 1 cornerback Artrell Hawkins (ankle) on the game's first play and leading receiver Peter Warrick (shoulder) in the second quarter, and the game that will forever be known as "The Bus Game," was a flat-out demolition derby. Both are questionable for next week.

Hawkins hopes the NFL takes a look at receiver Dennis Northcutt's block on him.

"I don't know if it was outside the rules," Hawkins said. "I have to take a look at the film to be certain. It was away from the play. They have all these rules, you can't hit them while the ball is in the air, and protecting them, and they do a coward thing like roll over on your legs and it's all right."

Mitchell couldn't drive the Bengals five yards in four plays at the start of the fourth quarter, highlighting the offensive frustration that left running back Corey Dillon under 100 yards for the third straight game. He ripped off 54 yards on his

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first 10 carries against a team he has averaged 144 yards against in five previous games. He finished with just 63 yards on 20 tries.

It didn't help that Kitna missed eight of his first nine passes and was 8-for-19 for 85 yards at halftime when he got lifted. Kitna said he never thinks he should be taken out, and while he understood, he also said teams start to wonder about whom is the quarterback once the change is made.

"I didn't play my best ball in the first half," Kitna said. "But I felt like we were starting to do some good things. We had a couple of drives that we didn't get any points. We began to move it a little bit. . .The coach felt like a change needed to be made, then that's the decision he has to make. For me, if he felt like that was the best thing to help us get a win. I'm all for it."

The Browns stopped the Bengals' best chance to win after T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 86-yard bolt put the ball on the Cleveland 5 with the third longest punt return in Cincinnati history on the first play of the fourth quarter and the Bengals trailing, 12-0.

Mitchell threw an incomplete pass on first down and Dillon got three yards on two carries up the middle. Then Mitchell rolled left on a bootleg off play-action on fourth-and-two, couldn't find a receiver, and got sacked for a nine-yard loss with 13:02 left.

"We set it up like we were going to (fullback) Lorenzo (Neal) up the middle," Houshmandzadeh said, "and they didn't buy it."

Houshmandzadeh was left to wonder about his move at the end of his return. He was flogging himself for cutting inside receiver Danny Farmer's block on Chris Gardocki at the 10. He felt if he had gone outside, he would have scored and avoided the tackle of tight end Aaron Shea, the man who missed the initial tackle 70 yards down field.

Dawson's 23-yard and 33-yard field goals in the game's last 2:55 came off short drives when Mitchell was picked off on back-to-back throws by cornerback Daylon McCutcheon for the Browns' NFL-best 24th and 25th interceptions.

But the Bengals' third turnover of the first half might was the biggest and came with the Bengals at the Cleveland 42 with 1:03 left. Dugans let a pass over the middle bounce off his hands and into the arms of Browns cornerback Raymond Jackson and he took it back to the Bengals 10.

With 26 seconds left in the half, after Bengals defensive end Reinard Wilson was called for roughing the quarterback, Browns quarterback Tim Couch lofted a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Johnson. Bengals rookie cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn couldn't find the ball as Johnson hit the 100-yard mark against the Bengals for the fourth time in his career.

When it was the Bengals' turn to get a big play, it got blown up. Kitna hit Warrick over the middle for 22 yards for a first down on third and 19, but he fumbled the ball away at midfield when McCutcheon tipped the ball out of his arms before he could secure it. Warrick then left with the shoulder injury.

Kitna got intercepted on the game's third play when linebacker Brant Boyer dropped into coverage against Warrick over the middle.

Still, when the dust cleared with 10:17 left in the second quarter, the Bengals somehow trailed by just 6-0 on Dawson's field goals of 23 and 27 yards.

That was mainly because Simmons stripped Browns running back Ben Gay for a fumble that was recovered by tackle Tony Williams at the Cincinnati 18.

Couch exploited the absence of Hawkins when he went long down the left sideline one-on-one with Roman for a 47-yard play to Johnson. Couch and Johnson later picked on Kaesviharn to convert a third-and-6, but Simmons made a big play against an offense scoring touchdowns on 65 percent of their forays past the opponents 20.

On the next series, Couch wasted no time finding Johnson on Roman again. This time it was Johnson's juggling 33-yard catch over Roman that put the ball on the Cincinnati 9. But the defense held when tackle Gibson knocked down Couch's pass and forced Dawson's 27-yarder that made it 6-0 with 13:18 left in the first half.

Wide receiver Darnay Scott, who didn't practice all week with bruised ribs, got the go-ahead to play Sunday after a pre-game workout with Mitchell.

The Bengals liked what they saw when Scott stretched for balls and how he ran his routes. But they decided to make all six receivers active for the game with Chad Johnson returning after sitting out the last four games with a broken collarbone and Warrick already nursing a thigh bruise.

In order to make room for six receivers, the Bengals got burned in light of the Hawkins' injury and went light at cornerback by deactivating rookie cornerback Bo Jennings

Scott responded to anti-inflammatory medicine, plus receivers coach Steve Mooshagian said, "The bottom line is he wants to play. That's the most important thing. He's able to reach out and catch and he's running well, so we're going to have everybody up."

But no one caught more than three passes for longer than Warrick's 22-yarder. Scott finished with two catches for 24 yards.

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