9-8-02, 2:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals had a big selling job in front of them at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday and it blew up before they could even offer the sales pitch.
Playing in the only stadium not sold out on the NFL's Opening Day, the Bengals suffered one of their most embarrassing openers in history in offering no resistance to the Chargers' 20-0 shocking half-time lead.
They fell behind, 13-0, in the season's first 17 minutes as the first quarter ended in a hail of boos and then dragged off the field at halftime in front of what was left of a surly crowd after allowing a 95-yard touchdown drive that drained nearly eight minutes of the clock.
The Chargers, appearing in superior condition, smash-mouthed the Bengals into oblivion. They ended the half ahead of them in total yardage, 236-61, and wilting their defense in the 90-degree sauna of Paul Brown Stadium with a suffocating time-of-possession of 22:07.
And it could have been more. With Chargers quarterback Drew Brees looking like a savvy Pro Bowler in his first NFL start as he hit 11 of his 15 passes in the half for 90 yards, the Bengals had to stop San Diego twice inside the 10-yard-line to force two short Steve Christie field goals.
Meanwhile, Bengals quarterback Gus Frerotte's second pass as a Bengal was a costly one when Chargers cornerback Alex Molden stepped in front of his slant pattern to wide receiver Peter Warrick for an interception at the Cincinnati 11 to set up Brees' one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Norman running past linebacker Armegis Spearman with 1:18 left in the first quarter.
Nothing went right in what was supposed to be a grand opening for a re-tooled offense and emerging defense. But both sides got blown off the ball in stunning fashion.
While Chargers running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrrell Fletcher ripped off 112 yards on their first 20 carries, Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon lost two yards on his five carries at halftime.
Penalties? After the Bengals got their only first down of the half without benefit of a penalty (a 12-yard pass to Warrick), wide receiver Michael
Westbrook stopped that drive with a late hit on Chargers strong safety Rodney Harrison in the pile.
It was uglier than a half-time stat sheet showing a Chargers edge of 18-3 in first downs and 148-15 in rushing.
Brees didn't get touched in completing five of his first six passes for 48 yards on an 11-play drive that consumed 11 plays and 6:12. The Bengals did get a big play from the middle of their line when they stopped the Chargers on third-and-inches to allow only Christie's 28-yard field goal.
Brees, working quickly out of a three-step drop, made his big play on a third-and-nine, rifling an 11-yarder to wideout Chris Conway in front of cornerback Jeff Burris just as he went out of bounds at the Bengals 13. The Chargers didn't try to force Brees to go down the field in the first half with his longest completion a 24-yarder.
The Bengals went into Sunday's game with just eight defensive backs and five linebackers active in an effort to beef up their passing offense. The Bengals dressed all six wide receivers and all three tight ends.
The biggest surprise on the inactive list might have been rookie strong safety Marquand Manuel, who figures to be a plus on special teams. Running back Rudi Johnson got a seat on the bench even though he led the NFL in rushing during the preseason. That means Ron Dugans is pretty much the only other player who can spell fellow wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh returning kickoffs.
Also named inactive were linebacker Riall Johnson, kicker Travis Dorsch, offensive linemen Victory Leyva and Thatcher Szalay, and defensive end Eric Ogbogu.
In last year's 28-14 loss to the Chargers in San Diego, the Bengals rushed for just 111 yards and got pounded physically by an eight-man front. Jon Kitna, the Bengals quarterback that day, completed just one 20-yard pass and couldn't budge the Chargers from the line of scrimmage.
Frerotte hoped to have more success throwing the ball down field for a team that hasn't had a 50-yard catch in 34 straight games, dating back to the last football game ever at Cinergy Field in 1999.
But the Bengals couldn't get off the ground as the defense couldn't stand up physically. The Bengals looked to be down to four linebackers when left outside linebacker Canute Curtis left with a sprained knee. Plus, right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes appeared to be bothered by the torn pectoral muscle that kept him out of preseason for all but the first 12 plays.