Day after observations

8-24-03, 8:15 p.m.

A few random thoughts after the Bengals' 23-15 loss to the Titans Saturday night: **

JUST FOR KICKS:** You have to feel the punting competition is up in the air higher than Travis Dorsch's last two punts. A sign that Dorsch is still heavily in the mix with incumbent Nick Harris is they gave him their only punt Saturday and he drilled it 52 yards. That was after he had the last punt against the Lions and he sailed it 58 yards. So it looks like the thing will be decided at the RCA Dome Friday night against the Colts.

Ironic, really, since Dorsch kicked in the building a few times while at Purdue. Harris has been far more consistent in practice, but the Bengals have to be wondering about how well Dorsch has been doing in games.

FOLEY RESPONDS: The Bengals' run defense was quite stingy (two yards per rush) against one of the NFL's perennial top running games. Yet, despite getting Titans quarterback Steve McNair in must passing situations on third down four times in the first half, their first nickel unit couldn't generate any pass rush and the club had no sacks in the game.

That might not bode well for designated pass rusher Reinard Wilson. In fact, backup left outside linebacker Steve Foley seemed to get nearly as many looks rushing the passer at end. Radio analyst Dave Lapham raised the point during Saturday's broadcast that even though one is a lineman and one is a linebacker, they may be competing for the same spot.

That could give the edge to Foley, a more versatile guy than the pure pass-rushing Wilson. Foley seems to have responded to head coach Marvin Lewis' in-your-face approach to him. First, Lewis demoted him behind Adrian Ross. Then, he literally got in his face during a practice last week in which he loudly lambasted Foley for poor technique in front of the crowd and maybe a TV audience because Lewis was miked during the session.

On Saturday night, Foley was as active and as aggressive as he's been with five tackles, second on the team behind rookie linebacker Khaild Abdullah's six.

T.J. HARD TO CUT: For the second straight game, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh led the Bengals in receiving (five catches for 71 yards after going four for 51 against Detroit), but he was

crestfallen after dropping a punt that got recovered at his own 16 after he called a fair catch. He misjudged it and the ball fell through his hands as he reached to his side. After the game, he could barely remember that he had made one of the niftiest plays of the night when he made Titans cornerback Mike Echols miss him six yards from a first down on a third-and-13 pass he turned into an 18-yard gain.

"When you do something like that, it just ruined my whole day," Houshmandzadeh said. "I should have kept my feet moving, or I just should have let it drop. I just can't do that."

Moments later, Houshmandzadeh was involved in a miscommunication that resulted in rookie quarterback Carson Palmer's interception on a slant pass. But Houshmandzadeh offers them an awful lot and has done many nice things the past two games. And with wide receiver Ron Dugans' status in limbo because has yet to play in a game with his Achilles' problem, it looks like Houshmandzadeh is here to stay.

Dugans has been their best special teams player for the past few seasons, but he can't get on the field. While he has rehabbed, guys like Abdullah, Reggie Myles, safety Kevin Kaesviharn, and linebacker Riall Johnson have played well on teams. But they could really use Dugans, too.

And, what do you do with wide receiver Danny Farmer? He might not be a special teams demon, but the man is averaging 19.8 yards on his five catches.

FOR STARTERS: As expected, rookie fullback Jeremi Johnson, in place of Chris Edmonds, and veteran left defensive end Duane Clemons, in place of Carl Powell, made their appearances at the front of the rotation Saturday. Johnson didn't start because they flashed the future starting out in a three-receiver set of Chad Johnson, Peter Warrick, and Kelley Washington.

Jeremi Johnson continues to impress athletically and made a nifty four-yard catch. Clemons had two tackles and was part of a front seven that held the Eddie George Titans to 55 yards rushing, with George getting just 21 of them on 10 carries.

FAIR WEATHERSBY: Rookie cornerback Dennis Weathersby is going to be fine. Yes, he appeared to get beat once on a 30-yard pass, and he got called for a 25-yard pass interference. But he showed a good short memory, played tight and physical, and came up with two tackles and two passes defensed in his first game the foe has really come after him. The Bengals liked the way he ran with the receivers down the field.

He seems to clearly be the fourth corner. The big question in the secondary seems to be if Weathersby's Oregon State teammate, Terrell Roberts, survives after Friday's pre-season finale. With the commitment to special teams, you've got to believe they keep 10 DBs and one of them figures to be Myles, going by how he has played on teams. So if they keep six corners and four safeties, Roberts probably stays. If they go five and five, probably not. As Lewis would say, "Stay tuned." **

TIGHT PICTURE:** Tony Stewart has had a fine preseason, but has the race at tight end closed after he dropped a potential touchdown pass on the game's first drive? Maybe and maybe not because Sean Brewer didn't get many snaps compared to Stewart and Matt Schobel, the two leading candidates to join Reggie Kelly on the roster.

"The adrenaline was flowing," Stewart said. "I didn't take my eye off it. I was thinking, 'Catch it.'"

But just because he didn't doesn't mean the axe is coming. But it may give Brewer another chance to get more snaps, and reverse what looks to be their mindset. They also consider what happens in practice and Brewer did have a pass bounce off his hands last week during a two-minute drill that turned into an interception. **

LINE PLAY:** For all the criticism, shuffling, and the infusion of new blood, the Bengals' offensive line depth chart may end up looking a lot like the one from last season. Mike Goff''s transition from right guard to center got a shot in the arm when the Bengals' running game racked up five yards per carry in the first half against a Titans' defense that finished second defending the run in the NFL last season.

It looks like Victor Leyva has survived a challenge to play backup guard and right tackle, and Scott Rehberg is hanging in there to reclaim the backup left tackle/guard spot against Alex Sulfsted. Sulfsted got a shot to play left tackle with the first group in the first half Saturday night and was part of some long drives in both halves. He did get caught for one holding call, but it could come down to the Bengals wanting experience left tackle, which would carry the day for Rehberg.

To continue last year's theme, the Bengals went back to Rich Braham at center in the second half and moved Goff back to right guard, which had been the lineup the past two seasons. That unit did put together an 18-play drive, but the right side, which included pulling rookie left guard Eric Steinbach, rookie right tackle Scott Kooistra and Stewart, couldn't punch it in from one yard out on fourth down.

But Kooistra has looked good with his long arms, and the seventh-rounder has an excellent chance to make the roster. **

SMOOTH PLAY:** Yes, Bengals rookie quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown three interceptions, but he's also thrown three touchdowns, and on Saturday he quietly converted three third downs in leading an 18-play drive. Did you ever think you would see such stability and production out of the Cincinnati quarterbacks? Jon Kitna and Shane Matthews combined to complete 21 of 28 passes Saturday for 194 yards and two touchdowns.

Kitna was extremely effective on 13 of 17 for 114 yards and a touchdown, but it easily could have been 15 of 17 for 150 yards and two touchdowns if not for drops by Stewart and Chad Johnson. On the throw to Stewart, Kitna was about to get blown up by linebacker Peter Sirmon, but he delivered the ball on time as he took the hit.

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