Defense keeps Bengals close

BY GEOFF HOBSON

JACKSONVILLE _ The Bengals used a stingy defense to sack Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell twice and keep their struggling offense and special teams in a game they trailed, 10-0, at halftime.

Rookie kicker Neil Rackers is still seeking his first NFL field goal after misses from 44 and 47 yards. His 47-yarder on the last play of the half bounced off the left upright and ended the Bengals' most promising drive of the day. Bengals quarterback Akili Smith, 7 of 14 passing in the half for 59 yards, got 22 of them on two throws over the middle to receiver Craig Yeast in the final minute.

But Jaguars strong safety Donovin Darius then atoned for getting beat by Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe for the winning touchdown last week. He broke up Smith's pass to Warrick inside the 10-yard line, and then on the next play came over the top to tip away a pass in the end zone from tight end Marco Battaglia.

The Bengals' bid for a quick start against the Jaguars got flattened when a penalty and Tremain Mack's fumbled kickoff staked Jacksonville to a 10-0 lead in the first 9:23. The special teams betrayed them when Rackers shoved a 44-yard field goal try to the left.

Cincinnati's effort to establish the run here in a downpour at ALLTEL Stadium was also hampered by three holding penalties on the offensive line on the first five plays. Running back Corey Dillon had just 18 yards on 10 carries in the first half.

The game opened with the Cincinnati defense apparently holding the Jaguars without a first down on the first two series. But when Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell killed the second drive by throwing the ball out of bounds on third down, Bengals cornerback Tom Carter was called for holding receiver Jimmy Smith along the sideline.

It was an automatic first down and for Brunell's 93.7 passing rating, that was dangerous. Three plays later he saw receiver Keenan McCardell running past cornerback Artrell Hawkins to the left corner and hit him for a 21-yard touchdown pass.

On the ensuing kickoff, Mack fumbled the wet ball at his own 17 a week after Yeast's fumbled punt deep in Cincinnati territory led to a Cleveland touchdown. This time the Bengals held the Jags to a 30-yard field goal, the first of Steve Lindsey's career in place of the injured Mike Hollis.

But the Bengals' defense held up well and didn't let the day become Brunell's 30th birthday party. In the first half, Brunell completed 12 of 17 passes for 111 yards, but Cincinnati didn't give him the big play. His longest completion in the half was the scoring pass to McCardell. Linebacker Takeo Spikes and strong safety Cory Hall each sacked him.

Smith didn't get sacked, but the Bengals could still do nothing in the first quarter on offense, keeping the ball less than five minutes for just 22 yards after holds on left tackle Rod Jones, right guard Mike Goff and right tackle Willie Anderson. In the game's first 35 minutes, the offensive line got called for five penalties, four of them holds.

The Bengals' effort to put Smith in comfortable passing situations never happened in the half. In his sixth NFL start, Smith stared at third-down situations of nine, 18, 12, nine , eight, and 11 yards.

Cincinnati's best plays came on the running of Smith as he was chased out of the pocket. Smith wheeled away from the rush to hit rookie receiver Peter Warrick over the middle for a 14-yard gain on third-and-12, but Rackers ended the drive with the missed field goal.

The Jaguars' home opener should have been broadcast on the Weather Channel. With Hurricane Gordon stalking Florida, the game began under a tornado watch and a tropical storm warning with winds expected to gust in the 40 mile-per-hour range. Rackers began the game with a kickoff into a steady rain that shortly turned into a downpour on a day the rain went on and off.

Tight end Tony McGee made his team-leading 105th straight start for the Bengals with a sprained right ankle and bruised left toes. Jags running back Fred Taylor was inactive with an injured knee.

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