9-29-02, 6:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' defense gave its team the first lead of the season, but that lasted all of 2:30.
Which is about how long the fans' honeymoon with new starting quarterback Akili Smith lasted Sunday in another boo-bird first half for the offense at Paul Brown Stadium as Tampa Bay took a 21-7 lead at the half.
The Bengals were looking for Smith to wake up an offense that had generated just one touchdown in the first three games. But instead, they woke up the echoes of the Cleveland debacle when Smith had three Tampa Bay defenders draped over him while throwing a pass right at Bucs linebacker Shelton Quarles and he returned it 25 yards for a touchdown with 52 seconds left in the half.
If Smith wasn't running for his life, he was throwing right into coverage. He hit just three of 13 passes in the first half for 27 yards as Tampa Bay dominated with a 251-48 edge in total yards.
The Bengals' offensive line just couldn't contain defensive tackle Warren Sapp and his band, and rookie left tackle Levi Jones replaced Richmond Webb to open the second half.
Sapp had one of the two sacks of Smith in the first half and was one of those wrapped around Smith's knees on the interception.
With the Bengals failing on all seven third-down tries, generating just one first down on their own, and crumbling in a
running game that allowed Corey Dillon just 13 yards on nine carries in the first half, Tampa Bay parlayed two blown coverages into long touchdown passes for quarterback Brad Johnson.
The Bengals took the heat off Smith early when their defense generated its first two turnovers of the season in the game's first 12 minutes. Middle linebacker Brian Simmons' 51-yard interception return for a touchdown with 2:23 left in the first quarter gave the Bengals that elusive lead.
Brad Johnson, who came into the game with a streak of 153 passes without an interception, got drilled by tackle Tony Williams, and threw a floater. Simmons, who returned a lateral 56 yards for a touchdown last year, stretched out in front of wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and raced untouched down the sideline.
But 2:30 later, Brad Johnson saw tight end Ricky Dudley wide open down the middle for a 35-yard touchdown pass.
After a series in which Smith threw three incompletions (one was batted down at the line on a quick out), Brad Johnson went up top again on first down.
As defensive end Justin Smith smashed Johnson in the pocket, Brad Johnson saw cornerback Jeff Burris stay with Keyshawn Johnson on a short route and no one going with wide receiver Keenan McCardell deep. Brad Johnson lofted it down the sideline for a 65-yard touchdown as he closed the half with a passer rating of 112.7.
How bad was it? Smith's rating was 7.5 as his first start of the season looked like the previous three by Gus Frerotte. On their first three series, the Bengals could generate only two yards per play, gave up two sacks, and could only get 10 yards for Dillon on his first six carries in keeping the ball for about six of the game's first 23 minutes.
Smith did hit his first pass, a high toss over the middle that wide receiver Peter Warrick hauled in and did some nice running after the catch for a 14-yard gain that put the ball at the Bucs 34.
But they couldn't get Dillon outside on two tosses that went for minus-two yards, and Smith got sacked by a blitzing Quarles to take them out of field-goal range.
On the next possession, a bad Tom Tupa punt the Bengals at the Tampa 45, but two incompletions (one to a falling T.J. Houshmandzadeh), and a designed Smith keeper only got three yards.
In the first half, Smith, who ran so well in the preseason, had just six yards on two carries.