9-9-01, 2:35 P.M.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The sun came out at Paul Brown Stadium at the start of Sunday's NFL opener. But the Bengals' 2001 blueprint stayed in the clouds until the final minutes of a first half they ended tied with the Patriots at 10.
Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon broke a draw play for a 40-yard run when he blew past blitzing Patriots strong safety Lawyer Milloy, and then moments later he ran in untouched up the middle from the Pats' 5 with 2:16 left for a touchdown that forged the tie.
Dillon finished the half with 86 yards on 13 carries, but he was the constant on an offense that went into the second half still trying to find its passing game as quarterback Jon Kitna was 7-for-11 for 70 yards in the first half of his Bengals' debut.
The Bengals short-circuited Bledsoe's try at the two-minute drill when linebacker Ardian Ross picked up their third sack of the day.
But the problems that hounded the Bengals last season led to Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe's 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Troy Brown on the first play of the second quarter to put the Bengals in a 7-0 hole.
Bengals kick returner Curtis Keaton responded on
the ensuing kickoff with a 64-yard return that began on the left sideline and ended up on the right sideline.
But some Patriot blitzes hurried Kitna and the Bengals had to settle for Neil Rackers' 36-yard field goal with about 11 minutes left in the half.
With the Bengals driving in the middle of the first quarter at the Patriots 24 (thanks to wide receiver Darnay Scott's 19-yard run-and-catch), the ball slipped out of Kitna's hand as he went to pass and turned the ball over.
It was a familiar sight for the Bengals, who led the NFL in pre-season fumbles. Quarterback Akili Smith had 14 fumbles last season.
The Patriots then embarked on an 11-play touchdown drive in which Cincinnati gave up first downs on two long third downs, the downfall of last year's defense.
Bledsoe scrambled for one on third-and-eight and then he found wide receiver Bert Emanuel on a third-and-15 for a 16-yard gain in front of cornerback Tom Carter.
Bledsoe then hooked up with Brown in a seam between safeties Chris Carter, Cory Hall and Rodney Heath.
The Bengals aimed to run at a New England defense forced to scrub two key defensive starters in rookie tackle Richard Seymour, the club's first-round pick, and middle linebacker Ted Johnson, the Plus, sackmaster Willie McGinest, coming off off-season back surgery, didn't start at right end.
Rookie free agent Jace Sayler out of Michigan State got the start in place of Seymour and 11-year veteran Bryan Cox got the call for Johnson.
But the Patriots bleak running game showed life with people named Antowain Smith, Marc Edwards and J.R.Redmond chewing up 28 yards in a drive that ended in Adam Vinatieri's 39-yard field goal.
The Bengals got a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down in the hours before the game.
With wide receiver Danny Farmer's hyperextended knee still not 100 percent, the Bengals opted to dress just four receivers.
After watching quarterback Scott Mitchell work on his injured ankle in Saturday's walk through, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau felt he was healthy enough to make the third quarterback behind Kitna and No. 2 Akili Smith.
Mitchell severely sprained his ankle in the Bengals' next-to-last play of the preseason in the Aug. 30 loss to the Colts. At first they feared Mitchell would be out six weeks, but he rebounded from an injury for the second straight year.
It was against these Patriots last year that Mitchell suffered a severe knee sprain on the Bengals' last drive of a 16-13 loss in New England and was thought to be gone for a good chunk of the season.
But Mitchell rested a week and returned to lead the Bengals to a 2-2 finish.
With Mitchell healthy, the Bengals deactivated quarterback Scott Covington Sunday for the game, as well as Farmer, running back Rudi Johnson, offensive linemen Jamain Stephens and Victor Leyva, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and defensive lineman Mario Monds.
The idea of activating rookie defensive end Justin Smith less than 24 hours after he signed his contract didn't get much play in the Bengals' front office. The thought of exposing their $11.85 Million Man to injury after not wearing pads for nearly a year wasn't an attractive worst-case scenario.