9-15-02, 3:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
CLEVELAND _ It is now officially awful and getting worse.
The Browns took a 17-0 lead in the last minute of the first half here Sunday after Bengals quarterback Gus Frerotte tried to get rid of a pass with his left hand and avoid a sack so his team could at least try a field-goal in the red zone.
But Browns defensive end Kenard Lang plucked it out of the air and rambled 71 yards before Frerotte drove him out of bounds inside the Cincinnati 10.
Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb flipped an eight-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Johnson with 21 seconds left to drive the Bengals into even more disarray.
As the Bengals went into the half, the offense had yet to score a touchdown in 2002, hadn't scored a point in Cleveland in six quarters, receivers and quarterbacks were questioning each other again, the special teams had another early error, and Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon was the only shred of decency in a downpour at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Dillon had 67 yards on 13 carries and 16 more yards on two catches in the first half, but missed the last two-minute drill when he had to leave to get fluids for a cramp.
Frerotte, hounded by a Browns' defense missing its top two pass rushers, got chased all over northeast Ohio by an obscure band of defenders. Frerotte was
a miserable 9 of 22 in the first half for 70 yards. But when he wasn't flat on his back for three sacks, running back Rudi Johnson and wide receiver Michael Westbrook were dropping an estimated five passes between them.
Westbrook dropped two in the half's last drive, and the last one would have given them a first down at about the 10 with less than a minute left.
Then, on third-and-five from the Cleveland 17, Bengals left guard Matt O'Dwyer got pushed back by defensive tackle Orpheus Roye and Roye wrapped up Frerotte. Frerotte, a nine-year veteran, tried to unload it with his other hand and it was disastrous.
Holcomb was deadly efficient for the second straight week on 13 of 20 passing for 164 yards. While a veteran offensive line couldn't give Frerotte time, the Browns had Holcomb take quick three-step drops to avoid the pressure.
Kicker Phil Dawson ended the Browns' first drive with the longest field goal of his career and his 20th straight since last season when he hit a 52-yarder five minutes into the game to give the Browns a 3-0 lead.
Then the Bengals mangled their field-goal try on their ensuing drive from 51 yards away when head coach Dick LeBeau appeared to try a fake on fourth-and-5. But Rackers fumbled the direct snap and could only get off a sideways punt that went to the Bengals 38.
The Bengals moved the ball much better than on Opening Day, but could get no points despite five drives into Browns' territory.
The Bengals had a great chance to score on their first drive of the second quarter, but their offensive line couldn't keep them off Frerotte. They made Browns' fans forget about right end Courtney Brown when Lang blew up Frerotte from the right side. Lang was called for hitting the quarterback in the helmet and when Frerotte returned after a play off, Dillon had given him a second-and-six from the Browns 43.
But right guard Mike Goff got pushed back by tackle Gerard Warren and Frerotte couldn't step up to avoid Brown's replacement, Mark Word, for the drive-killing sack.
Frerotte couldn't revive the drive on a play he had wide receiver Peter Warrick running wide open on the right sideline and he threw it behind him. Warrick was incensed and the two talked about it on the sidelines in a discussion that wasn't as heated, but was reminiscent of the not-on-the-same-page blowup in Baltimore last year.
The Browns then walked in when they got the ball as Holcomb picked on the Bengals' underneath coverage. Kevin Johnson knifed over the middle for a 23-yard gain, tight ends Matt Campbell and Steve Heiden got 20 yards and Holcomb finished it off by lofting a 15-yard touchdown pass over cornerback Artrell Hawkins to make it 10-0 with less than four minutes left in the half.
With the Bengals badly needing to right their ship Sunday, they had hoped they hit the Browns at just the right time.
Cleveland, coming off a 40-39 loss to Kansas City, didn't have the same offensive line that gave Holcomb time to uncork his career-day 326 yards. Center Dave Wohlabaugh is out with a broken hand and right tackle Ryan Tucker can't go after getting hurt last week.
So Shaun O'Hara moved from right guard to make his fifth NFL start at center and first since 2000, while Paul Zukauskas made his first NFL start at right guard and Roger Chanoine moved from backup left tackle to start for Tucker.
The Browns also came in without their top two pass rushers. Jamir Miller is out for the year and Brown (neck) didn't play Sunday.
The Bengals also did some re-tooling on defense, where they have three new starters, and not just because of injury. Injuries forced left outside linebacker Adrian Ross to start in place of Canute Curtis and left end Bernard Whittington to start in front of Vaughn Booker. But they also shuffled their safeties in response to the Chargers' 401-yard day last week. Free safety Mark Roman got benched, JoJuan Armour came off the bench to start at strong safety, and Cory Hall moved from strong to free.
Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was expected to get only spot time because of a muscle pull, which gave Westbrook his first Bengals' start.