11-4-02, 6:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Fullback Lorenzo Neal said the Bengals are now playing with the emotion that was missing in the first six games of the season. And it was cornerback Artrell Hawkins who provided Sunday's emotional lift.
The day did not start well. If the Bengals looked in the morning newspaper on the way to Reliant Stadium, they would have noted they have the worst winning percentage of any pro sports team over the past dozen years at .312. The Detroit Tigers are 442, the Los Angeles Clippers 354 and the New York Islanders 419.
Then, Texans rookie quarterback David Carr carved up the Bengals' secondary and threatened to give Houston a 10-3 lead on a third-and-five from the Bengals 5 on the last play of the first quarter.
That's when Hawkins stepped in front of an out route and went 102 yards the other way to make it 10-3 the other way.
How big was it?
"A 14-point play," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons.
How badly did the defense need it? They came into the game giving up 30 points per game and were on pace to threaten taking the third spot in the NFL record book for the most points allowed all time. But they responded in a game the Bengals didn't allow a touchdown for the first time since Oct. 29, 2000 in Cleveland.
How badly did the secondary need it? Coming into the game they had allowed 15 touchdown passes and several big plays, including two long throws that tilted last week's game to Tennessee. But the Texans, who came in averaging a NFL-best 13.5 yards per catch, got held to 11.1 with the longest reception going to tight end Billy Miller.
How badly did Hawkins need it? He had been the victim of the last two scores in the 30-24 loss. But the Bengals rallied around his play to shut out the Texans the rest of the way on two sacks, two picks, 3.3 yards per rush, and now they are on pace to give up 428 points and not more than the franchise-record 460.
"I think we came into the season thinking we're going to be good, but you have to prove it," Neal said. "Guys on another teams came out and hit us in the mouth. They wanted it more. That was the disappointment.
We're not a bad team. We just didn't show up. Hopefully we can ride this emotion. Can't play this game without emotion."
Hawkins was certainly emotional afterward.
"I just want to thank God," Hawkins said. "This week was pretty tough not only for myself, but for my teammates. It was the toughest week we've had all year. To come out and play like we did today, it was so lopsided, God was looking out for us.
"I felt like if I had made a couple of plays (last week), I feel like we could have been in the game," Hawkins said. "(Sunday's play) completely changed the momentum of the game and after that we came around like we hadn't all year."
Injuries had a role. Since Jeff Burris, the other starting cornerback, barely played with a hamstring problem, Hawkins wasn't in his usual spot in the slot against three-receiver sets. Hawkins moved to the outside with Mark Roman coming off the bench to go in the slot.
(Left outside linebacker Arian Ross, who has been nursing a bad knee, was the only other change in the starting lineup when he sat in favor of Canute Curtis.)
On third-and-five, Hawkins said he read an out route to wide receiver Corey Bradford, caught it in front of him, and just started running up the sideline.
"The rest is history, said Hawkins, which is true. It tied the longest Bengals' interception return that cornerback Louis Breeden set 21 years ago this week in San Diego.
"I ran out of gas about 50 yards into it," said Hawkins, but his adventure was just beginning.
With defensive end Reinard Wilson running interference for him, Hawkins stopped to cut back to the middle of the field on the Texans 24-yard-line, where he appeared to step out of bounds. He then ran away from Carr and did a Nestea plunge into the end zone.
""Tony Boselli (an offensive lineman) caught me four years ago,'' Hawkins said. "I couldn't let this quarterback catch me." <>
But Hawkins had to wait for the refs to review the Texans' challenge that he stepped out of bounds. As he watched the play on the stadium board, Hawkins thought it could go either way. But he also thought it was inconclusive, which is how the Bengals lost a challenge and the game the week before.
"We finally got a call our way," Hawkins said.
Because of the threat of double moves by the receivers, Hawkins never looked at Carr and read Bradford. It was Hawkins' second interception of the season, and the Bengals got their seventh of the year in the second half when rookie free safety Lamont Thompson came up with his first career pick. That came courtesy of a tipped ball by defensive tackle Oliver Gibson.
The Texans made sure they frequently gave Carr maximum protection, and they had better than an average day doing it. The Bengals could get just two sacks (Simmons and defensive end Justin Smith) against a team that had allowed an NFL-high 44 coming into the game. But with fewer receivers running patterns, the Bengals got enough heat on Carr to force him into an 18 of 32 day for less than 200 yards
But Hawkins chalked up the effort to being on the field for just 28:38.
"The best defense is the kind our offense played today," Hawkins said. "They kept us off the field, running the ball, the receivers were making plays. It was a combined, collected effort. We didn't play very much (less than 11 minutes) in the second half."
Hawkins didn't hear much about the victory guarantee from head coach Dick LeBeau and wide receiver Chad Johnson during the week, but he admitted, "It made you want to come out and say, 'We can't give up big plays, we have to do things the way they have to get done, no turnovers, things of that nature."
Hawkins and Simmons each had six tackles and right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes led the press-box stats with seven in a pretty complete effort. The Texans had only 82 yards rushing with a long of 11.
The effort proved again to Simmons that his team has the talent to play like that pretty much every game.
"Every guy has to get ready mentally," Simmons said. "It has to be mental. You can't change that much physically."