Kitna at center of North shift

1:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PITTSBURGH - Jon Kitna, the future high school math teacher who is now working in the elite ratios of NFL, laughed when asked of the statistical probabilities of Sunday's sudden 24-20 victory over the Steelers.

After all, the Bengals hadn't won four straight games during a season since 1989 season. They hadn't won two straight on the road since 1995, or here since 1999, or ever at Heinz Field, or very much against Steelers coach Bill Cowher and his 17-6 edge against Cincinnati since he arrived in 1992.

And, they roughly had to go a yard a second to do it with 57 seconds left and on their own 48 in a hostile hot house trying to remind them they have the league's worst road record in the last dozen years.

Plus, they didn't work on the two-minute drill this week because the miserable weather cut so much into their practice time.

"But we've been doing it every week since training camp started, so we're well versed in it," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.

How about a word problem? What are the odds that the Bengals, with the worst kickoff return average in the NFL, would cork off a 27-yarder on the last special teams play of the game?

But the math teacher crunched the numbers when his 18-yard tracer to tight end Matt Schobel with 13 seconds left kept the Bengals in first place in the AFC North at 7-5 with the Baltimore team they play on the road next Sunday.

"There was no probability," Kitna said. "You saw us when we left Buffalo. It was the lowest of the lows. But when God starts to move, unbelievable things happen."

At the very least, the Bengals seem to be destiny's team in Marvin Lewis' first year as head coach. After Lewis responded to Pittsburgh's score in the final minute with, "Let's go for the win," Kitna recalled how the Bengals stumbled out of Buffalo after the loss in last year's finale secured the worst record in club history at 2-14.

But since they left Buffalo eight weeks ago after a 22-16 overtime loss, they have won six of their last seven while Kitna has rung up 16 touchdowns against three interceptions. The Bengals have seven victories for the first time since Boomer Esiason's stretch run in 1997, and Kitna is outBoomering Boomer with 18 touchdowns and one interception in the seven wins.

"Pro Bowl," said wide receiver Chad Johnson as he whistled. "Pro Bowl."

"The stuff that he does that makes us better as an offense other than throwing the football is just endless. Endless," Lewis said. "As far as directing guys, getting them in the right places. It is just tremendous. Obviously that football team believes in him and it is fun to watch."

They believed in that final drive, but maybe the most important thing that happened Sunday is the calling card left by Lewis at the door of the division's most dominant team during Cincinnati's decade-long sleep. Last year, the Steelers were 6-0 in the North and until Sunday had won nine of 10 North games over the last two years. The Bengals, 0-6 in the division last year, are now 3-1. The Steelers are 4-8 overall as the balance of power now has to include Cincinnati.

"When they scored before, with a minute left, this team would have gone into the tank," said Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, a Greater Pittsburgh guy from Johnstown, Pa. "This team would have hung their heads. We came off the sidelines [and said], 'you've got to go out to score. We've got to win this.' "

The Steelers took their first lead of the day with 1:05 left in the game on quarterback Tommy Maddox's 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Hines Ward at 20-17. With Baltimore pounding the 49ers so badly they are now the 39ers, the ride looked to be over. The Steelers would win, the Bengals would fall a game behind, the ...

But.

Steelers kicker Jeff Reed hit the ball too high into the wind on the kickoff and Brandon Bennett got his longest return in weeks on the 27-yarder. Suddenly, there was Kitna hitting wide receiver Peter Warrick for an 18-yard gain and the Bengals were on the Steelers 34 with 34 seconds left.

"No one is playing for ties in this league," Kitna said. "You get that close, you have to take your shots."

It was a play the Bengals had run before and Warrick had an idea he'd be making his fifth (and final) catch on his 54-yard day as he worked the play with Chad Johnson

"We were just trying to play high-low with the cornerback," Warrick said. "I run a corner route and CJ runs a hitch. If he backs up and sticks me, we hit CJ. If he's going out on CJ, we hit me. He got down on CJ when we ran it a few times."

More grace under pressure from Kitna? He called the next play at the line of scrimmage and it took the Steelers by surprise. A 16-yard draw plays to their running back on passing downs, Brandon Bennett. Bennett, who had carried six times in the previous six games, put the ball on the Steelers 18 with 24 seconds left and the Bengals taking their next-to-last timeout.

"Great call," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "They went right behind (center Rich Braham) and (right guard) Mike Goff, and the Steelers were coming after us on the pass rush."

Schobel thinks the draw play might have helped freeze the linebackers on his play two snaps later. Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior admited he didn't drop deep enough on the touchdown pass. After Kitna threw an incompletion to Warrick, Bratkowski called the same play on second down. Four receivers running vertical routes down the seams of the zone coverage.

"I just told (Kitna), 'Be careful,' and I trusted him," Bratkowski said. "It's the type of play he can throw it out of the end zone or hit a check down if there's nothing there."

But Schobel was there in the back of the end zone and getting drilled out of bounds by safety Chris Hope. Hope got flagged 15 yards, the replay held up, and Schobel's head hurt.

"He told me his head was hurting and he needed a new helmet," Kitna said as the two continued their weeklong ribbing. "He's not really the toughest guy. He was a (college) quarterback before and I teased him about that this week. He made a heck of a catch. He said, 'You didn't come down and celebrate with me.' I told him, 'I probably would have got a penalty. I was just a little too excited.' He did a great job. He got loose behind a guy he wasn't supposed to get behind."

Schobel thought that was one of the linebackers. He knew a hit was coming, but also knew the ball was, too.

"It was close. Questionable," said Schobel of his feet placement. " All that matters is that [the referee] put his hands in the air. A touchdown is all that really matters. . .It was my turn to make a play."

Kitna thought calling the same play after the incompletion was a good idea because the Steelers took them by surprise with a certain blitz on the first play.

"I thought that was a great call," Kitna said. "You didn't feel they were going to give you the same blitz, and basically, you're going to get the coverage you're looking for."

The message is clear. The Bengals trust Kitna, the guy who is always supped to be giving up the big play late instead of making it.

Not this year. Not with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

"That shows a lot of trust in the quarterback," Kitna said. "They're saying, 'Quarterback, we're going to take a shot here, but understand there's no need to force it. Throw the football away.' The trust that that we have in our relationship is awesome."

The trust is locker-room wide as teammates are openly lobbying him for the Pro Bowl.

"He's got my vote," said safety Kevin Kaesviharn.

Hawkins: "Hats off to Kitna, he's been playing so well. I don't know what his touchdown-to-interception ratio is, but it has to be four or three-to-one, or something like that. . .You can't go wrong with those kind of stats. Hats off to the offense, they bailed the defense out. Again, they've been doing it every week. The last two weeks with Kansas City, and last week San Diego running the clock out, then today coming with the big score with 13 seconds left on the clock. Kudos to them.

"He's been amazing since I've been here," said Schobel, a second-year player. "He's not only a great quarterback, but a great leader."

It really shows up like in a game like Sunday because of all the funky blitz looks the Steelers throw at offenses. Kitna and Braham are those responsible for getting the pass protection lined up with pre-snap recognition. After giving up four sacks in the Sept. 21 loss to the Steelers, the Bengals allowed just one Sunday and Kitna took the blame for not being able to get away from rookie safety Troy Polamalu's first NFL sack.

Kitna apparently lost his cool in the next-to-last series, when left tackle Levi Jones' personal foul and a delay of game penalty conspired to hold the Bengals to a field goal instead of a touchdown. Although he did take the blame for losing track of the play clock.

"We bounced back. We can share our emotions, share our feelings," Kitna said of the outbursts. "No one is going to get upset about it. We're all men here. you deal with it and move on.

"Sometimes I get upset, and sometimes I can kind of fly off the handle on the field," Kitna said. "But I've never done it in a demeaning or malicious way. It's just when you expect a lot yourself, you expect a lot of others."

Asked if he shared his emotions after the botched touchdown drive, Kitna smiled, "Yes. And some shared their emotions with me."

Kitna, a devout Christian, admitted it was about as emotional as he's ever been on the field after he threw his strike to Schobel. He kept pointing to his wrist, where he keeps a cross, which "is the ultimate sign of salvation."

"I'm like the cockroach," Kitna said. "You step on a cockroach, you think it's dead, and I just kind of keep coming back, and hopefully we're that team."

But no matter how he tried, he couldn't get Lewis to show much emotion. Kitna had been impressed how during the week Lewis never mentioned he was going back home to face the team that he first coached in the NFL.

Before the game, Kitna told Lewis, "We're going to get this one for you." After they upheld the Schobel play, Kitna went up to Lewis to clap his hands and teased him with, "Still 13 seconds left, we can still lose, Coach.' But Marvin, he's all stoic."

Even after Lewis walked across the field to shake Cowher's hand to end this chapter of what may be a frequent power summit as the balance of power broadens.

"I've been to Pittsburgh now this is year number seven. So it is just fun to win. Anytime it is a division game it is good news for us," Lewis said.

Maybe he couldn't get excited because next week is another homecoming in Baltimore.

"Now we're going to do what people said we couldn't do. We're going win three on the road. That is our goal," Lewis said. "That is not a prediction that is our goal. It is our goal to win three on the road. And we have a great ballgame next week.

Like Kitna said, the numbers this season are only improbable.

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