Kitna loses, but lifts Bengals

10-6-02, 9:45 p.m. Updated:
10-7-02, 4:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ It wasn't a very good stat line for a NFL quarterback.

A total of 244 passing yards on 43 attempts, which works out to a meager 5.7 yards per attempt. One touchdown pass. Three interceptions. And a season's passer rating of 57.6.

It was more like a flat line compared to Peyton Manning's line, but what Jon Kitna did for the Bengals' pass offense Sunday in a 28-21 loss to the Colts here in the RCA Dome was incalculable.

It also wasn't enough as the Bengals lost their 38th straight game on the road to a team with a winning record.

But it was a lifeline because Kitna did what Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau wanted him to do when he made him his third starting quarterback in three weeks.

"He stabilized us," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "It's like I told you guys about looking into his eyes in the huddle. He's confident, he can relate things to you. He knows what's going on. That's a plus."

"Kitna knows the offense," said wide receiver Peter Warrick after scoring his first touchdown in 17 games. "We just sit back and let him run the show. The quarterback is supposed to be the leader."

After four games in which the offense had produced just one touchdown and three sub 200-yard passing days, Kitna put the Bengals back into the land of the living with

21 points. The team that came into the game on pace to score 92 points (48 points fewer than the NFL's 16-game record of 140), is now on pace for 141.

And his decisiveness with the playbook in the pocket is a major reason the Bengals allowed fewer than two sacks for the first time all season. Despite trailing the entire game, they gave up just one sack when left tackle Levi Jones let fellow rookie Dwight Freeney get around the edge in the fourth quarter.

But after his first start of the season, Kitna didn't want to talk numbers. Which may be just as well since he has now thrown 26 interceptions and 13 touchdowns in 18 games with the Bengals.

But. . .

"He gave us a lift," said running back Corey Dillon.

"You guys have been around here a lot longer than I have," Kitna said. "But I'm hoping I bring a different attitude than what you guys have seen in the past.

"I felt like I bring (attitude) to this team," Kitna said. "I don't care what the score is, I feel like we can win. I don't care what happened last year. I don't care what happened an hour ago. I just care about what's going on right now."

What's going on right now is that the Bengals are kicking themselves about the chances they had to pull off one of the biggest and most important comebacks in their history. Even though wide receiver Chad Johnson had a career day of six catches for 72 yards, it's the elusive seventh catch that had him crestfallen.

With 23 seconds left and the Bengals on the Colts 35, Kitna hit Johnson with a pass at the 20 that bounced off his hands. Johnson said he ran with the ball before he had it.

"I wasn't trying to get out of bounds," Johnson said. "I was trying to get it upfield. Score a touchdown."

Kitna didn't come out and say it, but he indicated Johnson may have also been responsible for his first interception. Johnson flashed his game-breaking speed on back-to-back plays on the first drive of the second half when cornerback David Macklin interfered with him for 46 yards of penalties that put the ball on the Indy 14.

But two plays later, it appeared Johnson stopped his slant route short at the Colts 3 and when Kitna led him, cornerback Walt Harris was standing there.

Kitna tried to console Johnson about the last-minute miss via his post-game news conference: You need to go through a day like this to be a great player.

"I have more confidence in him," Kitna said, "than I have ever had after any game.

"To become a superstar in this league, you have to go through a little failure, I think this is the first time he's ever experienced that," Kitna said of understanding how important each NFL play is. "It's certainly hard on him. Like I told him, it's not like he lost the game. His play just took us out of a chance to stay in the game. He didn't lose the game. I told him he'll look back on this game if he does it right and say, 'That was the game that propelled me to greatness in this league,' and I think he can."

Johnson flashed why the Bengals made him their second-round pick in '01 in the second half, particularly on the interference penalties, as well as a leaping 17-yard catch on third-and-eight in the fourth quarter. It also showed why he is starting and free-agent Michael Westbrook isn't.

Westbrook played sparingly, had no catches, and was in on one of the interceptions. It was a timing route that was mistimed between a new QB and a receiver who missed most of training camp with a broken wrist.

But it was the interception that Kitna seemed to blame himself. It came on third-and-1 from the Bengals 32. Kitna half rolled out of the pocket on a short route and threw the ball slightly behind Westbrook near the sideline. Before Westbrook could turn his head, Harris tipped the ball and came down with it as Westbrook tried to make a play at the Colts 38.

The Bengals ended up thwarting Indy on the drive with cornerback Artrell Hawkins' end zone interception, but Kitna knew he had lost 15 yards and 1:09 on the clock.

"I'm upset with the second one personally," Kitna said. "That was costly to me, even though they didn't score. It was time consuming and field position. It was tough. I'm upset about that."

But Kitna was pleased the way his receivers played and he used the most the Bengals have used all season with eight. Working against Colts head coach Tony Dungy's famous two-deep zone, he got career days from wide receiver Ron Dugans (team-high seven catches) and Johnson, Warrick's longest touchdown pass of his career (30 yards), and rookie tight end Matt Schobel's longest catch of his career with an 11-yarder on third down.

"They played great. They stayed with me today," Kitna said. "They were right where they needed to be the whole day. When you play a defense like this, it's important to get in a spot to be in position and they did a good job with that today.

"You have to take those small chunks and hope they get a little impatient in their defense," Kitna said. "They're counting on you to get impatient in trying to get the ball downfield. We had to be patient and throw the ball underneath, throw the ball underneath, throw the ball underneath, and hopefully they come out of their assignments a little bit and that's when we got (Warrick) down the middle. You're not going to get it. That's the whole basis of their defense."

Warrick, who finished with four catches for 54 yards, scored with 59 seconds left to cut the lead to 28-21 on a first-down play. His frustration at being unable to go downfield during his career is still evident.

"That's funny," said Warrick, when told that 30 yards is his longest TD catch in the NFL.

"That ball came so quick to me," Warrick said. "I lost it in the lights at the last second. I saw the safety come over. I said, if it hit my hands, I'm going to catch and put it in there. I caught it and took a lick."

Warrick said the play is a clear-our route designed for Johnson coming behind him. When they ran it earlier in the game, Warrick said, "No one was covering me."

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