Kitna won't finger blame

12-17-01, 6:40 A.M.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ As everyone tried to put a finger on Jon Kitna's two inteceptions in the final 4:32 Sunday, the Bengals' quarterback and head coach disagreed.

Dick LeBeau said he's certain the sprained middle finger on Kitna's throwing hand played a role on the high throws that sailed into the Jets' hands on balls that appeared headed to wide receiver Peter Warrick.

"Sure. It affected it some," LeBeau said. "You look at his finger and it's badly swollen. It's very stiff. I give him a lot of credit for going out there. I'm sure his finger was a factor on some of the balls that got away from him at the end."

But Kitna, who hit his first six passes of the second half before missing five of his last eight, said the finger wasn't a problem. Citing one of the recurrent themes of this season, Kitna said it was a case of not being on the same wavelength with his receiver.

"There wasn't anything the finger limited me to today," Kitna said. "I didn't have a problem with it."

But the Bengals have a problem.

Kitna, the free-agent quarterback they gave a $4 million bonus back in March, has now thrown two touchdowns and 10 interceptions in the six-game losing streak. Their former franchise quarterback in Akili Smith looks to be on the shelf for the rest of the year. Their No. 3 quarterback, journeyman Scott Mitchell, looks to be journeying on after the season.

One of Kitna's picks was a Hail Mary at the end of Sunday's first half, which is what it looks like the Bengals need to get some decent quarterback play. Kitna's problems were compounded by the fact the Bengals had no timeouts left with 6:57 left in the game.

He took two when the Jets

changed alignments on third-down plays, and the defense took the other before stopping the Jets on a two-point conversion.

"The first one, they showed us a typical defense," said Kitna before a third-and-one the Bengals converted on a scoring drive. "They were switching back and forth. . .It was third-and-one. It was a critical down and the (play) clock was going down. It was necessary."

Needing just a field goal and with the ball on the Jets 48, Kitna took a shot over the middle to Warrick on first-and-10 at about the Jets 35. He rolled to the right, but the pass was high and behind Warrick, where safety Damien Robinson waited.

"The receiver was coming to my right, there were (Jets) on the right and I was trying to fit it into a hole and it ended up being behind him," Kitna said.

"If I throw it in front of him (it would get intercepted)," Kitna said. "I was just hoping he would be on the same page and he would settle in that hole and we obviously weren't on the same page because he kept going and I tried to throw it in that hole."

When the Bengals got a reprieve with 1:15 left on John Hall's missed field goal, Kitna tried to launch one to Warrick at about midfield from his own 31 with 48 seconds left. Linebacker James Farrior picked off another high throw that wasn't close.

"I anticipated him coming out of his break and threw it to a spot," Kitna said.

The Bengals would dearly love for Kitna to succeed because he says and does all the right things until he starts throwing the ball.

Yes, he considered Akili Smith's start a benching because he feels the finger he hurt on a helmet last week is fine. Yes, he wasn't happy with it, but he understood the explanation that they wanted to get a look at Smith. And he was the first person to greet Smith coming off the field after Smith led the Bengals on a 20-play touchdown drive on their game's first series.

"Why wouldn't I?" Kitna asked. "He didn't make the decision to bench me. . .It was a great drive. He did an awesome job. Of course I'm going to congratulate him. I want what's best for him. I think at times it makes for a better story if we didn't get along, but that's not the case."

**

THIS AND THAT:** Bengals punter Nick Harris appeared to struggle with a 38-yard average on four punts. He got off a 39-yarder that set up the Jets at their own 31 for the winning drive. . . Left outside linebacker Steve Foley (back) was a scratch and is questionable for next week. Defensive end Justin Smith is probable with a hip pointer. . .

The Giants played here Saturday and the field wasn't good. Hall missed field goals from 40 and 34. But like his finger, Kitna said the field was no problem.

DEFENSE DASHED: The Bengals' defensive stand of six straight games of not allowing 300 yards ended when the Jets scrounged for 309. But the game was lost because 120 of those yards came on third down. The operative word in the locker room was "uncharacteristic," because the Jets were 57 percent on third down (8-for-14) against a defense that had been solid at 36 percent. Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde also flipped his two short touchdown passes on third down.

After an eight-sack game the week before, the Bengals got no sacks as the Jets "Dash-ed," their hopes by rolling Testaverde out of the pocket to buy more time.

"We worked on it a lot, but you wouldn't know it from what happened in that game right there," said Bengals coach Dick LeBeau of the Dash package. Part of it was good execution on their part and we couldn't get it to fit up."

The Bengals not only Dash-ed Testaverde out of the pocket, but Bengals sack leader Justin Smith said the Jets spent a good part of the day double teaming him with fullback Richie Anderson.

"Anytime you do dashes and things like that," said Bengals safety Chris Carter, "that's a big protection conscious for your offense. It gives your quarterback time to roll out and

find someone open. Get out of the pocket, move the pocket. It gives you time. Anytime you have time, the receiver can basically run anything they want to run to get open. They had a good game plan to get away from our pressure."

The Jets looked to get the upper hand on an intriguing No. 3 battle. With first-rounder Santana Moss out of the lineup again, the Jets' third receiver was Kevin Swayne, a rookie free agent who played in the XFL and was playing for the Arena League's New York Dragons when the Jets called early in training camp.

Swayne was often matched against the Bengals No. 3 corner, Kevin Kaesviharn, the rookie free agent who also came out of both leagues. Swayne, who came in with seven catches for 95 yards, had a career day on four catches for 74 yards. Three of them converted a third-and-13 and two third-and-10s.

His third-and-10s were huge in the fourth quarter. His 27-yarder set up the Jets' first touchdown and his 14-yarder kept a Jet drive going near the two-minute warning when the Bengals had no timeouts left.

"They hit a couple on me and one was that third-and-13," said Kaesviharn of a play late in the first quarter. They gave me a stutter and go. All week long, I was thinking when they were going third-and-long, they were taking shots. That way, if they'd get an interception, it would be just like a punt.

"That was going through my head," Kaesviharn. "With the stutter and go, I couldn't see the dash because I was pressing (man-to-man). That hurts giving up third-and-long."

Kaesviharn wasn't the only one. Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, playing for the fist time in three weeks off a high ankle sprain, struggled with the field and slipped at least once on third down. Cornerback Mark Roman got called for an 18-yard pass interference penalty on wide receiver Wayne Chrebet in the Jets' winning touchdown drive.

"We doubled up on them and they did a good job figuring out the single receiver," Hawkins said. "Their game plan was deep-in routes and deep comebacks and they got it time and time again."

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