11-18-01, 4:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Titans quarterback Steve McNair's bruised thumb turned into a green thumb Sunday as the man known as "Air McNair," beat the Bengals on the ground in Tennessee's 20-7 victory at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
McNair, who didn't practice all week with the bone bruise, ended up with more rushing yards than Pro Bowl running back Eddie George, 68-61. His two big runs kept alive the game-sealing drive that took up 6:45 of the fourth quarter and resulted in Joe Nedney's 37-yard field goal with just under three minutes left in the game.
The loss sends the Bengals reeling in the AFC Central, dropping them into a tie with the 4-5 Titans and marking the first time this season Cincinnati is under .500 after dropping to 0-2 since the bye week.
Late in the game, McNair broke a 13-yard run on 3rd-and-12 out of a quarterback draw, cutting past Bengals' leading tackler Takeo Spikes for about the final seven yards. When safety Darryl Williams was called for unneccessary roughness at the end of the play.
Earlier in the second half, one play after sprinting up the middle to get past the Bengals pass rush for 19 yards, McNair floated a 28-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Dyson after Dyson beat cornerback Mark Roman down the right sideline. As defensive end Vaughn Booker smacked McNair, McNair lofted it where Dyson could slide and catch it in the end zone despite a pass interference call on Roman with 2:06 left in the third quarter.
McNair, who didn't practice all week with the bone bruise, hit 13 of his first 19 passes for 152 yards.
But it was a punchless offense that dug the Bengals the hole in the second half before 63,865. As hot as Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna was in the first half, he was cold in the third quarter against a Titans pass defense rated worst in the NFL.
Kitna underthrew receiver Darnay Scott for cornerback Samari Rolle's interception on the first series of the half and on the next series, Rolle dropped what would have been a 25-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Then with 9:45 left in the game and the Bengals getting a life after cornerback Artrell Hawkins caused an Eddie George fumble in Tennessee territory, Kitna threw to wide receiver Peter Warrick in double coverage and got intercepted by linebacker Keith Bulluck.
That interception came on third-and-long, courtesy of Titans end Jevon Kearse's 10-yard sack of Kitna. Kearse went around the outside of tight end Tony McGee lined up outside of left tackle Richmond Webb.
And for the second straight week, the Bengals' offensive line offered no holes for running back Corey Dillon. At one point, Dillon had 33 yards on his first eight carries. But he finished with just 38 yards on 17 carries.
The Bengals couldn't generate any points after passing up field-goal tries on two trips beyond the Titans' 30-yard line and trailed the Titans, 10-7, at halftime.
Dillon, who lost yardage or got nothing on the last four times he ran the ball in the half, lost a yard on fourth-and-1 from the Titans 29 with less than four minutes left. The Bengals ran a toss sweep behind right tackle Willie Anderson and fullback Lorenzo, but middle linebacker Randall Godfrey disrupted the slow developing play.
The Pro Bowl showdown between Dillon and Tennessee's Eddie George was a first half wash. Dillon had 29 yards on 12 carries and George had 31 on eight. Kitna came out sharp and had two long touchdown passes dropped in the end zone by Scott and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Scott on the first two series and finished the half 12 for 18 passing for 127 yards.
With Warrick's return questionable with a bruised right thigh, third receiver Ron Dugans responded with four catches of 44 yards that included a touchdown. Warrick returned in the second half.
It took the Titans just 17 seconds to swipe the home crowd intensity from the Bengals when Derrick Mason raced 101 yards with the opening kickoff as Tennessee leaped to 10-0 lead in the game's first 10 minutes.
The Bengals five-minute lead in time of possession and 34-yard lead in
offense was negated by seven Bengals' penalties for 55 yards.
The Bengals rallied to 10-7 with 1:06 left in the first quarter Dugans stretched for a diving 10-yard touchdown catch on third-and-5.
The big play in the drive came when former Titan Lorenzo Neal caught a 12-yard pass and the Bengals got 15 more yards on Godfrey's face-mask penalty.
The Bengals could have gone up 14-10 on the next series when defensive linemen Vaughn Booker and Oliver Gibson forced quarterback Steve McNair to hurry an interception to cornerback Artrell Hawkins at the Cincinnati 30.
But on the first play, Warrick lost 14 yards on a reverse when tackle Joe Salave'a blew it up from the backside on the right side of the line. Then with Dillon getting 33 yards on his first eight carries and the Bengals driving to the Titans 15, right guard Mike Goff was called for a hold and for the second time in the game, the Bengals passed up a 49-yard field-goal attempt to punt even though Neil Rackers' last kick was a career-long 52-yarder last week in Jacksonville.
In the second quarter, the Bengals defense offered back-to-back three-and-outs, once when Pro Bowl running back George got stuffed on third-and-one and once when the Titans got the ball at midfield.
But another holding call on Goff stopped another drive.
The Bengals' kick-off team, next to last in the AFC in allowing field position, let Mason field a low kick and roar up the right sideline untouched until he shook off kicker Neil Rackers.
Titans kicker Joe Nedney saved a touchdown on the next play when he dragged down the Bengals' Curtis Keaton at midfield. Instead of attempting a 49-yard field goal, Rackers tried a quick punt that rolled into the end zone. The Titans then overcame two holding calls when quarterback Steve McNair hit his first five passes for 63 yards to get Nedney's 40-yard field goal with about five minutes left in the first quarter. Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes knocked down McNair's sixth pass to set up the field goal.
Even two hours before kickoff, Bengals rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson insisted he could play. But the Bengals, who were looking for more improvement from his broken left collarbone during practice this past week, decided to inactivate him for the fourth straight game.
With Johnson out and tight end Marco Battaglia shelved for the season after Saturday's appendectomy, the Bengals went into the game against the Titans without two of their better third-down receivers. Because Battaglia got sick in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the Bengals virtually had no chance to implement changes into their game plan.
Tight end Kirk McMullen, signed from the practice squad, makes his NFL debut, but it's unclear what he'll be asked to do on third down. He's seen as a comparable blocker to Battaglia, but isn't as accomplished a receiver.
The move could force the Bengals to use more of running back Brandon Bennett with Corey Dillon on third down, or go with more sets of four wide receivers. But that presents problems in pass protection, a key element against the Titans and their pass-rushing tandem of defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter.