BY GEOFF HOBSON
NASHVILLE - Weren't the Bengals supposed to be the team playing loose with nothing to lose?
Weren't the Bengals supposed to be the team daring to pull out all the stops and letting it all hang out to avoid slipping to 2-5?
Weren't the Titans supposed to be the uptight, tentative team in front of a surly crowd just waiting for any signs of extending this season's home winless streak and an ugly season to 2-6 before heading into their bye without their MVP quarterback?
Welcome to the Kings Island Bengals and this Beastly season of roller-coaster inconsistency. In six days, they went from Monday Night lights to a blackout with four offsides penalties on defense and six penalties on the offense's first 20 snaps.
The Bengals froze while the Titans gambled on two fourth-down plays in the last crucial moments of the first half and rode the play of someone named Billy Volek throwing his seventh and eighth career touchdown passes in a 27-20 victory.
"Very disappointing loss to say the least," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "We didn't play smart enough early to give ourselves an opportunity. We fell behind. We had the chance to turn it around and we didn't do it well enough, particularly in the end of the first half."
Despite the Bengals' second-half comebacks from deficits of 13-3 and 27-13, the game seemed to tilt for good with 2:36 left in the second quarter and the Titans looking at a fourth-and-two from the Bengals 41 in a game they led, 6-3.
The Titans ran punter Craig Hentrich on the field, but he broke the huddle quickly, got behind his center and two guards in the middle of the field and walked to an eight-yard gain on a quarterback sneak through a surprised Bengals punt team that was looking for a pass.
"We knew they were a gimmick team and we prepared for something like this," said Bengals special teams ace Kevin Walter. "The looks we saw, that we practiced for, they usually threw a pass ... we had never seen them run it."
Walter said the Bengals were prepared for "the gate," a group of five players bunched and split wide. Two other players were split to the other side. But there was only one player close to Hentrich and his three linemen and it was rookie defensive end Robert Geathers off to the side. His youth may have prevented him from calling a timeout, but the Bengals defended not taking one at that time.
"It happened so fast. Boom, they got it," Walter said. "And we thought we had it, we thought we had it covered up. It's just that he snapped the ball so fast."
But Walter did say the Bengals should have covered up the offensive line.
"We have been through it and it was a little different than the ones we've worked on and seen thus far on film," Lewis said. "They have used those in every game so we should have defended it better. They used the quarterback sneak. It was something a little different. We fanned out to cover the guys and they were heads up enough to have the quarterback sneak it."
Lewis thought giving themselves an option was a smart move by the Titans.
"We have some smart people on our punt team and a courageous punter that can make good decisions," said Titans head coach Jeff Fisher. "It was an ideal time to do it with time running down in the second quarter."
Then Volek supplied the crusher on the last play of the half, finding a wide-open tight end Shad Meier for a one-yard touchdown pass off a play-action fake.
"That hurt," said Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, the former Titan who has been telling the Bengals about Tennessee's penchant for fake kicks.
"They were 2-5 and trying to get the crowd into it. They're trying to keep their season alive," said Thornton said of the last play. Typical Jeff. If they were 4-2, he would have gone for the field goal. They were desperate, just like us. They came out to win."
But only the Titans came out desperate.
"I thought there was a big difference between three points and seven points before halftime, and it was a well-executed play," Fisher said. "Billy did a nice job of selling the run and Shad did a nice job of getting open."
The Bengals continue to be baffled by their inability to execute the simplest of things.
"We can't keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We can't keep digging ourselves a hole," said wide receiver Chad Johnson.
Lewis's postgame message to his team was similar. He did give them Monday off, probably not because he wanted to but because last week was a short week coming off the Monday night game.
"We didn't play with poise on either side of the football upfront," Lewis said. "We had four penalties on the first drive on offense and probably three or four offsides penalties when we knew he was going to use the cadence to unnerve us. It's not very good. We've got some young guys in there. We've got some young guys and we've got some older guys, so you've got to be smarter than that."
The Bengals are playing with youngsters in the middle because of season-ending injuries, and it showed. With second-year defensive tackle
Langston Moore filling in for Tony Williams and Landon Johnson and Caleb Miller both getting chances at middle linebacker, running back Chris Brown rolled up 147 yards on 32 carries for 4.6 yards a pop.
But Thornton saw second-year tackle Rien Long and rookie end Travis LaBoy start for the Titans and rookie tackle Randy Starks come off the bench for half a sack.
"It's too late in the season to be making excuses about being young," Thornton said. "That other team had rookies (playing) and they did well."
Moore, in his first NFL start, committed three of those offsides penalties.
"They took advantage of me being stupid," Moore said after his first NFL start. "I let the team down. Jumping offsides ... I knew every time that going on second down they were going to give a hard count to get yards and try to make it third-and-two. It's a little thing, but it comes back and it bit us in the end. We've got to rectify the situation."
With Williams out, fourth-round pick Matthias Askew came into play in spots for his most snaps from scrimmage and came out of it with an assisted tackle. They also were forced to play Thornton about 65 to 70 snaps because he plays on third down, as did Williams. At times, they moved left end Duane Clemons inside and put down strong side linebacker Kevin Hardy at end on third down.
"The loss of Tony Williams – I can't even tell you how much that hurts us," Clemons said. "But we try to make the best of the situation. That's the NFL for you. Sometime you have to put a lot of new guys in the lineup. We've got a lot of young guys getting a lot of snaps, which is going to help us down the line at the end of the year. At the same time, there's going to be some growing pains. The guys that are out there have to make a lot more plays."
Testing the rookie
The Titans also took advantage of matching Miller up in the passing game with fullback Troy Fleming. Fleming beat him on a 37-yard pass on the first play after Bengals kicker Shayne Graham tied the game at 13 with 4:54 left in the third quarter on a 50-yard field goal. Fleming scored four plays later on a 13-yard pass when it appeared safety Kevin Kaesviharn got picked in the middle of the field.
But the defense stepped up after that. The Titans scored what proved to be the winning touchdown when their defensive tackle, Albert Haynesworth, smashed quarterback Carson Palmer as he was throwing and the ensuing wobbler got picked off by cornerback Andre Dyson and he ran it back to the Bengals 28. Brown scored four plays later on a one-yard touchdown run.
The Bengals played defense so well in the fourth quarter (they forced three three-and-outs and got back-to-back sacks by Clemons and Hardy) that Lewis put great faith in them when he chose punt the ball away with 2:40 left. They responded by getting the ball back in 35 seconds.
"We stand behind our coach and he stands behind us," Clemons said. "Whatever happens, we're going to go out there and get the job done. Those guys are paid to make those decisions. Coach made the right decision when he did that."
Another rookie made the play of the day and got the Bengals back into the game on the first series of the second half when safety Madieu Williams stepped in front of Titans wide receiver Derrick Mason and ran back an interception 51 yards for a touchdown that cut Tennessee's lead to 13-10.
"It was a split route and I don't know if you've talked to (Mason) yet, but he started breaking out and I threw it out and he stopped. It was just a little miscommunication," Volek said.
But Williams knew the route better than they did, thanks to his film study the last week.
"It was a third down route that we've been watching on tape all week," Williams said. "I was able to recognize it and get in front of the throw. I felt I had a pretty good break on the ball. I was able to read his body language, especially coming in and out of his break."
It's the Bengals' third defensive touchdown of the season, and second interception return of the season.
Along with Williams, the Bengals' kickers excelled again. Graham hit at least a 50-yarder for the second straight week, and was 2-for-2 to extend his season log to 14-for-16. Punter Kyle Larson had his longest game of the year with a 53.2 average and a 44.6 net. He had two touchbacks, but he nestled a 66-yarder on the Titans 1 until cornerback Reggie Myles kicked it into the end zone.
Other good news included safety Rogers Beckett dressing with a new type of helmet. He didn't play, but is returning after missing most of the season with a concussion.