BY GEOFF HOBSON
Yes, the Bengals beat the Bears, 24-20, scoring their most preseason points in two years Saturday night. But it also will be remembered as the first night the Bengals saw as a team their work place for the next five months.
"Look at this space," said running back Corey Dillon, motioning to his locker. "That's lovely. Lovely. An A-plus stadium. A-plus. You've got to enjoy really coming to work. . . What more can you ask for? A house that's almost packed. Fans going nutty. And they were behind us. This was a good situation. The fans did an excellent job of supporting us and we put on a good show for them."
Rookies and veterans took turns being wowed. Head coach Bruce Coslet, the only man to play or coach at all three homes of the franchise, called it "awesome, tremendous. We want to do something special here." Receiver Ron Dugans, playing in his first home NFL game, said, "It's breathtaking. It's like a kid going into a roomful of candy. . .The best thing was coming out of the tunnel and the crowd making that noise."
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, believed to be the most experienced coach in the league with 42 NFL seasons under his belt as a player and coach, had no problem playing the stadium card before the game.
"He told us for the rest of our lives we'll be able to tell our children and grandchildren we played the first game ever in this place," said linebacker Adrian Ross. "And he said the first thing they're going to want to know is, what happened? Did you win or lose? That hit home."
Colset admitted his guys were jacked up because of the stadium, but like he said, "You've got to get like that for every game. That's being a pro." The club put so much emphasis on this one that the Bengals came out tight. Coslet liked their serious approach, but he also told them after it was over it's still a game and it still has to be played having fun.
SMITH SOLID: Quarterback Akili Smith missed his first three passes, but then hit 21 of his next 26 to finish with his first two touchdown passes of the season for 184 yards. He has yet to throw an interception this preseason, and when the offensive line has given him time, "he'll be effective," Coslet said. "He had two, maybe three drops, and he was still 21 of 29. That's outstanding."
Smith was on the run last week in Atlanta, but the offensive line ("They responded this week in practice," Coslet said) allowed him to sit in the pocket and have his best night throwing the ball down the field.
"Anytime you get that kind of protection, it's basically 7-on-7," Smith said. "And I've been having an excellent camp. . .Hopefully I can come back next week and do the same thing. "
If there's any example of how far Smith has come, look at how he found the offense's forgotten man. Tight end Tony McGee, who has caught just 48 balls the past two seasons, grabbed three Saturday and was the club's leading receiver with 60 yards. That would have been his second-best day last season. One went for a touchdown as McGee continually split the middle of the field for receptions of 31, 18 and 11 yards.
"They were taking away the tight end down the middle on film," Coslet said. "The game plan took that into account with (the thinking) he gets it to the (running) back. For whatever reason, we sucked them up with the (run) fake and did it well. (The tight end) is his first read. When the four secondary guys (cover receivers, the backs and the tight ends have to be in it. Tony did a really good job releasing off the line of scrimmage. That's half the battle."
Smith is still looking for the killer instinct from his offense. After struggling in the red zone scoring touchdowns the first two weeks, the Bengals went 3-for-3 Saturday until they had to settle for Doug Pelfrey's 20-yard field goal following Reinard Wilson's recovered fumble on the Bears' 7.
CD PLAYER: Remember when "Disgruntled," was Corey Dillon's first name? But ever since he ended his contract stalemate last week, he's been delightful. When the national press descended on him in the form of cbsportsline.com and foxsports.com after Saturday's game, Dillon was an ambassador for the new Bengals.
"There's new faces," Dillon said. "There's a new atmosphere around here. I can tell the difference from last year. I look forward to it. I felt good about coming here. . .Management has brought in some new guys trying to turn it around."
Dillon got off a good line when asked if the stadium had served as inspiration: "I play like that whether I was in a stadium or a garbage can, but I think it helped us."
Dillon carried seven times for 16 yards in his debut and was just beginning to get a feel on his last carry, when he ripped off a four-yard gain, his longest of the night. It converted a third down and Peter Warrick scored on the next play.
"I was just getting into a groove when they pulled me," Dillon said. "That's understandable. I didn't feel like I was where I needed to be until that last series. I was limited and I wanted to stay in there because I was just getting warmed up, but I can understand why I came out."
FIRST IN . . .: Here are some Paul Brown Stadium firsts: First touchdown goes to Bears receiver Marcus Robinson, first rushing touchdown and first Bengals touchdown goes to Warrick, first first down goes to Bears running back Curtis Enis, first interception to Bengals cornerback Rodney Heath, first field goal to Bears kicker Paul Edinger, and the first Bengals field goal was Pelfrey's 20-yarder.
THIS AND THAT: Speaking of Pelfrey, he'll probably end his Bengals career this weekend as PBS' all-time leading scorer with four points. . .The Bengals' Brad Costello got off the first PBS punt, but he may have kicked himself off the roster with a poor night in which he averaged 34.4 yards on five kicks. But tight end Steve Bush long snapped for the first time this preseason and looked to struggle on at least his first couple. . .Smith observed about beating Cade McNown's Bears: "Now we got him back." He was referring to the 41-38 UCLA victory over Oregon two years ago. . .Pay back for the 21-20 loss in Buffalo two weeks ago when Cincinnati won the stat war. On Saturday, the Bears won total yards, 395-231, plays, 72-57, first downs, 17-14, and rushing yards, 119-51.