9-29-03, 5:40 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
CLEVELAND _ For once, the Bengals' young players seem to be emerging instead of busting. For once, the free agents are earning money instead of scorn. For once, the head coach looks to be getting his message across.
For once, they are in contention in the AFC North heading into October.
Cincinnati 21, Cleveland 14. Bengals 1-1 in the division and 60 minutes from first place. Marvin Lewis now 327 victories behind Don Shula.
"He's a genius, really, in football," said Kitna of his rookie head coach. "He's had to fight through the years of attitude and frustration and all that goes along with 12,13 years of losing. He's done a good job of fighting through that and making sure our attitude is right."
Wide receiver Chad Johnson had a cigar ready to give to Lewis after his first win, but pocketed it himself when right tackle Willie Anderson gave him a game ball.
"You can't have both," Johnson said.
Lewis was just glad for his first victory, thank you, and keep the trophies.
"It means a lot to everybody," Lewis said. "It means a lot for our football team. It means a lot to our city. We've got to go get another one."
The Bengals needed something from everyone Sunday and they got it. Third-year running back Rudi Johnson, who has set records everywhere he's been, came into the game with just 17 NFL carries. But he relieved the injured Corey Dillon in the second half on 15 carries for 51 yards and flashed his just-move-the-chains style.
"To me," Johnson said, "four yards is a good run. I'll take four yards every time."
For some reason, Johnson has had trouble impressing the new coaching staff. He has been nicked with a strained thigh that kept him out of uniform on game days this season until Sunday, and he'll march to his own drummer occasionally. But Lewis had nowhere to turn at halftime with Brandon Bennett's elusive style only netting him seven yards on five carries against the Browns' athletic front.
While Lewis needed a ball-control back, Kitna needed a big-play artist and got it in the form of third-round pick Kelley Washington. After a week of lobbying Kitna and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski to get him the ball, Washington made two third-down catches on the winning drive that Kitna called the two biggest plays of the game.
On third-and-10 from the Bengals 20, Kitna faced a blitz, but saw Washington working on Daylon McCutcheon, the Browns' best cornerback, and got an 11-yard reception. On third-and-6 from the Bengals 46, Kitna got him for a 17-yard gain.
"The guy made two huge plays," Kitna said. "On that first one, he ran an out route against an experienced corner, and on the second one he just found a soft spot in the zone behind the corner and safety."
And, by the way, held on after taking a hellacious hit in mid-air from strong safety Robert Griffith. So those who thought Washington might still be worried about his neck can rest easy. After having just two catches for 18 yards the whole season, Washington had two for 28 yards in three minutes.
"It wasn't drawing up plays for him," Kitna said. "It was making him part of the reads."
Johnson doesn't have Dillon's break-away speed, but he keeps moving his legs fast enough and long enough to make something out of nothing.
"He's a downhill back who is going to keep coming at you," said right guard Mike Goff. "He was fabulous today getting some big yards."
Here's a guy who gained 373 yards in the junior college national title game, and gained more yards in one season at Auburn than all but Bo Jackson. It shouldn't be too big for him if he earned his first NFL start in Buffalo next week with Dillon resting his sore groin.
"Whatever they say," Johnson said. "I'm just here to run the offense."
And there were other emerging players Sunday. Anderson noted the blocking of rookie fullback Jeremi Johnson. Tight end Reggie Kelly, a free-agent from the Falcons, scored his first Bengals' touchdown on a one-yard catch and it turned out to be the winner.
"It's good for these guys to start getting an identity with this team," Anderson said. "It gives them more confidence and gives us more guys we can count on."
PICTURE PERFECT:** Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson did Sunday what Pro Bowlers Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens couldn't do against the Browns' defense. Score a touchdown,
Not only that, he scored two touchdowns. Not only that, his 55-yarder on a post with 29 seconds left in the first half tied the game at 14 and turned it in the Bengals' favor.
He may not be on his pace for 1,800 yards, but his 1,480 could get him to the Pro Bowl. And it would give him the Bengals' season record.
And he hasn't stopped talking.
"It was against a zone, but it was confusing," Johnson said. "We lined up in a bunch, and I guess the DBs each took an area of the field. I just ran by (strong safety Robert Griffith)."
Johnson was amazed to see the Dawg Pound fire French Fries at him as he romped into the end zone and celebrated by flexing a muscle. On his first score, he and fellow receiver Peter Warrick celebrated by snapping pictures of each other with imaginary cameras.
"I learned that from Tory James and Jeff Burris," said Johnson of the Bengals' cornerbacks.
D-STAND:** When defensive end Justin Smith got his first sack of the season with 1:19 left, he celebrated by pounding imaginary nails into the Browns' coffin. But what it should also do is ease the fears about a defense that started slowly.
The Bengals, who came into the game averaging 152 yards against the run, stuffed the Browns on 3.1 yards per carry on their 22 tries with just a long of seven.
"The offense coming out and getting the lead on the first drive of the second half was big," said middle linebacker Kevin Hardy. "That meant their offense couldn't dictate the tempo of the game. We knew pretty much what they had to do."
As Smith said, "It's nice to play with a lead. The offense was awesome. We just sat back and watched them. After we gave up that 71-yard pass on the second play of the game, it was really big when we came right down and scored."
That pass was a wide receiver screen to the Browns' Quincy Morgan. While cornerback Jeff Burris took the blame in front of the media, Tory James, the other cornerback, said, "Jeff, tell them it was my fault."
But that's the kind of play it was. There were a lot of guys there.
"It's an explosive play," Hardy said. "You get just a couple of guys on the ground with some cut blocks, and that's it. And we had a blitz on."
Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson set up Cleveland's second and last touchdown when he was wide open on a 41-yard pass across the middle.
"Blown coverage," Hardy said. "We settled down at halftime and said if we limited the big plays, we were going to win."
That's what they did. The longest play in the second half was a 20-yard throw to Kevin Johnson. Burris rebounded in the second half from a neck injury with nice-third-down coverage on Morgan and then made the winning interception. He had three passes defensed, including his interception, and Hardy and linebacker Brian Simmons each led the team with eight tackles. And, it helped the Bengals got their first lead of the season 5:59 into the third quarter after 215 minutes and one second either tied or trailing.
The Bengals finally solved the maddening problem of six offsides penalties on defense in the first half. They ended up with seven for the game, three on end Duane Clemons, and only one in the second half.
"They were moving on the line and they didn't call it," Clemons said. "They weren't calling it both ways. We had to back off a little bit. We had to wait, and we were getting there about a second later."
But after coach Marvin Lewis got the ear of the refs, they turned their attention to Browns quarterback Tim Couch and his line for five procedure penalties in the second half. Lewis says Couch is one of the best in the league at head bobs and feigning getting the snap from center.
Lewis said he talked to the referees around halftime ("I was trying to get a little bit of respect," he said with a laugh) and that he was trying to point out what Couch does with his hands. It must have worked, because in the second half, Couch was nailed for two false starts and a delay of game in the second half.
"It backfired on him there late in the game," said Clemons after Couch was called for a false start following a Tony Williams' sack with 2:48 left.
But the game came down to the Bengals stopping the run and allowing them to blitz linebackers and safeties and hurry Couch as the game went along. After hitting 10 of 13 passes in the first half, Couch went 13 of 23 in the second half.