New offense's pains grow

10-7-01, 10:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PITTSBURGH _ Remember that Bengals' offense that scored 20 points in 17 minutes against the Patriots Opening Day?

That offense has now scored 35 points in the next 195 minutes and six seconds. And you could say the offense literally started to slip away on the game's first play of Sunday's 16-7 loss here to the Steelers.

On the first snap ever at Heinz Field Sunday, the ball acted like hot dog sliding out of a bun in the hands of Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna. The Bengals thought rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson had his man beat deep, but Kitna couldn't get a grip on the first of 60 glossy ceremonial balls to throw it long. So he threw a dump pass wide to running back Corey Dillon.

"They were terrible," said Kitna of the slippery balls. "I think Kordell (Stewart) would tell you the same thing. He had trouble with numerous snaps today. Just bobbling (a lot of) snaps today. That's what happened on the first play."

The thing is, when Stewart fumbled a snap, something good happened. Stewart, the Steelers quarterback who bolted out of the pocket more than in his two previous games this season combined, did lose a snap. But he also recovered one and took it 23 yards early in the fourth quarter to set up Kris Brown's 42-yard field goal that made it 13-0 with 8:55 left in the game.

It was only then that the Bengals' offense perked up, and that for just 11 plays and 4:10 as Kitna hit 69 of his 164 passing yards in the lone touchdown drive.

Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon averaged just 3.4 yards on 19 carries in the third straight game he's averaged less than four yards per carry. That's only happened twice in his 4.6-yard-per-carry career. But it was two down-field passes that underscored the Bengals continuing education with a new offense.

As right tackle Willie Anderson observed, Kitna is still getting to know his receivers after a training camp-long quarterbacks derby in which he shared snaps.

Trailing, 3-0, early in the second quarter, the Bengals were rolling as Dillon had 55 yards on 12 carries and set them up with a first down at the Pittsburgh 33. Kitna sent Johnson on a post, but instead of crossing the face of cornerback Chad Scott, Johnson went behind him and Scott got the interception when Kitna threw it short as Johnson went long.

A turning point? Dillon ended up getting just seven more carries for nine yards the rest of the way and Pittsburgh converted the Bengals' one turnover into a touchdown that made it 10-0 and loosened up the Steelers' blitzes.

"When he makes his break to the middle," Kitna said of Johnson's post pattern, "I expect him to continue going over the middle."

With the score still 10-0 in the middle of the third quarter, Kitna had wide receiver Peter Warrick wide open in the middle of a deep zone at about the Pittsburgh

25 on third and six. But the ball was overthrown and Kitna hopped off the field enraged.

"I saw Cover 2, which in our offense the read we have on that play is I expected him to take that route down the middle," Kitna said. "I don't know if he didn't see Cover 2 or what his deal was on that, (but) he broke his route off flat. . .I was upset because that was a home-run play. That was going to be huge and I was upset we weren't on the same page."

Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian said they were on the same page, but it's a matter of getting used to the other.

"Peter flattened it more than Jon anticipated," Mooshagian said. "It was the angle Jon threw it and the angle Pete ran it. These are just some of the things you have when you've got a quarterback who knows the offense with young receivers who are learning it."

Actually, the interception was a play originally designed for wide receiver Darnay Scott. But he didn't get a chance to work on it earlier in the week because he sat out a practice with a tight hamstring and so Johnson ran it in practice.

"Chad was supposed to go underneath the guy instead of in back, but he played well after that," Mooshagian said. "This was Chad's fourth (NFL) game and Peter's 20th, so we're building on things here."

Johnson had a career-best five catches for 52 yards, two of which converted third downs. Warrick, who had four catches for 39 yards, got his first 20-plus catch of the season on a 22-yarder in the touchdown drive.

Kitna knows the criticism is there about the lack of a deep game, but he says offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski can't unleash it when the team barely averages four yards on first down like it did against the Steelers.

"When you're not making first downs, you don't want to come out and throw the ball down field," Kitna said. "That's a low-percentage type of play. That type of play you do when you're in rhythm. We're kind of handcuffing Brat in that sense because we're not making first downs."

The Bengals haven't been in a groove since the opener and they won't until they get Dillon in rhythm. Just like last week in San Diego, Dillon looked ready to break out until holding penalties pushed him back.

He looked set to pound the Bengals back into it when cornerback Artrell Hawkins jumped on Steelers running back Amos Zereoue's fumble at the Steeler 32 on the first possession of the second half.

On first down, Dillon immediately lugged the Bengals into the red zone, but the play got called back on holds by Warrick and left guard Matt O'Dwyer and the drive died when kicker Neil Rackers yanked a 51-yarder left.

"Penalties like that just kill you," said fullback Lorenzo Neal. "That's a big momentum shift. Here we go down deep and Corey can keep getting the ball. Now it's first and 20."

Anderson took some of the blame for not being able to spring Dillon. He said he botched two-back side blocks, one late in the first half when outside linebacker Joey Porter knifed between him and pulling left tackle Richmond Webb to nail Dillon for a four-yard loss.

"The way this team's offense is set up," Anderson said. "It should be getting more than seven points. It's not the plays. It's not the coaching. It's us."

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