No answers in loss

8-25-01, 11:00 p.m.

Updated: 8-26-01, 12:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Scott Mitchell gave Jon Kitna a chance to seize the Bengals' starting quarterback job with two first-half interceptions during Saturday's Paul Brown Stadium pre-season opener.

But all Kitna appeared to do was leave the door open for Akili Smith down the road while the Bills slammed it shut on Kitna in pitching a shutout during the second half of Buffalo's 20-10 victory.

Smith won't be named the starting quarterback this week. But his stock may have improved just standing on the sidelines in street clothes with his sore throwing shoulder.

Kitna couldn't take advantage with two fumbles and a low incompletion to receiver Ron Dugans on a key third-down pass during a stint that produced no points

Kitna didn't give head coach Dick LeBeau much help in making a decision. He completed 12 of 24 passes for just 111 yards.

Mitchell's numbers were bad, too, on 8 of 19 for 97 yards. But he was robbed of a touchdown when wide receiver Darnay Scott dropped a pass in the end zone, and he was the victim of at least three other drops.

The usually cooperative Mitchell showered and left before the media descended after the game.

"We didn't do very much on offense," said LeBeau, who indicated he would still make the decision in time for Thursday's final pre-season game despite Saturday's disappointment.

"We probably still would have won the game if

we hadn't made the mistakes. I'm not blaming that on the quarterbacks. We just weren't sharp. We didn't execute on offense."

Kitna said, "I'm not thinking about what the coach is thinking. Let's look at the film and see what happened.

"It's just so hard when you're not winning and when you're kind of fighting for a job to keep in mind that you just have to execute the offense and not try to force the big play and tonight I felt like I was really able to do that. It obviously wasn't enough, but that's all you can do."

Smith, who is questionable for the Colts' game, said he'll play no matter what.

"I kind of feel like the door is still open," Smith said. "I think we had just 10 points, but Mitchell did throw that strike into the end zone that Darnay dropped.

"I feel like I still have a shot," Smith said. "We didn't move the ball real well tonight, so hopefully I still have shot. If they decide to name a quarterback some time this week, I'll just have to deal with it."

The Bills locked it up against Cincinnati's exhausted and undermanned defense when backup running back Curtis Alexander ripped off a 55-yard run after hurting safety Tremain Mack missed a tackle. That set up Alex Van Pelt's five-yard touchdown pass to Josh Whitman with 8:04 left in the game.

While the defense was magnificent, the Bengals saw the worst sides of their veteran quarterbacks. Mitchell, whose raps are throwing interceptions and immobility, got picked off twice and got sacked three times that included a safety.

Kitna, who led the NFL with 17 fumbles last season, regained one of his bobbles. But he lost the other at his own 27 midway through the third quarter when it appeared left tackle Richmond Webb got beat on the rush and Kitna lost the ball on the sack.

But the Bengals' defense saved what was left of the night all night. Linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons combined to sack Van Pelt and the defense held again when Steve Christie missed one his three field-goal tries, this one from 52 yards.

The Bengals' starting quarterback and the first offensive line did finally get its first touchdown of the preseason.

But it took backup running Brandon Bennett to score it on a 76-yard sprint up the middle that cut Buffalo's lead to 12-10 at halftime.

The Bengals punished the Bills statistically in the first half behind the encouraging defense that scrounged for three sacks and two tipped passes against Bills quarterback Rob Johnson in allowing Buffalo just 97 yards.

But Mitchell's two interceptions set up 10 Buffalo points.

Midway through the second quarter, Mitchell ran a bootleg and threw an incompletion when he didn't see Scott running wide open on a streak pattern.

On his next pass, Mitchell got picked off at his own 23 when cornerback Antoine Winfield stepped in front of receiver Chad Johnson.

That ended up in Rob Johnson's 13-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy McDaniel when McDaniel got behind Mack on a third-and-11 play.

That gave Buffalo a 12-3 lead with 4:50 left in the half, but just 32 seconds later Bennett went coast-to-coast in finishing the half with 100 yards on six carries.

He ran over strong safety Henry Jones and ran away from free safety Keione Carpenter for more than half of the Bengals' 141 rushing yards in the first half.

Bennett also caught a 20-yard pass in the last minute of the half, but Rackers pushed a 46-yard field-goal try wide right with six seconds left.

Christie's 43-yard field goal gave Buffalo a 5-3 lead two minutes into the second quarter, but it was no fault of the Bengals' defense.

Defensive end Vaughn Booker and strong safety Cory Hall logged sacks and Simmons knocked down a third-down pass as the Bengals held the Bills to 43 yards in the first quarter.

But the Bills got the field goal courtesy of Mitchell's interception on an out pattern to receiver Danny Farmer. Winfield stepped in front of Mitchell's pass and returned it 33 yards down the left sideline.

The Bills got their first points on a season-long problem for the Bengals. Cincinnati's offensive line couldn't block an inside stunt and Bills defensive end Erik Flowers sliced in from the left side to sack Mitchell in the end zone for a safety with 5:07 left in the first quarter.

But Mitchell was effective early.

His offense hogged the ball for the first five minutes of the game Saturday night and went 67 yards on its maiden voyage on Paul Brown Stadium's new grass field for a short Neil Rackers' field goal that gave them a 3-0 lead over Buffalo.

Mitchell directed the crisp 12-play drive by hitting three of six passes for 39 yards and Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon rushed for 28 yards on his first five carries that included a vintage 21-yard burst off right tackle behind Willie Anderson.

Dillon looked in October form when he converted a nifty 3rd-and-3 on a draw play by bouncing it from up the middle all the way to the left sideline for a four-yard gain.

Mitchell also converted a nice third-and-11 to Farmer out of a four-receiver set and Rackers capped off the drive with a 23-yard kick.

Smith tried before the game, but he couldn't get any velocity on his passes and didn't dress.

"It didn't feel very good this morning and it just didn't get any better," Smith said about 90 minutes before the club's third pre-season game.

Smith's case of tendinitis in his throwing shoulder officially turned Saturday's game into a showcase for the Bengals quarterbacks derby involving Mitchell and Kitna.

Mitchell becomes the third quarterback to start for the Bengals this preseason Saturday and he tries to become the first to lead them to a touchdown. Kitna coaxed out a field goal against the Bears Aug. 4 and Smith couldn't get any points in his four series Aug. 10 in Detroit.

Mack got the start at free safety when Chris Carter couldn't go because of a sore hamstring. But Mack hurt his shoulder on the kickoff before the first defensive series and was replaced by JoJuan Armour because his return was questionable.

The secondary, already decimated by injuries to cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins and Mark Roman, took another shot when Hall got thrown out of the game with Bills linebacker Fred Jones after an altercation midway through the second quarter.

Armour responded with the Bengals' third sack of the game with only 8:26 left in the first half. Carter was forced to play and it looked like he had problems covering Whitman on the last touchdown.

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