8-25-01, 11:00 p.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 Kitna couldn't take advantage with two fumbles and a low incompletion to receiver Ron Dugans on a key third down during a stint that produced no points in a rainy 20-10 loss to the Bills.
Kitna didn't give head coach Dick LeBeau much help in making a decision that could be made public as soon as Monday. He completed 12 of 24 passes for just 111 yards.
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 when 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 sacked 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. He finished the half 8-for-19 passing for 97 yards and set the stage for Kitna to win the job in the second half.
Mitchell didn't get a lot of help from his receivers. Darnay Scott dropped a touchdown pass on the first drive of the game and Peter Warrick had two drops over the middle.
But 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 safety Tremain 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 middle linebacker Brian 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.
Quarterback Akili 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 Jon 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 start 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. He returned, but Carter was pressed into service.
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.
The pre-game buzz centered around the new Kentucky bluegrass field that was installed at PBS back in May.
"It's like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Pinto with no wheels," said punter Daniel Pope, who still has fresh memories of last year's temporary Bermuda field that got chewed alive.
Left tackle John Jackson called the grass, "nice, it's like day and night."
"It's a Big 10 field," said Farmer. "It's a little high, but it's nice. Big difference."
If there was any complaint, it was the grass was a tad too long. The field had been mowed Thursday, but rain combined with the deep roots to make it slightly longer than usual.
The Bengals showed up Saturday after training camp to find that equipment manager Rob Recker had done some locker re-arranging.
Last year, head coach Bruce Coslet alternated the lockers by offense and defense. This year, Dick LeBeau told Recker to take care of it.
"Most of the players wanted to locker by position," Recker said. "So we had to scramble a bit. I didn't move anybody off a corner locker because that's prime real estate. And it's not set yet because the roster isn't set."