8-1-03, 11:55 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN. Ky. _ Three different quarterbacks threw touchdown passes here Friday night as head coach Marvin Lewis took the wraps off his New Day in the club's first ever night intrasquad scrimmage.
But instead of igniting another quarterback derby that has dogged their past two training camps, the Bengals took it as a sign that their three-year playbook on offense has finally settled on the same page with unquestioned No. 1 quarterback Jon Kitna running the show.
Throw in three minicamps, a stable stable of receivers and running backs, and a tight end desperately trying to make the team and you have a crisp 45-snap display in which quarterbacks Jon Kitna, Carson Palmer and Shane Matthews hit 18 of 27 passes for 151 yards.
Kitna hopes to keep it flowing again here Saturday at 1 p.m. in the Orange-and-Black Game that he tries to win for the starters in a non-contact outing against the team of reserves led by Palmer, the NFL's No. 1 pick. No score was kept Friday, but it will be Saturday in a game the players are to wear just helmets and shoulder pads in which the score is to be kept in a mix of points for touchdowns and field goals, as well as turnovers and plays of certain length.
"I think that and just the fact there is no competition right now," said Kitna, who hit six of eight passes for 46 yards in his 11-play night that covered 70 yards, as he explained the flow. "There's no question in anybody's mind, so when we go out to work, I'm always working with these guys.
"It's been three years, all the minicamps together, all that going in together is equaling up to crispness and execution," he said
Lewis also saw concrete evidence his attention to detail and special teams were paying off. There were only three penalty flags, incumbent punter Nick Harris averaged 47 yard per three punts, challenger Travis Dorsch 51, and none of the six balls were dropped.
Usually, the offense is ahead of the defense, but not when a team has a third-year offensive coordinator in Bob Bratkowski and a new defensive coordinator. Also hampering Leslie Frazier was the
absence of three of his top cornerbacks. Starter Tory James aggravated an abdominal muscle Friday morning and may not be ready to play in next week's pre-season opener against the Jets. Second-team cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins, whose wife had a baby Friday afternoon, and rookie Dennis Weathersby, who is nursing a quad bruise, also missed the scrimmage.
"I don't think (starting corner) Jeff Burris got a ball thrown to his side the whole night. . .That might have made a difference," Frazier said. "It looked like a group of guys who were a little bit too anxious. We have to see if everybody was taking care of their assignments, or trying to make some plays that weren't theirs to make."
Tight end Sean Brewer made plays all night in his effort to eke his way on a roster that looks to be set with free-agent pickup Reggie Kelly, Matt Schobel, and Tony Stewart. But Brewer took advantage of Schobel's absence (hamstring) by becoming the leading receiver with four catches for 39 yards.
"Hopefully his blocking and running game was just as impressive," Lewis said. "That's good for us. I think he brings himself into the competitive mix we have at tight end."
Brewer converted Palmer's first snap, a play-action to the left roll-out pass to the right, for a 17-yard play that he completed by burying his head into strong safety Rogers Beckett's hellacious hit.
Brewer ended the scrimmage on the same play, only this time he ran away from linebacker Dwayne Levels to catch Palmer's three-yard roll-out throw for a touchdown.
"I'm just trying to win a job," said Brewer, who has dropped 20-30 pounds and 10 percentage points in body fat since the Lewis regime took command. "I've lost a lot of weight, I'm running better routes. I'm doing everything they've asked me."
Maybe the closest thing to a controversy came when running back Corey Dillon started the game for his first scrimmage appearance this century, but both Dillon and Lewis were all for it.
Dillon: "I liked it. Getting a little bit of contact and being with my guys."
Lewis: "He is our stud. We'll go the way of our stud. He's got to come out every day and do the best job he can (because) these guys rally around him. He's got them geeked up and playing because that's the way he plays.'"
Since 2000, when he ended a holdout just before the second pre-season game, Dillon never carried the ball until at least the third pre-season game.
"I think that has to be hard on him," Bratkowski said. "To all of sudden go from walk throughs to live action on Opening Day, I think that's hard. I think he'll really be ready for Opening Day now."
Palmer won't be ready for this Opening Day, but he showed all signs that he's getting ready for the one after that. True to his word, Lewis gave him plenty of work when Palmer got more than double the snaps of Kitna and Matthews with 24, and the rookie is supposed to get about 40 more Saturday. He looked decisive and quick on eight of 14 passing for 62 yards. But he walked off the field thinking about the second-and-nine pass he floated from the defense's 15-yard line that got intercepted by strong safety JoJuan Armour.
"A dumb play," Palmer said. "Nobody was open and I was trying to take a shot down the middle and I got picked of by a guy reading my eyes."
That's one of the things Bratkowski didn't want to see after the Bengals finished next-to-last last season in AFC touchdown percentage in the red zone. But he thought Palmer did some strong things management-wise, such as picking up blitzes and getting the offensive line into the right pass protections. Lewis liked how he reacted to the rush as Palmer displayed good feet out of the pocket.
"The thing I keep seeing that I like of Carson is his ability when he gets a rush in his face and that's the thing he'll continue to grow with," Lewis said. "But you like his presence and he's learning not to make a bad play worse. Which is a good thing as a quarterback. Live to live another day. He seemed to make the adjustments of the offense against the (blitz) looks and the hot (reads)."
Kitna and Peter Warrick have been in the offense long enough that they know how to stop the bad even before it starts. As Kitna drove the first offense down the field (Warrick had a catch for eight yards and wide receiver Chad Johnson two for 22 yards), Kitna simply signaled Warrick at the line of scrimmage when he saw a blitz coming. Warrick changed the route, but Kitna did what Palmer didn't. He threw it out-of-bounds with Warrick not open. But three plays later, Kitna scrambled out of the pocket and improvised a three-yard touchdown pass to running back Brandon Bennett.
Matthews also made something out of nothing when he scrambled away from the rush and lofted a semi jump ball to Adam Ziesel in the corner of the end zone. Beckett got flagged for grabbing Ziesel's face mask as they both came down, but chalk up a 14-yard touchdown pass for Missouri Western. Ziesel had a sore shoulder after the scrimmage and Lewis sent him to the hospital to get checked.
Lewis wasn't overly impressed about the offense getting touchdowns on two broken plays in a game in which the quarterbacks can't get tackled, but he also said, "It's good both sides have a chance to beat their chest about something."
The defense did have some moments. Frazier said he was impressed by the defensive line, particularly the effort of Oliver Gibson in his first extended action since he underwent Achilles' surgery back in November, and defensive end Reinard Wilson. He also liked the looks of middle linebacker Kevin Hardy when the first team was in there.
But it was free-agent rookie cornerback Terrell Roberts, out of Oregon State, who led the scrimmage in tackles with five. And it was another free-agent cornerback, Maurice Tucker out of South Florida, who had the hit of the night. Tucker, who wears No. 42, crunched running back Ray Jackson and sent him to the ground for about two minutes when he knocked the wind out of him.
"Neither of those guys has played like a rookie this past week," Frazier said.
After the scrimmage, Dillon had a wary look for Tucker.
"Now I know why you wear 42. Ronnie Lott," Dillon said, "Man, you hit just like him. Watch out."