Offense sizzled, then stumbled

10-14-02, 6:30 a.m. UPDATED:
10-14-02, 7:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

On the first series of the game, the Bengals picked up where they left off and went down the field against the Steelers like they did in the last seven minutes of their come-back win over Pittsburgh back in December.

"That first drive, that was the best we felt all season," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "We were running the ball, picking up blitzes, clicking."

They ventured from their 26 to the Pittsburgh 29 on seven plays. But the drive stalled and when Neil Rackers came up short on a 46-yard field goal, the rout was on. There were some raised eyebrows in the locker room when running back Corey Dillon carried just once for 11 yards in the drive on the second play and quarterback Jon Kitna couldn't get a first down on three straight passes.

"That stuff shouldn't deflate you," Anderson said. "You have to overcome it. It was a crazy game. Everything happened so fast and we

got behind. We had opportunities and suddenly they were gone. That's what we kept saying. You don't get many chances."

Although the special teams gave up a kick return for a touchdown and had the Rackers miss and the defense got pounded for 211 rushing yards, Kitna took the opportunity to take the blame for the loss with his three interceptions and fumble in his second start in the line of Gus Frerotte and Akili Smith.

And he didn't blame the way head coach Dick LeBeau handled the training camp derby when it was suggested the odd quarterback competition has made him press.

"Going back to that situation, of course I wanted to be the starter," Kitna said. " It's what I thought was best. But coach LeBeau did what he thought was best, and the competition in training camp — I thought he handled it fairly. It was nip and tuck between Gus and myself. Obviously, with the start of our season, it's put us in a situation where you go out and press a little bit. I don't know if that's the cause for what I did today, but I have to go back and, in my own mind, analyze what I did today. Because I don't remember ever making some of the mental errors that I made today."

Steelers strong safety Lee Flowers, who had the first two interceptions on underthrown balls, suggested Kitna was confused about the schemes Pittsburgh displayed. But Kitna said he threw to the wrong receiver on the first pass and hurried his second throw long down the middle to wide receiver Peter Warrick.

"The first one was the worst decision I've ever made with a football in my hands," Kitna said. "The second, I was feeling pressure to my left," Kitna said. "I had to move, which broke down the timing of the play and I didn't get enough on the throw. The quarterback needs to do something else with the ball. It was there, I didn't get enough on it."

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BOOMER TAKE:** Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason predicts team president Mike Brown won't remove head coach Dick LeBeau Monday after he watched the Steeler debacle from the CBS studios. But then, he's seen it all in Cincinnati.

"That's not the kind of move Mike Brown makes and it's not the move he wants to make," Esiason said Sunday. "But after a loss like that, anything can happen, right? But I just don't see it."

Esiason is like everyone else with Bengals' ties and is taking serious heat from everyone. Only he's taking

it on national TV every week from studio partners Deion Sanders and Dan Marino. But he's hanging with his team and is keeping his small Bengals' helmet on his desk until they win.

On Sunday, he lost a bet with Sanders over the Pittsburgh game in which Sanders would have had to wear Esiason's No. 7 Bengals' jersey on next week's pre-game show if Cincinnati won. Now Esiason has to wear a suit designed by Sanders.

"That could be scary, but I don't think he wants to make me look bad," Esiason said. "I'll keep that helmet right there. To be honest, I think I feel as badly as the coaches and the players. It must be so hard to go through it, and it's hard to watch.

"They've got just no confidence," Esiason said. "I'll tell you, I thought coming into the season they were going to play with confidence after they finished last season, but the first half in the first game against San Diego seemed to take it out of them."

Esiason has no idea where they can turn in the quarterback derby.

"Gus is a good quarterback, but he obviously wasn't ready in that system," Esiason said. "Akili still doesn't know what's going on, and now Jon Kitna thinks he's the savior. I just think it might be attitude more than anything. It's 'here we go again,' and that's going to make for a very tough 10 weeks."

POSTS AND SLANTS:
The Steelers' kick return team had been having an average season until the second-half kickoff. Their average return was 22.6 yards and rookie receiver Antwaan Randle El's longest return had been 33 yards. But that all changed when Randle El faked a reverse after catching Neil Rackers' kick on the 1

on a return the Bengals hadn't seen before. The fake pulled them out of their lanes and allowed Randle El to go 99 yards for a touchdown that made it 31-0. . .

After making his first three field goals of the season, Rackers has come up short on his last two tries, one from 45 and one from 46. . .

Rookie left tackle Levi Jones gave up a killing sack to outside linebacker Joey Porter when Porter batted the ball from Kitna's hands and into the arms of nose tackle Casey Hampton for a 36-yard return that set up the score that made it 24-0.

"He'll learn from that," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Same thing happened to me. My second start. At home. I gave up two sacks to Clyde Simmons, another great pass rusher. It's the only way a tackle can learn and that's to play."

Anderson tried to haul down Hampton, but he's nursing a battered shoulder and has a mangled hand taped: "I reached out and had my hand on his shoulder, but I just couldn't grab him.". . .The Bengals gave up five sacks Sunday and have allowed 20 after giving up 28 all last year. . .

MLB Brian Simmons played sparingly with a pinched nerve in his neck and is probable for the game in two weeks against the Titans. . .RG Mike Goff looks like he'll return to the lineup after missing the last three games with a severe cut on his knee. . .TE Sean Brewer (knee) is questionable.

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