BY GEOFF HOBSON
ATLANTA _ Akili Smith is expected to have the ups and downs associated with any career of a young quarterback. Consider the roller coaster on the way after tonight's outing here against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome during Atlanta's 31-16 preseason victory.
But another Bengals' youngster, rookie kicker Neil Rackers, only seems to be on the way up. Rackers made a major move to take veteran Doug Pelfrey's job with field goals of 47 and 41 yards. The last one pulled the Bengals to within 10-9 after three quarters in Cincinnati's drive to take a 16-10 lead with 11 minutes left in the game.
The Bengals couldn't hang on because their backup secondary struggled as Atlanta quarterbacks Chris Chandler and Danny Kanell racked up 362 yards on crisp 24-for-35 passing. Rookie cornerbacks Brian Gray and Robert Bean both got beat in Atlanta's winning drive, with wide receiver Eugene Baker skating past Bean one-on-one for a 14-yard touchdown catch from Kanell with 6:41 left in the game that started the Falcons' closing 21-point burst.
The Bengals have now lost seven straight preseason games, are 0-2 this year, and are trying to believe they can win.
"It has to start next week in the Paul Brown opener against the Bears," said Smith of next Saturday's stadium baptism.
The pass rush decided this one Friday night. The Bengals' first offensive line had trouble dealing with the Falcons' speed and stunts up front, with Cincinnati coach Bruce Coslet observing Smith didn't have a chance when he got hit during some of his 19 passes. Many of his nine completions for 94 yards came on the run. And the Bengals offered no pass rush of their own with defensive linemen Michael Bankston and Tom Barndt back home with injuries.
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"Chandler was able to sit there in the pocket," Coslet said. "He could shuffle four steps up in the pocket and hit that deep, deep corner pattern. . .We've got to synchronize our pass rush and coverage."
Coslet absolved the play of starting cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins and Tom Carter, but the backup secondary wasn't as lucky. Cornerback Roosevelt Blackmon and safety Tremain Mack looked to have some problems when the Falcons took a 10-6 lead into halftime. Wide receiver Brian Finneran took advantage of a blown coverage for a 38-yard touchdown catch with 2:19 left in the half.
"That was a tricky play," said nickel back Rodney Heath. "It was a zone coverage. The receiver faked like he was going to do a crack-back block and then he took off down the field."
Kanell continued to jack the passing stats against the Bengal reserves. He closed the scoring by hitting safety valve Winslow Oliver out of the backfield and Oliver raced 42 yards past linebackers Billy Granville and Ben Peterson for a touchdown with 2:07 left in the game.
Bengals backup quarterback Scott Mitchell engineered an 11-play touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, spiced by a 20-yard completion to tight end Marco Battaglia and two passes for 16 yards to rookie receivers Marvin Chalmers and LaVell Boyd. Mitchell finished it off with a five-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw.
It was the only bright note on a bleak night for the offense. Scott Covington relieved Mitchell and threw two interceptions, one by rookie Anthony Midget that got returned for a 48-yard touchdown. Covington also got a seven-stitch gash in his chin for his troubles.
Smith had it rough, too. He was under pressure much of the time, and wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in Buffalo last week. He was at his best against the Falcons creating plays out of the pocket as the Bengals' offensive line allowed much more pressure than it did against the Bills. The fact he wasn't sacked is a testament to his athleticism, producing on-the-run throws of 17 and 11 yards to wide receiver Damon Griffn during a 17-play drive that consumed eight minutes of the second quarter.
"I don't want to start pointing fingers," Smith said. "I'm not going to get into any of that. I had some pressure today. I wasn't as comfortable back there until we started to pick it up. . .Their front four was much more intense than Buffalo. A lot more. A lot of stunts. Different things like that."
Smith reported that offensive line coach Paul Alexander ripped his group after the first couple of series and things settled down enough for Smith to embark on the long drive: "I'm definitely listening to my coaches about when it breaks down, to make something happen, instead of maybe throwing it away right away."
Smith's best moment came on the game's first play when he hit rookie receiver Peter Warrick on a 31-yard pass after Warrick deked cornerback Ray Buchanan with an outside-to-inside move. But after that, Smith missed on his next seven passes and never had a shot or time to go deep again against Atlanta's basic zones.
"You have to take what they give you," Smith said.
It only got uglier on offense when Smith left the game in the third quarter. After Falcons kicker Jake Arians missed a 52-yard field goal try to give the Bengals great field position, Mitchell was victimized by holding calls on tight end Steve Bush and backup right tackle Jamain Stephens.
Then, on the next series, after Bengals linebacker Canute Curtis recovered a botched handoff at the Falcon 26, rookier receiver LaVell Boyd false started and Rackers had to kick his 41-yarder to cut the lead to 10-9.
While the Bengals'secondary had trouble much of the night, the run defense opened strongly. Falcons Pro Bowl running back Jamal Anderson made his return from reconstructive knee surgery, but he found the comeback trail littered with the Bengals in the first quarter that ended in a 3-3 tie.
Anderson had no yards on five carries and had three catches for just 15 yards in the first quarter. The Bengals took a 3-0 lead in the game's first four minutes when Rackers body englished home a 47-yard field goal after it hit the right upright.
The Bengals came into this preseason hoping their defense turned over a new leaf by generatating turnovers, a rarity last season. Free safety Darryl Williams, signed during the offseason to do just that with his 29 career interceptions, stopped the Falcons' first drive at the Cincinnati 17 with an acrobatic interception of Chandler.
Williams batted a pass over the middle into the air and then tracked it down for the Bengals' first interception of the season, equalling the number they had all last preseason.
Bean, the Bengals' surprising fifth-round pick, returned to his hometown to help save some of the secondary's night when he picked off Kanell in the end zone early in the third quarter. But Kanell paid back the rookie in the fourth quarter.