Pitch and catch

11-25-02, 6:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PITTSBURGH _ A year ago, they had to pull them apart one day on the sidelines. Now Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna and wide receiver Chad Johnson are inseparable on the field.

During Sunday's 29-21 loss here to the Steelers, Kitna found him seven more times for a career-high 152 yards, putting Johnson on pace to finish the season with 1,037 yards for the Bengals' first 1,000-yard receiving season in the new century and the most since Carl Pickens in 1996.

It matched the biggest day by a Bengals' receiver in five seasons, when Darnay Scott had 152 in last year's finale and here against the Steelers in 1998.

With Kitna on pace to have the Bengals' highest completion percentage in 18 years (65 percent) along with the club's first 3,000-yard passing season (3,136) since Jeff Blake in 1996 and the first seven-yard-per-pass season since Blake in 1994 (7.07), both players lobbied after Sunday's game for continuity among coaches and players.

Kitna has taken the debate public with Bengals President Mike Brown, even suggesting that management will change quarterbacks to deny him $1.65 million next year for an 80-percent play-time incentive.

(If you're keeping score, Kitna missed one play Sunday when Steelers strong safety Lee Flowers

took the wind out of him with a shot to the chest as he delivered a 55-yard pass to Johnson in the second quarter. With the club on pace to have 1,023 plays this season and Kitna to be in on 811 of them if he doesn't get benched, he's at 79.27 percent of the plays. It would have been 79.37 if Flowers didn't drill him.)

Kitna invoked the San Francisco 49ers history of producing some of the greatest passer ratings of all time no matter the quarterback because, "They know the system, they've been together, they know what to expect," Kitna said. "That's the way I think you produce a winning product consistently. Hopefully that will happen."

Consistency is what Johnson has done since Kitna became the starter seven games ago. The mercurial second-year wide receiver buttoned down his game and has caught either six balls, 100 yards, or a touchdown since Oct. 6. And he credits the coaching of offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and receivers coach Steve Mooshagian, as well as Kitna's patient counseling.

Like what happened early in the second half Sunday, when Johnson started jawing with linebacker Joey Porter and the rest of the Steelers' defense during a TV timeout. Then Johnson dropped a slant pass on third down.

"Kitna keeps my head focused at points in the game," Johnson said. "He pulled me aside (and told me), 'You're too jittery because you're having a good game. You're getting too excited. Calm down and make a couple of plays.'"

Johnson was then gold on the must plays. On the Bengals' go-ahead touchdown drive, he converted a third-and-10 by waving to Kitna on his second or third option and coming back to the ball for an underthrown 21-yard pass.

Then, as the Bengals drove to try and tie the game with a touchdown and two-pointer, Johnson got in front of cornerback Chad Scott on a seven-yard reception on fourth-and-three from the Steelers 24 on the first play after the two-minute warning.

"It was a curl, and he was in press (coverage), but I was just worried about getting open. I think he thought I was going to fade," Johnson said.

It's a play Johnson didn't make last season and Kitna wonders about how far the kid can go since he considers this another rookie season for him after Johnson missed a quarter of the games last year with injury.

"He's becoming a go-to-receiver, the kind of receiver that commands respect from the other teams' defensive coordinators," Kitna said. "That's what happened today. They tried to double cover him a lot, but he did a good job of maintaining his poise and staying in the game."

Johnson also kept his cool when he thought he made a juggling catch in-bounds near a first down on the Bengals' sideline on the second play of the last drive.

After his coaches watched the replay in the box, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau didn't think a challenge would overturn the play and Johnson said he was glad LeBeau saved the timeout.

"When is the last time we won a challenge?" Johnson asked. "We haven't got a break."

But Kitna has been saying the Bengals have to make their own breaks.

"What concerns me right now is we're not making the play necessary to win the game," said Kitna of the fourth quarter,. "And they're not out of the ordinary plays. Just routine plays and we're not making them."

But it's the kind of game he has played (no interceptions, no turnovers, 22-for-39, 298 yards passing) since he said he played the worst game of his life since fifth grade against these Steelers five games ago. He threw three interceptions that day. He's thrown three since, chalking it up to some self scouting during the bye week.

"I had to stay within the system," said Kitna, who admitted he had been trying to do too much."

For now, Kitna is also philosophical about the buzz.

"If they change quarterbacks," he said, "so be it."

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