8-9-02, 10:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. _ Do the Bengals now have a three-man quarterbacks derby?
Probably not yet, but Akili Smith staked his claim by leading the Bengals to their last 10 points of a 24-17 victory over the Bills in their best offensive performance in a pre-season opener in recent memory here at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Smith became the third Bengals quarterback of the night to lead a touchdown drive when he hit tight end Sean Brewer with a six yard pass to give the Bengals a 21-17 lead with 2:42 left in the third quarter. With backup running back Rudi Johnson rushing for 100 yards on 14 carries, Smith then directed a 16-play, 63-yard drive capped by Neil Rackers' 34-yard field goal with 9:32 left in the game. Smith overthrew wide receiver Ron Dugans on his last two throws of that drive, the last one on a well-covered play at the goal line.
But he began the next drive on a nice bootleg pass to rookie wide receiver Michael Slater for 21 yards from the shadow of his own goal line. He finished 10-for-17 passing for 72 yards, and he added 14 more yards on two runs.
Cincinnati's defense, which finished ninth in the league last year, was the only disappointment. They didn't look like themselves in giving up two touchdown passes on third down to Drew Bledsoe in falling behind 17-14 at halftime.
But it wasn't enough to spoil the Bengals' first victory in a pre-season opener since the 8-8 season of 1996. It's also the first victory on the road to start the preseason since 1995 as the running game without the resting Corey Dillon (foot) rolled for close to yards.
A defensive play did seal the win when rookie free-agent cornerback Tierre Sams knocked down a fourth-down pass near midfield as the two-minute warning neared..
The Bengals lost wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh (ankle), their best training camp receiver, with a sprained ankle early in the game and he's questionable for next week. So is defensive captain Takeo Spikes with a strained pectoral muscle. Backup running back Brandon Bennett (ankle) is also questionable.
Cincinnati, last in the NFL in scoring last year, also got two efficient touchdown drives from their top two quarterbacks, the last one ending on Gus Frerotte's nine-yard dart on third down to wide receiver Peter Warrick slanting in front of Bills safety Tony Driver with 36 seconds left in the first half.
The Bengals also got a rare interception when new cornerback Jeff Burris returned to his old Buffalo haunt and picked off Bill quarterback Drew Bledsoe on third-and-eight inside the Cincinnati 10-yard line.
Frerotte needed that touchdown pass in his derby with Jon Kitna because on the previous possession he threw a "hot" read right to Bills corner Chris Watson deep in Bengals' territory and Buffalo got a 36-yard field goal from Mike Hollis out of it with 5:56 left in the half to go up 17-7.
"Both quarterbacks played well. It was really good to see Gus come back to get us the late touchdown that put us back in the game," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau. "But on defense, we gave them too much in the first half. They completed a couple of third-and-longs and we had a couple of penalties that hurt us. But there are going to be a lot games like this and you have to come back when you get down."
Frerotte responded on the last drive of the half, hitting five of six
passes for 53 yards and finished the night 6 of 10 for 67 yards. The drive was kept alive when Bills safety Coy Wire was called for interfering with Warrick on a third-and-11 play.
Warrick had a good night that included a nice catch and spin move into the middle for a 14-yard gain on his way to 47 yards on six catches. Brewer, playing in his first game since the Bengals drafted him in the third round in 2001, had a 22-yard catch and another one for 14 yards over the middle for a first down in the first half to go along with the touchdown.
Kitna led a 13-play, 71-yard touchdown drive on the Bengals' first possession when he converted four straight third-down passes.
Running back Curtis Keaton scooted behind right guard Mike Goff and right tackle Willie Anderson for an eight-yard touchdown run to finish a drive that was kept alive by two third down passes to Warrick and one each to Houshmandzadeh and Brewer. Kitna sifted the Bills on 7 of 9 passing in the march for 51 yards and finished the night 7-for-10 to at least keep pace in the derby.
"It's always great to come into the first offensive series of the year and go right down the field and punch it in," Kitna said. "Our guys made a lot of big plays. I thought we executed very well."
But that's not what they were saying on the other side of the ball. Bledsoe, who spurned the Bengals in the offseason, threw in a little salt with an astonishingly easy 9-for-11, 136-yard effort in three series.
His laser accuracy against a sluggish secondary showed why he is still coveted. Bledsoe broke a 7-7 tie on third-and-11 when he lofted a 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Peerless Price over a three-man zone consisting of Burris, cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn and strong safety Cory Hall three minutes into the second quarter.
Kaesviharn, starting in place of injured Artrell Hawkins, had a particularly tough night. On the game's first series, Bledsoe was looking at a third-and-two from the Bengals 31 when he found wide receiver Eric Moulds matched up one-on-one with Kaesviharn. Bledsoe threw a quick dart when he saw Kaesviharn giving him the cushion and then Kaesviharn let Moulds slide out of his tackle for a 31-yard touchdown.
As quick as you could say "Tom Brady," (or "David Dunn,"), Bledsoe was 5-for-5 for 78 yards and looking for more.
He got it with the help of Bengals rookie kicker Travis Dorsch when his kickoff that bounced at the Buffalo 32 shifted the field position. Bledsoe, who did get sacked twice by Spikes and Justin Smith, then converted three third downs in going 43 yards on the way to his touchdown pass to Price.
Bengals No. 1 draft pick Levi Jones, who played left tackle with the first offensive line, had a tough debut. He had two penalties, one on a false start and one on an illegal hands to the face.