12-8-03, 6:10 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
BALTIMORE _ The Bengals' offense is trudging back to Valley Forge with left tackle Levi Jones' knee wrapped in ice, others battling what has been termed an upper respiratory ailment, and saddled with their poorest performance of the season.
After playing so stoutly and sure-handedly at San Diego and Pittsburgh the past two weeks, quarterback Jon Kitna and his wounded company are mulling a season-high six sacks, five turnovers, and the insults of a rampaging Ravens' defense that makes Baltimore one of the hottest NFL teams down the stretch.
The Ravens took a Cincinnati offense that had turned over the ball over just four times in the previous five games and shook them down for four turnovers in their final five drives alone Sunday to bully their way into first place all by themselves.
With Kitna's voice sanded down to a hoarse whisper because of the virus, he battled the sell-out crowd of 69,468 as much as he did shutdown cornerback Chris McAlister, middle linebacker Ray Lewis' nine tackles and interception, and six sacks by the perpetually moving defensive line. Also under the weather was right guard Mike Goff, who said at times he couldn't ever hear right tackle Willie Anderson right next to him.
"We were basically working on the silent count all day. My voice being hoarse , the offensive line couldn't really hear me, aside for the center," Kitna said. "They were having a hard time hearing me and (the crowd was) being loud. They kind of smelled blood, and they came after me. It was a tough day."
It was tough squared. With the Ravens not allowing Kitna's go-to-guy, wide receiver Chad Johnson, to make a catch until the first play of the fourth quarter and to make only two all day, Kitna threw his first interception in 138 passes and 17 quarters.
Johnson came into the game as the AFC's only 1,000-yard receiver in averaging 92 yards and six catches a game. After holding him to two catches and 15 yards with the help of a safety, McAlister showed Johnson his mouth is just as big as his.
"You could see it in his eyes, in the eyes of all their (skill-position) players, to tell you the truth," McAlister told ESPN.com. "They were all mumbling to each other. They were talking to the refs
about being held. Every snap became just an excuse as to why it was so hard for them to make a play. Hey, we made them disappear, but that's what I've been doing to everyone they line me up against lately."
Johnson shrugged. Not everyone in the Ravens' secondary was giving him a hard time. Safety Corey Fuller stopped by the locker room to say hello to fellow Florida State alum Peter Warrick, and Johnson knows everyone from Florida.
"We just lost. What else can I say?" Johnson asked.
Kitna took the blame himself for his first interception, which came off a naked bootleg early in the fourth quarter on first down as the Bengals trailed, 24-13.
"It was (play) action, I got pressure and I made a bad decision with the football," said Kitna of the pass he sailed over the middle intended for tight end Tony Stewart that got picked off by safety Will Demps. "The wind kind of held it up a little. They turned it into an interception, they went down and scored a touchdown. That was kind of the ball game. The things we've been doing all year that got us in this position were things we didn't do today. I made a bad decision with the football and it cost us."
The Ravens' defense did what they've been doing most of the year and giving their offense short fields. They scored four touchdowns Sunday with their longest drive 70 yards. The other three drives added up to 65 yards. It took the Ravens just five plays to go 39 yards for the two second-half touchdowns that blew open a 17-10 half-time game.
"We've been winning," Anderson said, "because we haven't turned it over."
Kitna's other interception and two fumbles in the second half weren't his fault. Tackle Marques Douglas shot up the middle and drilled Kitna that produced a floater picked off by Ray Lewis.
The fumbles came after Jones injured his knee early in the second half and was replaced by Scott Rehberg. It was believed to be Rehberg's first extended regular-season action at left tackle since 1999 with the Browns, and he allowed the two sacks that led to the two fumbles. He also had two false starts as he tried to adjust to the crowd noise.
To his credit, Rehberg faced every media member that approached his locker after letting defensive end Terrell Suggs and then outside linebacker Peter Boulware, get to Kitna, and he didn't blame rust. The first one, by Suggs, was the killer, because the Bengals trailed only 17-13, and Suggs recovered on the Bengals 17 with 6:20 left in the third quarter, to set up a touchdown.
"You've got to be ready in that situation. As a backup, you've got to be ready to go in at anytime," said Rehberg, who played left tackle during this preseason. "You have to keep your poise and I didn't with the false starts."
Anderson said it wasn't all Rehberg's fault. With Jones out, the Bengals tried to help their tackles for the first time this year by using running backs in pass protection, and Anderson said one of the backs went the wrong way on one of the sacks.
It's no consolation to Rehberg that Jones also struggled in the first half and got beat for at least one sack by Suggs. At least three of the four first-half sacks were coverage sacks as Kitna couldn't find Johnson, and he could only manage two completions of more than 20 yards. Peter Warrick (90 yards) may have become the first Bengal to get 11 catches in a game without 100 yards.
"They basically double teamed (Johnson) all day," Kitna said. "They put gone guy on him (McAlister) that pressed him, which takes away your quick throws, and they pretty much had a safety over top of him the whole day.
"That's the first time we've seen that since Buffalo," Kitna said of Johnson's 59-yard day against the Bills. "We may have to motion him around a little bit and take some of the pressure off him."
Here's an example of how tight things were. On the first drive of the second half, the Bengals were driving for the tying touchdown and had a third-and-three from the Ravens 20. Kitna had a coverage with Johnson and running back Brandon Bennett running routes to the left side, but he threw too far in front of Bennett and the Bengals had to take a 38-yard field goal by Shayne Graham to make it 17-13 instead of a tie. They never got back to the Baltimore 35.
The Bengals, who came in with the NFL's second-best percentage on third down, were 12 percent below normal at 31 percent. The Ravens' defense, third best in the league at stopping teams on third down, held its trend.
"They had (a coverage) where we had Chad and Brandon on slant-arrow combination and (safety) Ed Reed, the good player that he is, came flying up to play the slant," Kitna said. "I was trying to make sure I left it in front of (Bennett) because Ray was trailing him so tight. They called the right play."
The red zone play was telling. The Bengals came in second best in the AFC in touchdown percentage, and went 1-for-2 officially, although they did get to the 20 one other time and had to settle for a field goal.
The Ravens came in last in red zone touchdown percentage in the AFC, but cashed four of five on Sunday. Three of them came after turnovers.
Another key stat: Baltimore turned the five turnovers into three touchdowns. The Bengals forced three turnovers, their most in six games, but could get just 10 points off them.
Now they march back to PBS now, no doubt still hearing the catcalls from the crowd and the other locker room.
"Our goal," Reed told ESPN.com after the game, "is to always shut up the guy with the biggest mouth. And you know who I mean. If I come to your house for dinner, I don't walk in the front door and start talking about what (ugly) furniture you have. That's just ignorance. This guy felt like he could come to our place and rip us. Guess he found out differently."