Rebuilt Ravens send Bengals to drawing board

11-10-02, 4:15 p.m. Updated:
11-11-02, 7:35 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

BALTIMORE _ After a theater-of-the-absurd first half, the Bengals needed a defensive stand in the second half and didn't get it as old friend Jeff Blake engineered two touchdown drives in the Ravens' 38-27 victory.

But maybe the most disturbing thing about their 15th loss in the last 18 games is the Bengals couldn't beat a AFC North rival in a season it is rebuilding and on a day its defense was decimated. With a recycled quarterback, a defense full of kids instead of Pro Bowlers, and a roster strewn with 16 first-year players, the Ravens whipped the Bengals in all phases.

The Ravens' roster came into the game with 34 of their 53 players either non-drafted free agents, unrestricted free agents, or sixth- and seventh-round draft picks. The Bengals countered with 18 in those categories, plus 20 of their own players who were taken in the first four rounds. They also have nine rookies or first-year players.

And yet, the team from salary cap hell is in purgatory at 4-5. The Bengals fell to 1-8 to secure their 12th straight non-winning season.

Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna, seeking his first career stretch of three straight games without an interception, couldn't pull it off. Against a defense missing Pro Bowl caliber players at each level (defensive end Michael McCrary, middle linebacker Ray Lewis, cornerback Chris McAlister), Kitna threw three interceptions and the Bengals turned it over four times against a unit that started three rookies.

"It's a disappointment any time you lose to anybody," Kitna said of the roster matchups. "You can't go on the road and make four turnovers and win. The turnovers cost us at least 17 points. In a game you lose by 11, those things are magnified."

One of those defensive rookies, free safety Ed Reed, picked Kitna twice. One was an overthrow of wide receiver Peter Warrick over the middle. The other, with 7:33 left in the game, came at the Bengals 19 and resulted when Kitna said he anticipated a half yard too early on wide receiver Chad Johnson breaking over the middle.

One of those sixth-rounders, Adalius Thomas, a defensive end, stunned Kitna with a 25-yard interception return for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. Working against an empty backfield from a tackle spot, Thomas peeled off into the flat in zone coverage. Kitna saw him, but he also knew wide receiver Ron Dugans was open on the sideline. But Kitna didn't get enough air under it and Thomas, a third-year player, jumped, juggled twice, and broke a 7-7 tie.

"You can say you shouldn't have thrown it," Kitna said. "But most guys don't make that play. He made a great play."

And the Bengals are looking for their guys to make plays. Next to the Ravens, their defense had recovered the fewest fumbles in the league going into the game. Cornerback Artrell Hawkins got their third of the season Sunday, but they came up with no interceptions for the fifth game this season.

Thomas said he had a little help from his homework.

"They were emptied out, just from studying tape I knew what route they were running or whatever," Thomas said. "We were in a call where I dropped. I dropped and just read quarterback and had a good break on the ball. That's what I always think when I catch it [scoring], you just run as fast as you can until you get to the end zone. I just didn't want to stick the ball out. It was just helping the team. You play the game in your mind and visualize the play happening and when they went to empty, I was dropping on that play and read the quarterback and broke on the ball."

Running back Jamal Lewis' 135 yards on 21 carries proved to be the final piece of the puzzle on Sunday.

"We ran the ball and kept their offense off the field", said quarterback Jeff Blake, who hit 16 of 24 passes for 183 yards to get his first win as a Ravens starter. "We didn't really have to work long because we were able to run it so well. Their offense did a good job of moving it too."

On 21 carries, Bengals running back Corey Dillon had his third 100-yard game in the last five with 102 yards, and broke 7,000 yards in his career. Now at 7,005, Dillon is 171 shy of George Rogers at No. 33 on the all-time rushing list. Wide receiver Chad Johnson had the Bengals' first 100-yard receiving day of the season and the first of his career with 110 on seven catches.

Kitna finished 28 of 41 for 272 yards, but the Bengals couldn't overcome the turnovers, more shoddy special teams play, the running of Lewis, and Blake's efficiency. Kitna steered them close enough for Neil Rackers' 43- and 35-yard field goals early in each of the third and fourth quarters, but they couldn't punch it in. Early in the fourth quarter from the Ravens 17, Kitna threw back-to-back incompletions on second-and-nine, and third-and-nine.

"The rage now is the Tampa defense with that two-deep zone," said Kitna of the red zone. "They did a good job disguising what coverages they were in down there."

When the first of Rackers' field goals cut the lead to 24-17, Blake started a nine-play, 80-yard TD drive with a 29-yarder to wide open tight end Todd Heap over the middle. Two straight passes for 22 yards to wide receiver Travis Taylor, five straight runs by Lewis for 28, and a one-yard touchdown flip to Taylor behind Hawkins with less than three minutes left in third quarter decided it for a 31-17 pad.

If they had brought the circus to town Sunday, it couldn't have been a wilder first half than what transpired here at Ravens Stadium.

Before a full house of 69,024, the Bengals got burned for a touchdown via an interception and punt return and surrendered a field goal to a long kickoff return in falling behind 24-14 in a half that featured 455 yards that didn't come from scrimmage. At the end of the game and when the dust had cleared, there were 547 return yards.

The Bengals countered with Brandon Bennett's 94-yard kick return for a touchdown the first time they touched the ball, but blew a chance to cash in on his 45-yard return with 1:15 left in the half.

Bennett, who set a club record with 228 yards on six kickoff returns, put the Bengals at the Ravens 42. But the Bengals couldn't even get a field-goal attempt. Instead of spiking the ball with 22 seconds left on second-and-1 from the Ravens 8, the Bengals chose to hurry up and run a play to Dillon.

Defensive end Tony Weaver caused a fumble on the one-yard loss and free safety Chad Williams picked it up. After Bengals left guard Matt O'Dwyer tackled Williams, Williams wandered down the field backward into the end zone with the ball, but the replay refs came to their senses and ruled the play down.

The Ravens bolted to a 24-14 lead when Lamont Brightful, returning punts in place of the injured McAlister, zipped 95 yards up the Ravens sideline for a touchdown, the longest punt return ever against the Bengals. The Ravens did a great job using two men to wall off special teams ace Ron Dugans as the contain man to form an alley on the outside.

In the middle of the second quarter, Brightful ran a kickoff back 54 yards to set up Matt Stover's 33-yard field goal for a 17-14 lead.

Kitna's flirtation with perfection in the previous two games came to a sudden and jarring end early in the game, but he responded by hitting 13 straight passes after the Thomas interception. And Kitna did get the Bengals into a 14-14 tie when he uncorked the longest touchdown pass of the season, a 39-yarder to Johnson streaking inside cornerback Gary Baxter on a post.

Johnson caught four balls for 77 yards on the drive, including a marvelous diving backward catch for 15 on a ball Kitna threw behind him. Replays showed the ground may have helped him catch it, but the Ravens didn't challenge. Dillon averaged 5.2 yards on his 11 carries in the half for 57 yards.

Not only did Bennett's return tie the game just four minutes into it at 7, but it was the Bengals' first points in Baltimore since Blake himself fired a 67-yarder to Carl Pickens in 1998.

It was also the Bengals' first kick return in two years and 361 days since Tremain Mack went all the way against Tennessee.

But the Bengals got what they feared. Blake came out and hit his first four passes for 65 yards to four different receivers. He converted a third-and-two on a quick rollout pass to Heap and then went up top on a superb play-action fake to hit wide receiver Brandon Stokley working one-on-one in front of cornerback Jeff Burris for a 33-yard gain.

Then for the second straight week on the opening drive of the game, defensive tackle Oliver Gibson picked up a penalty (a face mask) that gave the foes a first down. Lewis then walked in from one yard out over the Bengals right side to give the Ravens a 7-0 lead, their first score on an opening drive this season.

The Bengals worked against a skeleton of the defense that mauled them in shutouts their last three trips into this stadium. Right outside linebacker Peter Boulware is the only Super Bowl starter from their record 2000 season who lined up against the Bengals for the first snap.

McAlister (ankle) went down in a game-time decision, leaving the Ravens with rookie starters at both safeties and left defensive end. They had two second-year cornerbacks in the lineup and a nose tackle, Kelly Gregg, was cut by the Bengals.

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