8-11-01, 11:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
PONTIAC, Mich. _ Remember Reinard Wilson, the first-round draft pick who could be going from bust to must as cut-down day approaches?
Remember the Bengals' defense, which last season couldn't get off the field on third down or out of its way on the first two downs?
Wilson, fighting three other veterans for what looks to be the last roster spot, hounded the Lions with two sacks before tearing the ball loose from quarterback Mike McMahon and stopping Detroit at the Bengals 19 with five minutes left in a 24-24 game.
After a blown coverage allowed Lions quarterback Charlie Batch to hit wide-open Johnnie Morton for a 53-yard touchdown on their second snap of the game, the Bengals allowed 159 yards the rest of the way.
Detroit managed just 2.7 yards per its 20 runs and after the Lions converted their first two third-down tries, the Bengals shut down seven of their last 11 attempts.
"I though our pressure was the key to what our defense did," said head coach Dick LeBeau.
The key for Wilson, Wilson said, is simply getting a steady diet of snaps. With linebacker Steve Foley
sidelined with a rib problem, Wilson got a shot at end on the first pass-defense unit and played more than he usually does in the base defense.
"I know I played more than 10 snaps," said Wilson, his usual load. "I played enough where I was able to get into a flow and a feel for what was going on."
He got a sack out of both nickel and base, but made the play on McMahon in the nickel.
The good and bad side of a pre-season game: Wilson beat some tackle named Andy Vincent, a first-year free-agent from Texas A&M, in the fourth quarter. But Wilson made an instinctive play.
"The quarterback started running up toward the line and I decided to spin back inside and he was carrying the ball kind of loose, so I reached for it," Wilson said.
Wilson, a college defensive end who couldn't make the move to linebacker, is pretty realistic about his future as he waits for first-round draft pick Justin Smith to sign and start in his spot at open-side end.
"If I can start on the other side of Justin in the nickel and back him up on the base, I'll be happy."
What hurts Wilson is his inability to play tackle. That may give two-spot players like Glen Steele and Kevin Henry the edge over Wilson and Jevon Langford for the last spot. Or maybe, if he continues to get pressure, that may trump versatility.
Ironically, Steele recovered the fumble caused by Wilson.
SACKING OF AKILI:** Akili Smith had trouble hiding the frustration of getting sacked five times out of his 23 snaps. The poor pass protection of the first offensive line is now officially a problem and LeBeau has called fixing it the No. 1 priority.
Here's why it hurts. The coaches want to evaluate the quarterbacks against first-team defenses, which is why all three are getting starts. But like what happened to Jon Kitna last week in Chicago, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski admitted it is probably difficult to judge Smith because of the pressure he faced.
In the Bengals' two games, the starting quarterback hasn't led a touchdown drive and has failed to convert eight of 12 third-down tries.
"I'm not going to point fingers, but we're still trying to jell as an offense," Smith said.
That was after he got hurried on most of his seven throws, fumbled twice on sacks, faced five plays third-and-seven or longer, and got
whistled for two delay-of-game penalties.
Asked if he was as decisive as he was in the opener, Smith said, "It's hard to be real decisive when you get a lot of pressure in your face, but what can I say? I'm trying to make things happen."
The new protection calls in the new offense are being fingered as the reason and right tackle Willie Anderson sitting out with a sore ankle didn't help. It looked as if backup right tackle Jamain Stephens struggled as end James Hall, a second-year player from Michigan, had four of the Lions' seven sacks. But to be fair to Stephens, there was also pressure coming up the middle, and Smith lost 14 yards once before barely getting the snap.
More disturbing? Two of Detroit's starting defensive linemen, Luther Elliss and Tracy Scroggins, didn't play.
"It's fixable and we'll fix it," Bratkowski said. "When you don't have your whole unit in there, it doesn't help, either. Guys are learning the protections and they're not exactly sure where they're going to be getting their help or how they going to be set up with each other. But we can get it fixed."
But like LeBeau said, "We're running out of time."
CD SAVINGS:** How much did the Bengals not want to play Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon on the Silverdome turf? He was in on the first two plays and watched fullback Lorenzo Neal get the first carry and then was sent on a diversionary pass route as Smith got sacked. On third down, he was out for good, which won't happen against Buffalo.
"My time is coming," said Dillon, who didn't seem to mind not getting a carry on the turf monster.
Right tackle Willie Anderson's eyes raised when someone observed the Bengals are a fumble away from being 2-0 without Dillon touching the ball.
"Let's start giving it to him 25 times a game and see what happens," Anderson said.
TOUGH GRIFF: It's one of those obscure pre-season stories that would have been lost if it wasn't part of a winning drive.
Third-year wide receiver Damon Griffin, the 5-9, 185-pounder mired on the depth chart behind the Bengals' big receivers, made a valiant last stand on the last drive. Fighting a tender hamstring, he caught all four of his balls for 34 yards on the last drive. The last one was a nine-yarder on second-and-seven that put the ball on the Detroit 32 with 1:30 left to set up three Rudi Johnson runs and Neil Rackers' last-play field goal from 34 yards.
Not only did Griffin pull the hamstring running a go route in third quarter, but he also ran a wrong pattern earlier and asked receivers coach Steve Mooshagian not to pull him.
"Moosh told me I can't make any mistakes with the way things are," Griffin said. "And when I got hurt, I couldn't come out. I had no choice. I had to play, hurt or not. I'm a free agent. That tag is always going to follow me. I had no choice. I'm more sad than happy."
But trainer Paul Sparling said Griffin should be back practicing this week and with the bye week he ought to be ready to play against the Bills at home Aug. 25.
RECEIVERS GALORE: Here's why it's tough for Griffin to make the club. Yes, he had four catches. But Ron Dugans, a good special-teams player, had three catches, Danny Farmer caught a 24-yard ball, and seventh-round pick T.J. Houshmandzadeh returned four punts and a kickoff.
Houshmandzadeh didn't make a catch and he averaged a pedestrian 21yards per kick return. He also bruised his left foot and is questionable for Buffalo.
MORE RECEIVERS: Remember last season when the Bengals went more than a month without a pass of 20 yards or more to a wide receiver? On Friday, the big three receivers each had one.
Chad Johnson took away a 51-yard end-zone heave from Akili Smith in a battle with cornerback Chidi Iwuoma. Darnay Scott made a nice 27-yard catch on a ball Smith threw behind him and he ended up fumbling it, and Peter Warrick took one for 22, although his nine-yard
spin-and-dance-out-of-bounds in a two-minute drill at the end of the first half was more pleasing to the eye.
Bengals' observers took heart when Scott, now a year removed from his broken leg, showed no fear diving in the scrum to try to get his fumble back.
Scott also scored his first touchdown of the century and first since December of '99 when his eyes met the eyes of quarterback Jon Kitna's at the line of scrimmage from eight yards out. They hooked up on a touchdown pass when Scott beat cornerback Robert Bailey to the inside on a slant.
INJURY UPDATE: C Roger Roesler is being examined for a possible broken bone in his foot and is questionable for Buffalo. . .LB Armegis Spearman (ankle) probable. . . MLB Brian Simmons (shoulder) probable. . . RT Jamain Stephens (shoulder) probable. . .FS Darryl Williams (torn forearm muscle) probable. . . WR Damon Griffin (hamstring) probable. . .
OLBs Takeo Spikes (ankle) and Steve Foley (ribs) and RT Willie Anderson (ankle) missed Friday's game, but are probable. . .TE Marco Battaglia (knee) makes his '01 debut against Buffalo. . .TE Sean Brewer (hamstring) is questionable.
SPECIAL MIX: On a night the Bengals' special teams gave up touchdown returns on a punt and kickoff, the kickers saved the day. Cunningham and Rackers both hit kicks on the last play of the respective halves they worked. Both are perfect on the season (2-for-2).
But LeBeau wasn't pleased with the work of one Larry Foster, the Lions second-year receiver from LSU after he went 101 yards with the second half kickoff and 80 yards with a punt early in the second quarter.
LeBeau could remember only one time in six decades that a team won despite giving up touchdowns in both kicking games.
KITNA PRODUCES: Kitna did nothing to hurt his cause. He got some major help from his defense and looked solid directing the Bengals to 10 points in his four series during the final 7:36 of the second quarter.
Free safety Chris Carter registered the Bengals'
second interception in as many games on a play over the middle that put the ball on the Lions 16. Kitna cashed to Scott three plays later.
Then after Kitna threw a bad interception right to linebacker Barrett Green, the only guy in the area, the defense held from its 14 and allowed only Jason Hanson's 29-yard field goal.
Kitna paid them back with a nifty 2:20 drill that went 66 yards on 10 plays and ended in Richie Cunningham's 26-yard field goal. Kitna found Warrick for 31 yards in the drive and hit tight end Tony McGee on a 21-yard pass.
"Just keep playing," said Kitna of the derby. "If you make a mistake, you come back and that's what this team is doing. That's a reflection of our coach."