8-24-02, 11:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
While a Deuce went wild Saturday night, the Bengals continued to Go Fish for a starting quarterback during a bizarre Paul Brown Stadium opener and may have drawn Gus Frerotte.
While the Saints manhandled the Bengals, 31-23, before 41,636, Jon Kitna gave Frerotte an opening in the quarterbacks derby with his worst outing of the preseason. And Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau showed that he may be leaning to Frerotte when he went with him for nearly two quarters with much of the first unit after Kitna worked early into the second quarter.
But third-stringer Akili Smith again proved to be no Joker in this deck. Smith brought the Bengals two yards away from a chance at tying the game, but his desperation pass into the end zone on the game's last play was nowhere near a teammate and got intercepted as the clock ran out.
"We'll evaluate them again and go with who in my opinion gives us the best chance of winning. I think all three of them have done a good job," LeBeau said. "Now it's on me to pick one of the three and lets go."
Somehow the Bengals (2-1) outgained the Saints (2-1), by 552-337 and still lost their first game of the summer.
Frerotte and Smith steered the Bengals to their two touchdowns with Frerotte's scoring pass coming on an 11-yard dart to wide receiver Danny Farmer over the middle with 1:20 left in the third quarter.
Running back Curtis Keaton had the big play, a 32-yard dash off the left side, but Frerotte got the drive going with a 19-yard pass to running back Brandon Bennett in the middle and a 13-yarder to tight end Chris Edmonds. That gave Frerotte the best passing outing by a Bengals quarterback this season on 12 of 18 for 157 yards.
Kitna struggled with his first interception of the preseason, and he failed to get touchdowns when the Bengals twice drove inside the New Orleans 8, and finished five of 14 passing for 101 yards.
"We moved the ball up the field, but unfortunately, we didn't put the ball in," Kitna said. "We've got to execute in the red zone, and in this half we didn't do it. We didn't game-plan as much on red-zone stuff as I think we will for a regular-season game, and it's something we've got to get better on."
In his first action of the season, Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon looked crisp with 45 yards on eight carries, but he got stuffed on the Saints 1 two straight times.
"I don't care when it is, preseason or not," said Dillon, who thought he got in at least once, "or who it is against, when you get second-and-one, or third-and-one, you've got to put it in. You've got to perform in the red zone."
Meanwhile, the Saints strafed the Bengals' NFL-leading defense as running back Deuce McAllister scored on a 16-yard screen pass and a one-yard run on the way to racking up 84 yards on 13 carries.
The Saints also threw in wide receiver Michael Lewis' 81-yard punt
return for a touchdown in the middle of the second quarter when Lewis bolted through an alley on the Saints sideline opened by running back Fred McAfee's detonation block of Bengals rookie safety Marquand Manuel.
Lewis, a second-year player, tortured the Bengals all night. Working against the Bengals' second defense early in the third quarter, Lewis caught a ball in front of cornerback Rodney Heath on the right sideline and when Heath missed the tackle, Lewis went off on a 38-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Jake Delhomme.
The kickers saved the Bengals from a miserable special teams night all the way around. Keaton fumbled away a kickoff to set up a touchdown, but they did get an 18-yard field goal from Neil Rackers and a 36-yarder from rookie Travis Dorsch off the two red-zone drives to cut the Saints lead to 7-6 in the first two minutes of the second quarter.
Frerotte checked into the game minutes later and right away felt some pressure from rookie left tackle Levi Jones' side of the line. Jones looked to have a tough time when he went in for Richmond Webb and LeBeau went back to Webb early in the third quarter.
Frerotte stepped up in the pocket to hit Chad Johnson for two passes of 29 yards, but Warrick dropped a third-down pass over the middle and Rackers rescued them with a 44-yard field goal that cut it to 14-9 with 4:17 left in the half.
The Bengals did take their long ball out of mothballs in the first half. They went to their no-huddle offense in order to help find their long game that had yet to surface in the preseason.
Lacking a pass of 20 yards or longer to one of their wide receivers, T.J. Houshmandzadeh adjusted to a Kitna heave on the Bengals sideline for a 29-yard pickup. A few plays later, Warrick turned his back completely to the secondary to haul in a 28-yarder, but Dillon couldn't punch it on two tries over the left side.
The Bengals' running game, ranked No. 1 in the NFL during the preseason, worked against a formidable Saints' defense that had allowed just one run of more than eight yards coming into Saturday.
Dillon did rip off 11 on his first carry of the season, a sweep to the left.
"It felt like another day at the office," Dillon said. "Nothing different. Nothing I didn't expect."
The Bengals pounded it inside the 10 again on the next drive, the big play being Houshmandzadeh's leaping 16-yard catch as Saints defensive end Charles Grant roughed Kitna. Bennett checked in with his obligatory big play, a 17-yard run off a wide pitch from Kitna. But when Warrick got separation on the corner as he headed to the flag, Kitna overthrew him in the end zone. Kitna showed the presence of mind to get rid of the ball on a blitz even though he was called for intentional grounding and Dorsch hit the 36-yard field goal to bring the Bengals within 7-6.
Brooks did a nice job running away from the Bengals' first-team defense that clearly showed it missed all their starting linebackers with injuries. Brooks finished his night 12 of 24 for 154 yards, and he did get sacked once by tackle Bernard Whittington.
Akili Smith, the Bengals' athletic answer to Brooks, bobbed and weaved his way through the Saints for 64 yards on seven carries. He hit 14 of 28 passes for 137 yards, and hit wideout Chad Johnson from 11 yards out for his second touchdown pass of the preseason. He also hooked up with Ron Dugans enough in the final quarter that Dugans finished with 100 yards on seven catches.