Secondary steps up

9-15-03, 5:45 a.m.


OAKLAND, Calif. _ In the end, Jerry Rice got the Bengals again.

Yes, the man who broke the Bengals' hearts in Super Bowl XXIII 15 seasons ago, wriggled free from cornerback Jeff Burris with 23 seconds left in Sunday's game to draw a pass interference penalty at the Cincinnati 22. That set up Sebastian Janikowski's 39-yard field goal with nine seconds left to allow Oakland to escape its home opener and deliver the Marvin Lewis era its first big crusher 23-20.

Ironically, the play came on a day the Cincinnati secondary offered its most complete performance since maybe those playoff days of Eric Thomas and Lewis Billups. They blanked Rice and Canton running mate Tim Brown in the second half, and held them to a combined five catches for 47 yards.

Not only that, but with 1:12 left in the game, NFL MVP Rich Gannon had passed for just 64 yards. This after sifting the Titans for 264 yards last week for a 101.2 passer rating. The Bengals' secondary, which allowed a franchise-high 30 touchdown passes last season, held Gannon to a 56.1 rating Sunday, after he hit 13 of 28 passes for 103 yards, his fewest yards on a rain-free day in two years since a 125-yard effort against Miami.

This after Oakland led the NFL in passing last season.

This with a re-tooled secondary that had Rogers Beckett starting in place of Marquand Manuel at strong safety, a move that seemed to take into consideration that Beckett played against the Raiders six times the past three seasons as a member of the Chargers. Beckett, picked up on waivers in June, responded with six tackles and a pass defensed.

"It always seems to come down to the end here," said Beckett, his experience in the "Black Hole," clearly a plus. "Last year, we took them into overtime and won (27-21)."

No 10-yard cushions for this secondary. No soft zones. Nearly every pass seemed contested, until that last drive, when running back Charlie Garner leaked out of the backfield, and made Burris miss him on a 24-yard gain, which really was the key play, and not the pass interference call.

The key?

The Bengals held Garner, the Raiders' slippery running back who caught a 46-yard touchdown pass last week and nearly 1,000 yards last season, to more yards rushing (63) than yards receiving (39).

"The game plan was to locate Charlie Garner," said middle linebacker Kevin Hardy. "We always

wanted to know where he was and just force Gannon to check the ball down to somebody else. He got loose a few times on us, but I don't think he was the difference."

The linebackers and safeties took turns covering Garner, but the corners came up huge taking advantage of the absence of injured wide receiver Jerry Porter in blanketing Rice and Brown. The Bengals never sacked the elusive Gannon, but they did get good heat on him by mixing up blitzes and straight four-man rushes. Left end Duane Clemons drilled him on an early series and he never seemed to recover, and Gannon said he suffered from back spasms the entire game.

"Leslie Frazier came in with a great game plan," said cornerback Tory James of the Bengals defensive coordinator. "We executed the fundamentals."

James, who left the game briefly with cramps after successfully covering Brown 1-on-1 on third-and-eight early in the fourth quarter, bedeviled his Raider teammates he left via free agency this past season with two of the Bengals' four passes defensed, one batted at the line of scrimmage on a third-down blitz.

James came back into the game, but couldn't help stop Gannon down the stretch.

But there was grumbling about that . The Bengals felt like they had kept Gannon out of the end zone all day. The Raiders' only touchdown came after a controversial non-fumble in the game's first five minutes. At the end of running back Justin Fargas' 53-yard run off a reverse, Burris (again), clearly caused a fumble before Fargas hit the ground .The Bengals recovered, but the officials claimed the play had been blown dead, meaning head coach Marvin Lewis couldn't challenge the obviously blown play.

"I thought it was a fumble, but I'm not going to say they did a bad job," Burris said. "I have to do a better job."

Burris didn't exactly deny he interfered with Rice, but he didn't get a lot of help on the play. On third-and-10 from the Bengals 37, the Bengals loaded up a big-time blitz in sending nine players at Gannon. That left Burris in "zero coverage," with no one helping him over the top.

The blitz didn't get there. With 35 NFL seasons among them, Gannon and Rice were going to figure out how to make it work.

"I should have had better position," Burris said. "It's zero coverage, so you have to decide what you're going to give up, the post, or an out? In some of those situations, I need to continue to get better.'

Ironically, it all happened on a day the Bengals' secondary was much better.

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