12-31-01, 7:40 a.m. Updated:
12-31-01, 9:00 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons matched his uniform number Sunday with a 56-yard touchdown return that got Cincinnati back in the game for its first score in a 14-0 game.
He also matched his football soulmate, outside linebacker Takeo Spikes, after Spikes had his first return for a touchdown earlier in the year.
True to their natures, Simmons kept looking at the end zone as he battled a tweak hamstring, "because that's where I needed to get to." Remember when Spikes snuck a look at the video board during his 66-yard interception return against Baltimore?
"I get a lot of the hype and that has to do with a lot of different reasons," said Spikes, the first to leap on Simmons in the end zone. "He's just as good as I am. He makes me the player I am and I think I make him the player he is."
Simmons finally made the highlights on another day he was all over the place on pretty much every play. The Bengals held the NFL's No. 1 rush offense to 73 yards and blanked the Steelers in the game's final 30 minutes of what may have been their finest stand of their break-through season.
Simmons sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart in a fourth quarter the Bengals had two of their season-high four interceptions. The last one, defensive end Reinard Wilson's tip to the other end, Justin Smith, set up the score that cut the lead to 23-17.
"We've played like this the last month or so," Simmons said of his
defense. "But today, guys made some plays. We had some nice interceptions."
And a nice fumble return for touchdown when cornerback Robert Bean swooped in for the Steelers' fumbled field-goal snap at the Bengals 34-yard line. He ran 10 yards with it and then pitched back to Simmons. Instead of a 17-0 Steeler lead, it was 14-7.
"I saw Simmons out of the corner of my eye,"" Bean said. "I didn't see what happened. I was on the ground and just heard the crowd."
Simmons: "I couldn't block for him because the two people weren't in front of me. I just kept running with him and when the guy was tackling him, I yelled, 'Bean.' When I caught it, I knew I was gone."
Gone, but not won. That didn't happen until the offense finally cashed the opportunities the defense gave them in the final 2:46 of regulation and the overtime. On the first drive of overtime, Stewart faced a third-and-10 from the Cincinnati 39. Spikes, as he did more than usual Sunday, blitzed from the inside and forced Stewart into his seventh incompletion in his last 10 throws of the game.
"We knew that we had to turn the ball over and he was doing some stuff that was kind of the Kordell of old," Simmons said. "He was getting pressured, he was throwing on his back foot, giving us opportunities to make plays and to our credit, we came up with them (the plays). The Jets game, we could have won that one but guys didn't come up with plays when it counted and today we came up with them."
Earlier in the game, Simmons was flagged 15 yards for roughing Stewart as he threw the ball running to the sidelines. The Bengals thought it was a needless call, but Spikes had it in mind on that last play and pulled up a bit.
"I didn't want to do anything stupid," Spikes said. "I knew he was rushing the throw. Whenever the quarterback takes five steps, he has to wait for the receiver to come out of that break before he throws it. . .so I wasn't going to do anything stupid and get a roughing the passer. I should have had a sack."
But Simmons got a touchdown, which Spikes enjoyed almost as much as his own. He tipped his hat to Simmons' notorious speed.
"He let it go," Spikes said. "If we were side by side, I would have stuck with him on the first 30 (yards), but after that I'm behind him. Keeping a good pitch relationship."
SCENE OF CRIME?: One of the big plays in a game of big plays came when Bengals rookie linebacker Riall Johnson recovered Neil Rackers' onside kick at the Bengals' 46 to set up the tying touchdown drive.
Steelers receiver Bobby Shaw insisted he gave up the ball at the bottom of the pile only because a couple of the refs told him to give it to them to start the next play and then Johnson grabbed it.
"I feel like I'm confessing to a crime, theft," said Johnson, who didn't see it like that. "I dove underneath the pile as it was forming. I never saw the ball. I just felt around and I got my hand between his stomach and the ball. When I got it, I stood up as soon as I could so no one would take it from me."
Steelers coach Bill Cowher saw Shaw's version. Asked if he thought his team recovered, Cowher said, "I know it."
THIS AND THAT: Bengals CB Artrell Hawkins is questionable for next week's season finale in Tennessee with a sore shoulder. . .The Bengals are 17-3 in their last 20 home finales. . .The sacks by Brian Simmons and Darryl Williams push the Bengals' season total to 45, one off the '76 club record. . .Simmons' fumble return for a TD was the Bengals' first since safety Sam Shade did it against the Steelers three years and 10 days ago at old Three Rivers.
RESERVE DUTY: The Bengals not only scored 17 points in the last 13 minutes of the game, they did it without their two best offensive players in running back Corey Dillon and wide receiver Darnay Scott.
Plus, the Bengals rushed for 141 yards at 4.9 a clip without their top four tight ends and H-Back Nick Williams. Williams sat out Sunday with a calf bruise.
Scott and Dillon went out early in the fourth quarter, Scott for good with a shot to the shoulder and head and Dillon for most of the game when he re-aggravated the dislocated right pinky he injured two weeks ago in New York.
"I jammed my finger again," Dillon said. "I felt real uncomfortable handling the ball. I didn't want to get into a situation where something freaky might happen. Brandon (Bennett) came in and did an excellent job, so it was really no big deal."
All Bennett did was ring up a 36-yard run in overtime off right tackle
from his own 10 that got the Bengals rolling. Later, he plunged twice for eight yards that put Neil Rackers in position for the winning kick. Bennett followed fullback Lorenzo Neal's block on the linebacker and, "I knew I was going to get a long one because we had such good movement on the line. I didn't see any (Steeler) colors. I just saw Lorenzo and the linebacker."
Dillon finished with 91 yards on 21 carries in nearly becoming the first back to run for 100 yards against the Steelers since Priest Holmes in Game 4.
"That's back-to-back now we've run the ball against the No. 1 and No. 2 (NFL rush defenses)," Dillon said. "See what we can do when we execute?"
Dillon said he injured his finger after his fumble that led to the Steelers' last touchdown and that it had nothing to do with the turnover.
RECORD HAUL: With the Steelers blitzing their zone blitz, Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna kept throwing into the vacated spaces and into the rarefied air of Bengal quarterbacking Sunday where only Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason have gone before.
"We saw where they were vulnerable and the offensive coordinator was committed to that," said Kitna of Bob Bratkowski. "Brat was committed to finding holes. . . "We got behind 14-0 and really, they present some opportunities in the passing game because they like to do a lot of their pressures and blitzes and things like that which leaves them vulnerable in the passing game and we felt we could take advantage and we had some success doing that and in this league when you have success doing things, you're going to continue at it."
Kitna's 68 passes are a club-record, breaking Anderson's mark set Dec. 20, 1982 in San Diego. They are also the third most of all time, two off
Drew Bledsoe's record of 70.
The 35 completions for the Bengals are second only to Anderson's 40 in that San Diego game when Anderson threw for 416 yards in a 50-34 loss in a rematch of the Freezer Bowl.
The 411 yards is the fifth highest passing game in club history, topped only by Esiason's 490 against the Rams Oct. 7, 1990, Anderson's 447 against the Bills Nov. 17, 1975, Esiason's 425 against the Jets Dec. 21, 1986 and Anderson's 416.