Smith out as Bengals lead

12-16-01, 2:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ The Bengals rode the quarterback switch for their longest scoring drive of the season when they hogged their first series for 20 plays and a dozen minutes.

But Akili Smith had to leave the game when he injured his left hamstring scrambling out of the pocket on the last play of the Bengals' third series midway through the second quarter and was not to return Sunday here at Giants Stadium.

The Jets then kept the ball for all but the final 18 seconds of the first half, when they got a 24-yard field goal from John Hall that pulled New York within 7-3 at halftime. Jon Kitna replaced Smith in the last seconds and he had a Hail Mary pass intercepted on the half's last play.

It was a tough break for Smith, the Bengals' erstwhile franchise quarterback who looked sharp in his first start in more than a year. He accounted for 50 of the 81 yards in the drive that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead with 1:56 left in the first quarter.

Smith hit all four of his passes for 35 yards and ran for 15 more. Running back Corey Dillon pounded 10 times for 34 yards in the drive and scored from one yard out on a terrific second effort play, bulling out of the reach of defensive end Rick Lyle and tackle Steve Martin behind the left side of the Bengals' line.

Smith personally converted three third-down plays. He rolled out on a third-and four to hit wide receiver Chad Johnson for nine yards to the Jets 40 and got another one when he scrambled for six yards up the middle on third-and-five to the Jets 16. Then on third-one from the Jets 7, Smith made a quick read over the middle and hit tight end Kirk McMullen for his first NFL catch to the New York 3.

The Bengals opted to sit Kitna with a sprained middle finger on his throwing hand. Kitna had said he could play if the Bengals decided not to bench him, but he was the first player to greet Smith after the team's longest drive of the season and second touchdown drive of the season on their first series of the game.

The Bengals, who came into the game leading just 27:21 in the last five weeks, had their first half-time lead since the 30-13 loss in Jacksonville Nov. 11.

New York took advantage of several big plays when the Bengals had quarterback Vinny Testaverde in a hole. On a second-and-15, he hooked up with running back Curtis Martin on a 27-yard screen pass and wide receiver Wayne Chrebet converted a third-and-6 when he caught one in front of cornerback Artrell Hawkins after Hawkins slipped.

But Bengals cornerback Mark Roman forced Hall's field goal when he blew up a receiver screen to Chrebet for a loss after beating Richie Anderson's block.

The Hall-of-Fame matchup between Dillon and Martin was a first half wash. Dillon had 38 yards on 13 carries and Martin had 34 on 13.

Kitna, who gets at least $1 million if he plays in 80 percent of he team's snaps this season, opened the second half for the Bengals.

The offensive line was intact for Smith's re-debut, with center Rich Braham (shoulder) and right tackle Willie Anderson (ankle) getting the pre-game nod. But starting left outside linebacker Steve Foley (back) got scratched in favor of homegrown Canute Curtis of Amityville, N.J.

Smith entered the game saying a lot of water has gone under the bridge since Nov. 13, 2000. That's when he was benched in favor of Scott Mitchell with the Bengals mired at 2-8, triggering a period of erratic off-the-field behavior that took away from his preparation and cost him some locker-room credibility.

Smith has made an effort to win back his teammates and he knows he needs them.

"Once your identity starts to go down, man, it's just hard to get the trust of your teammates back, the organization," Smith said the week before the Bengals came to New York. "The buzz around the locker room is that I don't do the things I used to do. I think it's trickling around to the coaches. Everybody is

starting to notice and that's start of going in the right direction."

Smith agrees with some of his mates that a healthy slice of humble pie has changed his outlook on things.

"After what he went through, it either humbles you or eats you up," said Anderson, the offense's captain. "It either humbles you or you become Ryan Leaf. As far as his personality goes, I think you can see that. He's not thinking about what everybody is saying he has to be. I'm not saying he's a 100 percent changed, but he acts a lot different than last year. I think he knows more about life. He's not hanging with the same guys."

Smith said his arrest on a DUI charge in his hometown of San Diego shortly after last season woke him up. He was acquitted, but he said the incident got him thinking.

"Like Kenny says, you have to live the quarterback's life," said Smith of Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson. "That made me realize. Everytime, people are looking and saying, 'Akili, you've just been a messup with this and that.' It was hard.

"I think I've been humbled big time," said Smith of his three-year career. "It's been the most humbling experience of my entire life."

Anderson knows his mates have to crank up their play for a young quarterback who is 3-12 as a starter and hasn't thrown for more than 183 yards in his last 10 starts to avoid more of the same.

"We have to help him," Anderson said. "We have to pick up our play around him. The offensive line has to give him more protection than he thinks he has. We have to make the tough catches." Smith says a lot of water has gone under the bridge since Nov. 13, 2000. That's when he was benched in favor of Scott Mitchell with the Bengals mired at 2-8, triggering a period of erratic off-the-field behavior that took away from his preparation and cost him some locker-room credibility.

Smith has made an effort to win back his teammates and he knows he needs them.

"Once your identity starts to go down, man, it's just hard to get the trust of your teammates back, the organization," Smith said the week before the Bengals came to New York. "The buzz around the locker room is that I don't do the things I used to do. I think it's trickling around to the coaches. Everybody is

starting to notice and that's start of going in the right direction."

Smith agrees with some of his mates that a healthy slice of humble pie has changed his outlook on things.

"After what he went through, it either humbles you or eats you up," said Anderson, the offense's captain. "It either humbles you or you become Ryan Leaf. As far as his personality goes, I think you can see that. He's not thinking about what everybody is saying he has to be. I'm not saying he's a 100 percent changed, but he acts a lot different than last year. I think he knows more about life. He's not hanging with the same guys."

Smith said his arrest on a DUI charge in his hometown of San Diego shortly after last season woke him up. He was acquitted, but he said the incident got him thinking.

"Like Kenny says, you have to live the quarterback's life," said Smith of Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson. "That made me realize. Everytime, people are looking and saying, 'Akili, you've just been a messup with this and that.' It was hard.

"I think I've been humbled big time," said Smith of his three-year career. "It's been the most humbling experience of my entire life."

Anderson knows his mates have to crank up their play for a young quarterback who is 3-12 as a starter and hasn't thrown for more than 183 yards in his last 10 starts to avoid more of the same.

"We have to help him," Anderson said. "We have to pick up our play around him. The offensive line has to give him more protection than he thinks he has. We have to make the tough catches."

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