BY GEOFF HOBSON - ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.
Akili Smith got his 60 percent passing Friday night, but what right tackle Willie Anderson really liked about his second-year quarterback was his huddle presence. No shot at Jeff Blake or Neil O'Donnell, but Anderson noticed something different in the first half of the 21-20 loss here to the Bills in the preseason opener.
"We haven't had that direction in awhile on offense," Anderson said. "I'm not saying we're going to the Super Bowl. But it's been awhile since we've had that direction that he came in and gave us. He was talking to guys. I was talking back to him. The guys really responded to him."
So did Smith. He was perfect on what his coaches have been calling, "The Big Down," hitting all five of his third-down passes for 51 yards. But everyone was raving about the pass he threw away to rookie wide receiver Peter Warrick in the end zone when he nosed the Bengals to the Buffalo 10 and refused to take a sack or risk an interception.
"He wouldn't have done that last year," said coach Bruce Coslet.
Smith: "That's the (isolation) play, the same play I scrambled and hit Peter Warrick for a touchdown in the scrimmage. Nine times out of 10 that play is not going to be there. You need to throw that ball away."
The first offense left the field trailing at halftime, 14-10, but they had to be breathing easier because they could have had a lot more. Because all last season, the Bengals scored just 36 points in preseason. And last year at this time, the first-round pick, Smith, was holding out. On Friday, Smith conspired with fate and this year's first-rounder _ Warrick_ for his longest pass of the night. Warrick flashed to a deflected pass off receiver Damon Griffin for his first pro catch, a 24-yarder.
"It was a blessed play," Warrick said. "I like being around the ball. Playmaker. Play maker. Just make a play P. Dub. Right place, the right time."
If anybody was breathing easier, it had to be the offensive line. Last year, the Bills' bevy of stunts and games at the line of scrimmage paralyzed a new offensive line during the preseason. On Friday, Smith didn't get sacked and had plenty of time in the pocket. Plus, the first line controlled the line of scrimmage for nearly 20 minutes of the first half and didn't miss a beat when Mike Goff replaced Brian DeMarco at right guard.
"Last year, Brian and Matt (O'Dwyer) were new to us and they weren't used to the depth in our pass sets," Anderson said. "This year we got back on the same level in our sets and gave Akili great protection."
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Smith said he made one bad read. He looked to the strong side of the field when he should have looked weak and ended up throwing a bad ball for an incompletion over the middle to running back Brandon Bennett, his safety valve on the play.
Asked if there was one best play he'd take home with him, Smith chose a play he didn't make. He had Warrick open on a post corner route, but he said he took his eyes off him as Buffalo linebacker Sam Cowart shot past left tackle Rod Jones and hit Smith as he threw the ball.
But for the most part, Smith was in control. Offensive coordinator Ken Anderson relaxed him by telling him he merely needed "a Georgetown College practice," and Smith responded with a solid training camp day.
It also helped you know what you get with the Bills.
"Buffalo has only two or three different fronts," Smith said. "And they've got cover six, two and eight. You know exactly what they're doing and that will put you in a comfort zone."
But the Bengals were far from comfortable in the red zone. Smith had them inside the Bills'20 three times, but they could get just 10 points. They got in three times in the second half and could only score 10 more points. In the first half, running back Sedrick Shaw couldn't get a yard on three straight runs from the Buffalo 3.
"The one sad thing is we missed a lot of chances to score," Anderson said. "I think a couple of guys missed blocks or maybe some guys read a block wrong. It's a combination of young guys in the skilled positions. Sometimes guys are running wide when they should have been tighter. That comes with experience. (On Shaw's unsuccessful fourth down run) it should have been tighter off my behind and Mike Goff. Instead, the guy maybe saw something outside, but that's where the majority of the defense is. But all the running backs did some nice things. Brandon ran hard and Sed had a big run. The only question about Nick Williams is if he can keep pounding it because if he can at 270 pounds, he's going to be a very good back in this league."