BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals rode their two biggest plays of the season when it came to emotion and yards Sunday in taking a 14-10 half-time lead over the Titans.
But the Cincinnati offense and struggling quarterback Akili Smith couldn't pick up the gaunlet in the second half and watched Tennessee dominate, 23-14, to keep them winless this season at 0-5.
The valiant Cincinnati defense kept the Bengals far enough into the game that they had a chance to mount a winning drive with 4:31 left and trailing, 20-14.
But Smith couldn't pull the trigger on a pass, giving Tennessee end Kenny Holmes time to roar past Bengals left tackle Rod Jones and smack into Smith's back. For the second straight week, Smith lost a fumble. And four players later, with 2:06 left, Al DelGreco secured the game for the Titans with a 34-yard field goal to make it 23-14 and push Tennessee to 4-1.
The Bengals have yet to score in the third quarter this season and Smith ended the third quarter on Sunday on just 4-for-13 passing with 29 yards on the day. They have also yet to score a touchdown in the second half.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Tennessee stuffed Bengals running back Corey Dillon on a fourth-and-two for no gain on Cincinnati's 32nd offensive play of the game.
That was Dillon's 14th carry of the day and 80 of his 93 yards to that point had come on one play. Meanwhile, George was marauding to a huge day, racking up 181 yards on 36 punishing carries late into the game.
After three quarters, Tennessee had already ran 61 plays. The killer came midway through the third quarter when Titans receiver Chris Sanders ran past Bengals cornerback Tom Carter for a 40-yard bomb that converted a third-and-five situation.
That set up George's five-yard touchdown run on the next play to give Tennessee a 17-14 lead. The Bengals then had the ball for all of three plays and 1:03 before Tennessee constructed another four-minute drive that resulted in Al DelGreco's 41-yard field goal with less than four minutes left in the third quarter.
The methodical Titans erased all the Bengals had accomplished in the first half.
Bengals free safety Darryl Williams celebrated the first interception by a Bengals defensive back this season when he took it 36 yards for a touchdown with 2:48 left in the first half.
Williams, who scooted to the pylon past Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair , came from behind to step in front of tight end Frank Wycheck to start thelay that gave Cincinnati their second straight half-time lead.
Earlier in the second quarter, Dillon electrified Paul Brown Stadium with the longest run of his career on an 80-yard touchdown burst that gave the Bengals a short-lived 7-3 lead with just under 14 minutes left in the half.
The Bengals needed all the big plays because Tennessee had all the rest. The Titans ran 45 plays in the first half compared to the Bengals' 17 as Cincinnati had no answers for George. George had 99 rushing yards in the first half on 20 carries as his team hogged the ball for all but 7:58 of the first 30 minutes.
The Titans also had a big play when they blocked Bengals kicker Neil Rackers' 35-yard field goal attempt.
On just the Bengals' seventh offensive play of the game early in the second quarter, Dillon started off right tackle and cut back behind center Brock Gutierrez and left guard Matt O'Dwyer before stiff-arming cornerback Samari Rolle about the head and shoulders on the way to giving Cincinnati a 7-3 lead.
But Tennessee, which had 13-play drive on the first play of the game, responded with a 14-play march that chewed 6:55 off the clock. The Titans took a 10-7 lead on recever Derrick Mason's 19-yard touchdown catch when he got inside on cornerback Artrell Hawkins at the five-yard line and then ran away from Hawkins.
The Bengals' defense offered a lift in the first quarter and it was Darryl Williams again stepping up. His hit on George caused a fumble in the Bengals' end zone, where it was covered by cornerback Rodney Heath.
Carl Pickens didn't play Sunday, but that didn't stop the Titans from attacking the Bengals through the air on the first series of the game.
With the Bengals blitzing Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair, Titans tight end Wycheck beat strong safety Cory Hall on two third-and-longs that kept a 13-play, 7:30 drive alive. One pass went for 14 yards and another for 20 as the Bengals have now allowed 13 first downs on plays of at least third-and seven in the last three games.
The Bengals held long enough for DelGreco to coax through a 22-yard field goal _ even though it hit the left upright_ to give Tennessee a 3-0 lead.
Pickens, the Bengals all-time leading receiver, didn't play against his old team Sunday. The Titans decided not to activate Pickens with a strained hamstring so he can be ready for Tennessee's next three games against Jacksonville, Baltimore and Washington.
The Bengals also made game-time decisions in sitting down rookie middle linebacker Armegis Spearman with his nagging sore shoulder and replacing Hawkins at right cornerback with Heath.
But they did get good news from the medical front when defensive end Vaughn Booker was cleared to start practicing this week for the first time since he fainted three weeks ago during a 13-0 loss in Jacksonville.
Spearman, a rookie free agent, had played well in place of the injured Brian Simmons during the past three games. But now Adrian Ross, a third-year outside linebacker, has to move inside to get his first significant amount of time in the middle.
Pickens' injury didn't stop his boldness.
About two hours before the game, he walked into the Bengals' locker room to chat with some of his former teammates. Then he came back out on the field to visit some more, and then went into the locker room saying he was leaving to get dressed.
After picking up a key pass interference call and getting run over by the Dolphins' running back Lamar Smith during an 18-yard touchdown run last week, Hawkins was put on notice during the ensuing week of practice. It is Heath's 10th NFL after starting nine games last year as a rookie.
Also inactive for the Titans is left tackle Brad Hopkins. Replacing him was former Colts starter Jason Mathews, who played well last week against the Giants when Hopkins was injured. Titans running back Eddie George rushed for 125 yards and quarterback Steve McNair was sacked just twice.
With wide receiver Yancey Thigpen also inactive, the Titans go into the game with starters Derrick Mason (11 catches) and Chris Sanders (7) as the only wideouts who have catches this season.