8-23-03, 9:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals played a crisp first half Saturday night, keeping the ball longer than the Titans, committing just one penalty, converting seven of eight third downs, and holding running back Eddie George to 18 yards on eight carries.
But two dropped passes, a missed field goal, and the right arm of Steve McNair conspired to give Tennessee a 13-7 half-time lead.
McNair played havoc with the Bengals' secondary, sifting them for 13 of 17 for 167 yards and hitting four different receivers on passes of at least 13 yards. But he couldn't get a touchdown until 20 seconds left in the half on a one-yard pass to tight end Shad Meier.
"The level of defense we played is not good enough to win ballgames," said head coach Marvin Lewis at halftime. It's all about making plays and getting off the field. We had a chance to get in here with a lead and we didn't do it. People have to fulfill their responsibilities and make plays."
The big disappointment came when McNair whipped the Titans down the field 80 yards in what amounted to the last 3:28 just after the Bengals took a 7-6 lead with 3:48 left in the half on wide receiver Peter Warrick's leaping 15-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Jon Kitna. It marked the first touchdown against Tennessee's first defense in three pre-season games. About seven of the Titans' starters looked to be on the field as Warrick made the catch in front of starting cornerback Samari Rolle.
But McNair erased it all, opening the drive with a 23-yard pass over the middle to fullback Greg
Comella. Then on a third-and-three, wide receiver Drew Bennett outmuscled cornerback Artrell Hawkins for a 26-yard catch and run that put the ball on the Bengals 12.
Kitna drove the Bengals all first half, hogging his three series with nine, 12 and 12 plays and should have got more than seven points out of it. He finished the half with an efficient 12 of 17 passing for 114 yards.
After the Bengals mashed to the Titans 15 on seven running plays of their first eight snaps, Kitna threw a perfect pass to tight end Tony Stewart going over the middle at the Titans 5. It should have been a touchdown, but it went right off Stewart's hands into the arms of cornerback Andre Dyson.
Then on their next series, Kitna continued to wield magic on third down, getting one on third-and-13 when wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh made cornerback Mike Echols miss six yards shy of the first down, and he turned it into an 18-yard gain.
Kitna should have converted another third-down conversion later in the drive at the Titans 10, but wide receiver Chad Johnson didn't exactly get a kiss from his cousin. Johnson caught a 21-yard pass on third-and-11, but Rolle made it incomplete when he separated him from the ball with a big hit.
Neil Rackers, who had made all three of his field goal tries this season, then snapped a 49-yarder wide right.
Warrick capped a 12-play, 73-yard march with his first touchdown of the year in a drive that featured three more Kitna third-down conversions on a two-yard flip to Warrick, an eight-yard pass to Houshmandzadeh, and a 12-yarder to tight end Reggie Kelly. Kelly caught consecutive balls in the drive after leaving momentarily because of a twisted ankle.
Warrick helped the Bengals decisively answer questions about their running game. They averaged five yards per their 15 carries, highlighted by running back Corey Dillon's 34 yards on seven carries in his busiest night of the preseason. During the first drive, Warrick raced 27 yards with the help of Kitna block off a shuffle reverse handoff. P>The Bengals are obviously trying to figure out things on their offensive line. After their best rushing outing of the season on the first two series, long-time center Rich Braham replaced the new center, Mike Goff, and Alex Sulfsted went to left tackle in place of Levi Jones. Then Braham went to center and Goff to right guard to start the second half.
The Bengals' game captains were Goff on offense and safety Kevin Kaesviharn on defense.