8-23-03, 10:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals offered an entertaining brand of football in Saturday night's game, but the Titans left them with eerie déjà vu of last season in Tennessee's 23-15 pre-season victory before 41,335 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Just like in last season's 30-24 loss to the Titans here, quarterback Steve McNair lit up their secondary and just like last season their defensive line stoned the Bengals on fourth down when they needed just one yard for a touchdown.
More déjà vu from '02? The Bengals pretty much played the AFC runnerups to a statistical draw. But twice the Bengals came away with no points after getting into the red zone, they turned ball over three times, and didn't force any on defense.
And wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who fumbled two punts in the second half of close games last season, fumbled a fair catch on his own 16 in the third quarter, and Joe Nedney's ensuing 32-yard field goal with 9:30 left in the quarter extended a 13-7 half-time lead to 16-7.
Even after McNair left things to backup Neil O'Donnell in the second half against the Bengals' reserves, Cincinnati had trouble with its pass defense in giving up long plays over the middle. In the middle of the fourth quarter, O'Donnell hit wide receiver Darrell Hill working the back line of the end zone against cornerback Reggie Myles and safety Lamont Thompson for a 15-yard touchdown catch.
On the other side of the passing game, it was also a rude awakening for Bengals rookie quarterback Carson Palmer . After completing seven of seven passes for two touchdowns last week, Palmer threw an interception on his first throw of the night when veteran Andre Dyson showed him the speed of a starter. Palmer finished three of five for just 22 yards.
The Bengals lone touchdown in the second half came on rookie receiver Lawrence Hamilton's tremendous 20-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter in which he appeared to tip a pass from Shane Matthews to himself.
The Bengals' first offense offered some encouragement with crisp play against Tennessee's first defense that allowed its first touchdown in three pre-season games. In the first half, the Bengals kept the ball longer than the Titans, committed just one penalty, converted seven of eight third downs, and held running back Eddie George to 18 yards on eight carries.
But two dropped passes, a missed field goal, and the right arm of 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 line couldn't create enough push early in the second half, trailing 16-7, when the Titans stuffed running back Rudi Johnson on two straight one-yard-to-score shots to score on third and fourth down. It looked like he was working behind Braham, Goff, and rookie tackles Eric Steinbach and Scott Kooistra on the right side of the goal line.
It was just last season against the Titans when Dillon couldn't get in from one yard out on fourth-and-one with 1:08 left when he got tangled with right guard Matt O'Dwyer after O'Dwyer slipped.
The Bengals' game captains were Goff on offense and safety Kevin Kaesviharn on defense.