Titans rule, 23-14

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The winless Bengals lost, 23-14, to Tennessee Sunday.

But it was more like Titans quarterback Steve McNair beating Bengals quarterback Akili Smith, 54-9, in career NFL starts.

While McNair's experience calmly found holes left by the desperate Bengals' blitzes with an efficient 19-for-31 passing effort, Smith's youth couldn't exploit Cincinnati's passing game in order to take advantage of Tennessee's all-out effort against the run.

With the Titans daring Smith to beat them by loading up on the run, Smith beat himself. He hit on just 10 of 23 passes for a mere 85 yards. And 43 of those yards came on a two-minute drill at the end of the game.

And Smith's frustration is beginning to boil. For the third time in four full games this season, he completed less than half of his passes. For the first time in his career, he blew off the media after the game.

"I guess we can kind of put the tape in from last week," said Bengals coach Dick LeBeau of the 13-10 halftime lead that Miami decimated. "We've got to somehow get that first half score into the second half.

"Quarterback is a tough position," said LeBeau, reaffirming that Smith is the starter next week and for the future. "All of us have to do our jobs a little bit better, get through a 60-minute game, and we've got to recognize it's not going to be easy. Some things I think we're beginning to understand. Some we have yet to get done."

McNair got it done with Titans running back Eddie George's formidable help on 181 yards rushing in 36 carries that kept the Titans in control of the game with a brutal time of possession of 41:22.

But McNair was 10-for-13 passing on third down for 125 yards, situations where the Bengals usually blitzed. It didn't matter the Titans chose not to dress Bengals all-time leading receiver Carl Pickens Sunday because of a strained hamstring.

One third-down pass included a 19-yard touchdown to receiver Derrick Mason on third-and-four in the second quarter that gave the Titans a 10-7 lead.

Another third-down pass was a back-breaker. It came in the third quarter and the Bengals still clinging to their 14-10 half-time lead. On third-and-five from the Bengals 45, McNair saw the Bengals blitzing and his fastest receiver, Chris Sanders, matched up one-on-one with cornerback Tom Carter. Sanders beat Carter for a 40-yard bomb and George put the Titans ahead to stay with a five-yard touchdown run on the next play.

"They found where we were blitzing and they would hit us with five, eight-yard plays and get that first down," said Adrian Ross, after making his first start for the Bengals at middle linebacker because of Armegis Spearman's sore shoulder.

"They found the holes when we blitzed," Ross said. "(On the 40-yard pass), McNair saw we had zero coverage (one-on-one) and he threw it up there and the guy made a play."

The Bengals have yet to make a play in the second half this season. They haven't scored in the third quarter or scored a touchdown in the second half as they continue to grapple with mid-game adjustments.

No. 1 draft pick Peter Warrick didn't get his only catch of the game until 1:27 left. And after running back Corey Dillon electrified the 63,406 at 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 early in the second quarter, he gained just seven yards on his final 11 carries. Six of the carries were either for one yard, none or negative yards.

"They're putting eight or nine men (at the line of scrimmage) and we can't block them all," said right tackle Willie Anderson, after he blanked Titans sack artist Jevon Kearse. "Our passing game is hurting a little bit, and the running game is our strong point, so teams are doing their best to put eight, nine men in the box because we can't block them all. If we do get them blocked, (Dillon) breaks an 80-yard run. Seven guys can only block seven guys. We can' t block eight or nine guys.

"If we can get seven guys on seven guys, our offense can run with anyone in the league," Anderson said. "But we're not (executing) in the passing game and that hurts us and will hurt us for awhile. This league is all about putting fires out and until you put out fires, teams are going to keep doing things to hurt you. . . .Until we get this passing game going, teams are going to keep stuffing the run on us and it's going to be hard."

Strong safety Blaine Bishop, the man who keys the Titans' blitz, was sitting out with a leg injury on Dillon's 80-yard run he broke cutting back from right to left up the middle. Tennessee sent seven men on that play, but Dillon said for the rest of the game they kept sending Bishop as the extra eighth man to help out in the running game.

"They did a good job in the second half of stopping the run," Dillon said. "We just have to make some adjustments and get somebody on (Bishop) and be more effective."

The most effective way is to pass the ball and get Bishop out of the box. But Smith, who has four touchdown passes in his nine starts, was about as inaccurate passing as he's ever been here. . . .

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With Titans free safety Marcus Robertson rolling toward Warrick to help cornerback Samari Rollle, the Bengals thought they could make hay in rookie wideout Ron Dugans' one-on-one matchup with cornerback Denard Walker. But Smith continually threw behind him on slants and crossing patterns.

In fact, Dugans had just two catches for nine yards until he caught a 16-yarder in the final two-minute drill.

"I can't even think about this anymore," said Warrick, when asked if he's open and Smith can't get him the ball. "I just don't know."

What is known is that the Bengals' defensive line is hurting so badly that they have to continually blitz linebackers and defensive backs to get heat on the quarterback. Tackle Tom Barndt is virtually playing with one arm because of a bicep problem, end Michael Bankston is coming back from thigh and knee injuries in training camp, end John Copeland is fighting a sore ankle and end Vaughn Booker hasn't played in three weeks.

"We got the quarterback hit several times, which is good," LeBeau said. "And we made some plays downfield that we didn't do last week. So, there were some (positives). Again, there were more minuses than pluses or we would be in here with more points than Tennessee."

When the Bengals rode their two biggest plays of the season when it came to emotion and yards in taking a 14-10 half-time lead , the defense hung in there to give them a chance.

The Bengals had a chance to mount a winning drive with 4:31 left in the game 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 plays 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 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 McNair , came from behind to step in front of tight end Frank Wycheck to start the play that gave Cincinnati their second straight half-time lead.

The Bengals needed all the big plays because Tennessee had all the rest. The Titans ran 77 plays to the Bengals' 44.

The Titans also had a big play when tackle John Thornton blocked Bengals kicker Neil Rackers' 35-yard field goal attempt. Rackers hooked a 46-yarder left in the game's final minute.

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 Rolle about the head and shoulders on the way to giving Cincinnati a 7-3 lead.

But Tennessee, which had a 13-play drive on the first drive of the game, responded with a 14-play march that chewed 6:55 off the clock. The Titans took a 10-7 lead on 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.

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, Wycheck beat strong safety Cory Hall on two third-and-longs that kept a 13-play, 7:30 drive alive. One pass went for 13 yards and another for 19.

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.

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 Spearman with his nagging sore shoulder and replacing Hawkins at right cornerback with Heath.

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 was Heath's 10th NFL start after starting nine games last year as a rookie.

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