BY GEOFF HOBSON
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 Frank 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 kicker Al 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 Artrell Hawkins at right cornerback with Rodney 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.