BY GEOFF HOBSON
PITTSBURGH _ It was quite a day for the Bengals' franchise players, their last two No. 1 picks. The kind of day they hope is some day just an anecdote to amplify how far they've come.
Because right now, after Sunday's 15-0 loss to the Steelers, it's going to be pretty far. Quarterback Akili Smith appeared to be miffed after he got benched for the first time in his 10-start career, but didn't stick around to tell anyone how he felt.
And rookie receiver Peter Warrick got blanked in the second half after a busy 69-yard, all-purpose first half.
"It wasn't the point that I wanted the ball every play," said Warrick of his call to get the ball last week. "I just want to win. That's stuff I'm used to doing."
Warrick ran a vintage two reverses on one play in the second quarter when he took a reverse handoff from running back Corey Dillon, followed a block by Smith to the left, and then cut back across the field for a 46-yard run that screwed Steeler linebacker Jason Gildon and end Kendrick Clancy into the Astroturf.
Warrick also had four catches for 21 yards in the first half, but didn't get a catch in the second half. All the early work apparently convinced the Bengals not to use him as much as they originally planned, so he returned his first and only NFL punt early in the second half for 10 yards.
"They rolled to my side, but it was no big thing," said Warrick of the Steelers' second-half defense.
Left tackle Rod Jones said he was "shocked," when he saw Mitchell coming into the game, but just figured the coaches were trying to get something started.
"I'm sure (Smith) was surprised," Jones said. "He's a good player. I've still got confidence in him."
Right tackle Willie Anderson defended Smith, saying, "it's just not the quarterback," but he also defended head coach Dick LeBeau for making the move.
"Nothing surprises me. What are we? 0-6? Nothing surprises me now," Anderson said. "We saw it as an opportunity for the coaches to go with someone else at the time. It's not anything about feelings. I'm sure Akili is the starting quarterback next week. The coaches felt like Scott (Mitchell) could get something going at the time and we needed a change. It's not a controversy. Akili's back in there next week, I assume. Go to work again Monday."
Smith is the starting quarterback when the Broncos come to Cincinnati this week, but he is saddled with some baggage. He's 1-9 as a starter and since beating Cleveland in his first start a year and a week ago, he's thrown just two touchdown passes and the Bengals have only scored three touchdowns.
But Anderson says Smith's receivers have to become more adept at picking up blitzes and adjusting their routes and that his offensive line has to continue its improved pass blocking since the problems early this season. . .
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"Teams are watching film and they're seeing the young receivers and (Smith) is a young guy," Anderson said. "At the beginning of the season, the pass blocking wasn't there, but we're getting better there the past couple of weeks.
"We're working real hard on pass blocking right now," Anderson said. " Guys have to be able to adjust to take advantage of the time they are receiving. The offensive line broke down at times, so we're all at fault."
Even though the Bengals started the second-year Craig Yeast opposite Warrick instead of rookie Ron Dugans, Cincinnati'starting receivers had just 25 NFL career catches. Anderson knows that can't help a quarterback with 10 NFL starts.
"We've got to give him time so he can see his receivers early," Anderson said. "The receivers have to help the quarterbacks out, too. It's just not the quarterback not seeing everything, it's the receivers getting open. A lot of the incomplete passes are because (a receiver) might not see the blitz coming and he's supposed to know when the quarterback is going to hit him."
As on the infamous sack against Miami two weeks ago, some thought Smith had time to get rid of the ball Sunday before he was drilled on the blind-side by linebacker Joey Porter that forced a fumble that ended in a Steelers' field goal at the end of the first half.
"I don't know," said Jones, working on Porter, when asked if Smith held it too long. "I've got to block the guy for as long as he needs to throw it."
Anderson has been saying it for the past three weeks about the stacked defenses: "The passing game is struggling and that's how teams will play us."