Turnaround on turnovers

10-1-01, 4:00 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

SAN DIEGO _ Jon Kitna had been here before.

In front of a Chargers' defense that always seems to be ranked first or second in the NFL.

In front of a raucous Qualcomm Stadium crowd that seems to beam their Southern California solar power to Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison, and the other San Diego marauders.

So Kitna, the former Seattle quarterback, began to sense it slipping away in the first half as the Bengals' blown chances piled up into a 28-14 loss.

"We were right there with them. But they're like that ace pitcher you can get to early in the game," Kitna said. "And they get you as the game goes on. You can work them early in the game, but once they see things a couple of times, they start counter-punching . .They're a smart defense. We had to take advantage when we had the chance."

The boxscore shows the Bengals mishandled the ball on their first three possessions and then weren't able to get Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon a single yard in five second-half carries. Which suggests up-and-coming, 2-0 Cincinnati had a rough transition in playing their first big game on the road against another up-and-coming team.

With the 2-1 Bengals slated to open Heinz Field next Sunday in Pittsburgh, they get another chance.

"We're still learning," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Don't get us wrong. We didn't say (last week) we had arrived. This was one test we had to face on the road. Now next week we have another challenge and that's to beat a division opponent on the road. . .We're going to be OK."

The Bengals weren't OK Sunday because their minus-four turnover differential was just the opposite of the plus-four that had fueled their first 2-0 start in six years.

But Kitna didn't want to hear that his team doesn't know how to handle big games. Not after victories over New England (which blew out AFC power Indianapolis Sunday) and Super Bowl champion Baltimore.

"This team knows how to win. Believe me," Kitna said. "We didn't win the first two games because we don't know how to win. Especially last week. There's not a lot to be said. You just have to bounce back."

The boxscore will also say that Kitna waited until the third game to throw his first three interceptions. But the films could show none were his fault.

After Kitna mishandled a handoff to Dillon that short-circuited the game's first

drive, rookie wide Chad Johnson's drop resulted in the first interception and wide receiver Darnay Scott's late break on a come-back route played a role in the second one on back-to-back series in a scoreless game.

Kitna said the coaches in the press box told him it appeared fullback Lorenzo Neal grazed Kitna's arm as he prepared to block for Dillon on a 3rd-and-2 from the Chargers 31 on the Bengals' ninth play of the opening drive. Kitna never got the ball to Dillon and he recovered the fumble for an eight-yard loss that took them out of field-goal range.

"We had a lot of unforced errors," Kitna said. "We had some the first two weeks, but teams didn't take advantage. Today they did. They stopped the run. That's what happened. We didn't get any first downs."

The Bengals found out how San Diego has led all NFL rush defenses the past three seasons by allowing just 2.9 yards per carry.

After Dillon got dumped for a 14-yard loss in the third quarter on a play created by Harrison blitzing from strong safety, Dillon ended up with just 3.1 per carry. And after grinding for 3.2 against Baltimore last week, Sunday marked just the sixth time since 1998 that Dillon has gone back-to-back games without getting four yards per carry.

The Bengals are still searching on offense, although they won't see two better defenses than Baltimore and San Diego the rest of the way.

They want to pound defenses with Dillon in the fourth quarter, but he had no carries then on Sunday and for the season he has minus-3 yards on nine carries in the fourth.

Plus, the Bengals are trying to get two passes of 20 yards or longer per game. They've had just one in each of the last two games and playmaker Peter Warrick's longest catch of the season is 13 yards.

Dillon said the Bengals tried to exploit the Chargers' disciplined defense (everybody but Seau and Harrison do the expected) by running misdirection plays, reverses and counters. But, "they didn't bite.

"I don't even know how many carries I got," Dillon said. Told he had 15 rushes (his lowest in a dozen games), he said, "Not enough. That won't do it."

One of his two longest runs of the day - for 11 yards _ turned disastrous. On the first play after the Chargers took a 14-7 lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter, Dillon tried to get it back in a hurry.

As he veered the play outside to the right, he went to transfer the ball from his inside and natural arm the left to the right. But Harrison got there just as he began to shift the ball and forced the fumble recovery at the Bengals 40. Three minutes later, it was 21-7.

"Put it on me," Dillon said. "I made a mistake. I gave up seven points. I'll be accountable for that. If that was the turning point in the game, then it's my responsibility. I have no problem if that's what they want to make it.

"I was trying to make something happen," Dillon said. "I wasn't too comfortable where I was (to shift the ball), but, Hell, he made a play and I was trying to make a play."

Dillon said he never felt comfortable or in any kind of rhythm. Anderson admitted, "We ran the ball effectively up to a point, (but), we didn't run the ball the way we needed to win the game.

"Speaking for the offensive line," Anderson said, "we didn't play terribly, but we didn't help our team win. . .We put our defense in too may holes with the turnovers. . .You make four turnovers on the road and you're going to get killed."

Chad Johnson, who got his first NFL catch on a leaping 20-yarder over the middle that converted a third-and-12 on the first drive, looked like he converted a third-and-8 from his 47 when Kitna had him at about the Chargers 40. But the ball slapped off his hands and helmet and into the arms of Chargers cornerback Ryan McNeil.

"Seau waved at it. He was coming from the other direction," Johnson said. "I thought he hit it, but the ball got there anyway. That was concentration."

Then on the next series, Seau did get his hands on it for an interception after rookie cornerback Tay Cody tipped it. Then the Chargers had to go just 40 yards for the game's first touchdown.

"That's a timing route," said Kitna of the come-back pattern near the sideline. "I think Darnay got caught caught in between coming straight back down or curling around Junior, and we didn't get our flare control out in time. So that caused the ball to be half a second late.

"(Cody) was able to get a little break on it and kick it in the air," Kitna said. "There's a lot of maybes on a play like that. If the flare control gets out quicker, if Darnay curled around him, and maybe on my part it doesn't look clean as you want and you go somewhere else. But I thought that was the right place to go with the ball."

It was a day of maybes.

"If we get a first down on that first drive," Kitna said. "Who knows?"

Now they only know they are trying to beat Pittsburgh next week when the Steelers and their emotional fans open the new stadium.

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