BY GEOFF HOBSON
They opened Paul Brown Stadium with planes, divas and Super Bowl heroes tonight. The Bengals supplied the fireworks with 21 points in a little more than 10 minutes and held on for a 24-20 preseason victory over the Bears.
The Bengals offered a pleasing buffet for PBS' first crowd of 56,180. They saw rookie receiver Peter Warrick's first NFL touchdown off a shake-and-bake reverse, Warrick college teammate Ron Dugans' first NFL touchdown catch, and quarterback Akili Smith's first two touchdown passes of the season.
"This is a different team, you can tell that," said Corey Dillon after his first seven carries of the season for 16 yards. "The guys in this room are hungry now. You could tell by the looks on their faces that we were going to play four quarters. It's just different this year. You can tell."
They had to play four quarters because it wasn't over until outside linebacker Steve Foley sacked quarterback Mark Hartsell with 1:50 left, punctuating a defensive effort that allowed only a field goal in the last 50 minutes and snapped the Bengals' skein of seven straight pre-season losses.
A different team for a different stadium. Fittingly enough, cornerback Rodney Heath out of Western Hills High School supplied the local flavor with an interception of Bears quarterback Cade McNown that set up one of Smith's touchdown passes.
"What did I like besides the planes flying overhead?" Heath asked. "The scoreboards. The crowd. The place is lovely."
Smith nearly stumbled on the runway as he trotted on to the new field for warmups, but he emnbraced the place that has been called, "Akili's House."
"What's not to like about it?" Smith asked.
True to coach Bruce Coslet's vow, the Bengals went all out to win the stadium's first game, even though it only counts in history and means the Bengals are now 1-2.
"The biggest thing we have to overcome is ourselves," Coslet said. "There's so much pressure on us to do well and rightly so and the guys were really into this. The team you saw in the first 10 minutes of the game is not this year's version of the Cincinnati Bengals. After the first 10 minutes, you also saw this team is not the last seven years version of the Cincinnati Bengals. I give all the guys credit. That was about as close to a regular-season (game)."
After leading the Bengals back from a 14-0 deficit in the first half, Smith and his first team couldn't put the Bears away even though Coslet kept them in for all but the last series of the third quarter.
But a stand on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 led by linebackers Adrian Ross and Reinard Wilson stoned Chicago and preserved the Bengals' 24-17 lead after three quarters. On the Bears' first series of the half, Wilson jumped on a fumbled snap at the Chicago 7, but Smith couldn't find anyone in the end zone on second and third downs. Doug Pelfrey, on what could be his last Bengals' field goal, kicked a 20-yarder for a 24-17 lead.
After cooling off from his torrid first half, Smith finished 21 of 29 for 184 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and he took just one sack. Smith and McNown renewed their college shootout during a wild first half that featured Smith hitting 14 of 19 passs for 147 yards after missing his first three passes.
Warrick had six catches for 55 yards and left Coslet saying, "He's quick, man, he's special. If we keep him healthy, we've really got something."
How passionate were the Bengals about this one? Facing a fourth-and-1 from the Bears 16 in the middle of the second quarter, Coslet opted to go for it with a play-action pass into the end zone to Warrick. Bears cornerback Jerry Azumah was called for pass interference, setting up Smith's bullet touchdown pass over the middle to Dugans that gave Cincinnat a 21-14 lead.
With the Bengals trailing, 14-0, it was Warrick's turn. He broke in the Bengals' striped end zones with the "Paul Brown Leap," after scoring his first NFL touchdown off a 14-yard reverse. Warrick put on a move that screwed strong safety Tony Parrish into the grass and when Warrick reached the stands, he jumped on the wall and got pummeled by the front-row fans. Warrick gave the fans some money's worth when he kept that drive alive by converting a third down on a shovel pass and run.
"It was wide open, I thought it was going to go," said Warrick when he heard the reverse called. Then he called attention to his trip into the stands: "They helped me up a little, but I've got the strong (legs). They were patting me on the head."
Then Smith, who couldn't get a first down in his first two series, got hot. On the first play after reversing to Warrick, Smith found Warrick again for a 23-yard gain on a play-action pass on first down. Then Smith did what Jeff Blake never did. Smith found tight end Tony McGee not once, but twice over the middle on the same drive. The first one went for 31 yards and the second one went for 11 and a touchdown.
"It was basically a draw fake," Smith said. "That draws up the (middle) linebackers. They step up and I'm comfortable enough back there and Tony sees the safeties split and takes it down the middle."
Smith's haymakers were in response to McNown's opening flurry that featured a pair of 45-yard touchdown passes to wide receiver Marcus Robinson in the stadium's first 9:14. On McNown's first series, he found Robinson all alone down the left sideline against the Cincinnati skyline and floated it up as he rolled away from blitzing cornerback Artrell Hawkins.
Then on the next series, facing a 2nd-and-12, McNown hit Robinson with a little flip on the wide receiver screen and Robinson ran away from the defense to give the Bears a 14-0 lead and get the fans to wondering if they still weren't sitting at Cinergy Field. UCLA's McNown, who beat Smith's Oregon team in overtime two years, hit his first seven passes and finished the half 12-for-16 for 144 yards.
"The first one was just a blown coverage," Heath said on a play where a safety appeared not to give help. "And the second one was just a screen they kept running and we made the adjustment. Tt's tough with all those big linemen coming out to block the corners. We were playing man-to-man on it, but then went into a soft zone and started going for the ball instead of following our men who were just blocking."