Welcome to Carson City

8-16-03, 10:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Rookie quarterback Carson Palmer may have a sore foot, but he turned Cincinnati on its head Saturday night with a glittering debut at Paul Brown Stadium.

Palmer, the NFL Draft's first pick, threw a perfect game, hitting all seven of his first seven PBS passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns in giving Marvin Lewis his first victory as a head coach with a 23-10 victory over the Lions before 39,956.

Palmer, who missed all but one practice this week, capped the histrionics with a perfect over-the-shoulder bomb to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a 30-yard touchdown pass to end a microwave three-pla, 70-yard drive and make his passer rating for the preseason at 96.5. He set up his bomb with a 22-yard pass underneath to tight end Tony Stewart

The Bengals solved their red-zone crisis with last year's NFL Draft. After settling for three first-half field goals by Neil Rackers, Palmer got their first touchdown of the night on his first PBS drive in which he hit his first five passes for 45 yards.

The last one came on his fourth-and-two flip to rookie fullback Jeremi Johnson with 7:14 left in the third quarter as Palmer showed no signs of the sore right foot he hurt in last Sunday's pre-season opener.

Palmer started the second half and promptly drove the Bengals 77 yards, highlighted by his 29-yard loft job to wide receiver Danny Farmer beating a linebacker down the sideline.

At the game's two minute warning, the Bengals' quarterbacks had hit 75 percent of their passes with Shane Matthews finishing the with eight of 11 for 67 yards. His bid for a touchdown drive ended when running back Rudi Johnson lost a fumble on the Lions 2 in the middle of the fourth quarter.

The good news for No. 1 quarterback Jon Kitna and his first-team offense is they staked Cincinnati to a 9-3 half-time lead and Kitna hit 10 of 15 passes for 90 yards. The bad news is they are still searching for a consistent running game and couldn't punch in a touchdown during three trips into the red zone before getting field goals of 44, 31, and 21 yards from Rackers.

Still, it was an impressive outing for Lewis bow' at home, which was fittingly defined by a suffocating defense anchored by solid special teams. Rackers also drilled two kickoffs for touchbacks and his first field goal came courtesy of T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 39-yard punt return.

"Our defense did a good job. I don't like it that we let that last drive get away from us a little, but we held them to a field goal, and that's important," Lewis said of the first half. "Offensively we're starting to make

plays. It wasn't perfect, but we did what we said we wanted, which was to improve from last week. We're getting better. We moved the ball.

The Lions got 59 of their 107 first-half yards in what amounted to the last five minutes of the second quarter in a 14-play drive orchestrated by backup quarterback Mike McMahon. After McMahon fled what looked to be two sure sacks by defensive end Justin Smith, Jason Hanson kicked a 40-yard field goal with eight seconds left.

But Detroit never got in the red zone during the first half a week after the Lions threw around the Steeler defense for 298 yards. They let the offense stay on the field for nearly 17 minutes in getting five tackles each from middle linebacker Kevin Hardy and right outside linebacker Brian Simmons.

And they threw in another fourth-and-1 stop on their own 35 when Hardy and tackle Tony Williams blew up running back James Stewart on the right side.

Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier mixed and matched five safeties with the first group as the secondary held Lions quarterback Joey Harrington 13 yards passing in the first quarter. He threw a 53-yard beauty down the middle of the field to rookie receiver Charlie Rogers, but Rogers dropped it with the help of some tight coverage by Hardy underneath and free safety Kevin Kaesviharn over the top.

"When a team lines up on you and goes for it on fourth down, even in preseason, I consider that a slap in the face to the defense," Hardy said. "If you're a competitor, that has to get the blood flowing. You've got to bow up and get it done."

The running game still tried to find its rhythm behind the first line and it conjured up memories of last season, when the Bengals finished next-to-last in the AFC in touchdown percentage in the red zone. One of the reasons they got there was Kitna made a great move on a 14-yard scramble, freezing linebacker Barrett Green. They also got their longest run of the preseason, a 21-yard slash from running back Brandon Bennett that he almost broke for a touchdown if it hadn't been for a desperation arm tackle.

But rookie running back Ray Jackson paused in the hole on one third-down play, and he couldn't convert on a third-and-four draw play down on the goal line. Yet Jackson had another good night in his bid to make the roster in a game Corey Dillon carried two times for four yards.

Kitna almost hooked up with a rookie in his debut, wide receiver Kelley Washington, for a touchdown, but as Washington leaped for it in the end zone, the ball bounced off his chest in double coverage.

"I think we did what we set out to do, which was to show improvement from last week," Kitna said. "We still had some bad mistakes, things you shouldn't be seeing from veteran guys who have been in this offense for three years. We've got to get better in the red zone."

The defense picked up where it left off in the preseason opener with the one major change that had been reported during the week as Adrian Ross started in place of Steve Foley at left outside linebacker. After holding the Jets to 155 yards last Sunday, the Lions had just 186 in the middle of the fourth quarter.

With Peter Warrick attending his grandfather's funeral, Houshmandzadeh didn't disappoint in his first action of the preseason. He took John Jett's low punt and scorched rookie linebacker Boss Bailey on an inside juke that led to a 39-yard return. Besides the touchdown, he had a total of four catches for 51 yards as the game neared an end.

Victor Leyva also saw time with the first unit at right guard in place of Matt O'Dwyer. He also played on Palmer's line that included center Thatcher Szalay, right tackle Scott Kooistra, left guard Rich Braham, and left tackle Scott Rehberg.

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