BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals center Rich Braham knew there was something different the first day Scott Mitchell took snaps as the starting quarterback earlier this week.
Since Mitchell is left-handed, some of the pass protections had to slide to a different side. And just before Braham snapped for one play, Mitchell barked out one of those reminders the seven-year veteran Braham had missed.
"The biggest thing about this game is experience," Braham said. "Knowing things are going to happen and anticipating. I'm interested to see what he does after a week of preparation."
Braham and his teammates know Akili Smith is the still the man "He's got a great arm. He's still the quarterback of the future," but they still need a jolt Sunday in New England.
Smith has shown the three major problems faced by most rookie quarterbacks. He's had a penchant for holding on to the ball a second or two too long in the pocket, he hasn't displayed much of a touch, and he hasn't been able to conjure up any consistency. All of which hasn't been his fault, but. . .
"We'd like to throw for 200 yards," said Bengals coach Dick LeBeau. "We want some productivity. We'd like to score some more points."
All of which would be a huge difference from the first 10 games. The Bengals haven't had a 200-yard day through the air since Opening Day, haven't thrown a touchdown pass since Oct. 1, and haven't scored a touchdown outside Ohio this season.
Mitchell becomes the 22nd man to start at quarterback for the Bengals in the 67th start of his career. Which means there'll be a different look.
"I'm going to make sure I get my head turned around," said tight end Tony McGee. "The ball's coming. He gets rid of it quickly, but you've got to remember that he's been doing the same thing now for (11) years. I think Akili will come into his own. It just takes time." . . .
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Mitchell is also giving his receivers a different look by throwing from a different side of his body.
"He'll throw it quick," Warrick said. "The ball comes in a little different with the spiral. The tip is up. It's not a hard throw. He's got more of a touch."
But touch is pretty much just a lefty thing. Like McGee says, "A lefty isn't going to break your fingers. Most things go mainly to the right. That's just the way it is. So a lot of times they're throwing across their body."
But it's still a football. When lefty Boomer Esiason started the last five games of the 1997 season, McGee caught three touchdown passes and had no drops.
The shifting sands of the Patriots' defense doesn't offer the easiest target for a quarterback making his first start in 24 games. Defensive guru Bill Belichick changes on the fly with an array of different fronts, sometimes switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in the same series.
But Mitchell said the game plan isn't that much more simpler or different than what Smith has been handed from offensive coordinator Ken Anderson.
"There are just some plays that I like a little bit different than he likes," Mitchell said. "My timing is a little different than his. I've had a lot more experience. I feel like Ken knows I've got a good feel for what I want to do and what I'm comfortable with."
Mitchell may be 32 years old and 240 pounds, but that doesn't mean he's going to be anchored in the pocket: "I'm not going to be a target.
"It's really no different," Mitchell said. "The bottom line is execution no matter who's in there."
Sunday's goal for the quarterback? At least the coach and player are on the same page.
"Win the game," Mitchell said.
"Joe Kapp and Bobby Layne weren't the most aesthetic passers," said LeBeau, who worked against both. "But they won games. That's the idea."
Which would be different for a team that hasn't won on the road in November since Esiason came off the bench in Indianapolis Nov. 9, 1997.
That was five starting quarterbacks ago now that Mitchell is warming up.