Winless Bengals punchless

10-13-02, 4:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The winless Bengals had hoped to make a statement Sunday as they headed into their bye week.

But all they did was wave good-bye to what was left of a run in the AFC North by getting blown out of another home embarrassment and wave hello to another batch of questions wondering if head coach Dick LeBeau has lost control of his team.

If Bengals President Mike Brown wants to make a coaching change, he now has the ugly loss to go along with the time of next week's bye. This one was Pittsburgh, 31-7, before a dazed sell-out crowd of 63,900 of Bengals' and Steelers' fans at Paul Brown Stadium that didn't think it could get this bad for the 0-6 Bengals.

Steelers rookie wide receiver Antwaan Randle El joined the growing list of players who have used the Bengals as extras for their break-out games when he returned the opening kickoff of the second half 99 yards for a touchdown to punctuate the nastiest loss of the nastiest season to give Pittsburgh a 31-0 lead.

The Bengals did manage to score their first offensive touchdown at home this season with 15 seconds left in the third quarter when running back Corey Dillon bulled in from two yards out, but it only mattered for the record keepers because this one was over early.

Dillon did finish with 57 yards on 17 carries to move into 40th on the NFL's all-time rushing list, but it was the Steelers who pummeled the Bengals on the ground with more than 200 yards rushing.

Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis added to the 12th most rushing yards in a career when he recorded his 10th 100-yard day against the Bengals on 109 yards in 21 carries.

But the offense joined the special teams and defense in an equal opportunity dud.

Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna underthrew two passes that were gobbled up by Steelers strong safety Lee Flowers and fumbled away another as the Pittsburgh offense translated the three turnovers into 17 points while taking a 24-0 half-time lead.

Kitna, who has one touchdown and seven interceptions this season, threw another interception in the second half and could muster only 186 yards on 19 of 31 passing.

The sell-out crowd at PBS, otherwise known as Heinz Field South, looked on in disbelief before booing them off the field as the Bengals continued to come up with new ways to get blown out in a season they have been outscored by 106 points alone in the first half.

This time it was the Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter beating rookie left tackle Levi Jones around the edge and batting the ball out of Kitna's hands into the arms of nose tackle Casey Hampton. The 320-pound Hampton rumbled 36 yards inside the Bengals 10 before Dillon jumped on his back and rode him out of bounds.

Moments later Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox flipped a four-yard touchdown pass to fullback Dan Kreider to make it 24-0 with six minutes left in the half.

Maddox, working 10 years between starting stints, knocked his cobwebs all over the soft Bengals' defense in the first half with a 12-for-16 effort that produced 152 yards. Kitna couldn't take advantage of a Steeler defense that had allowed it most points in the first four games of a season since 1989.

He was just eight of 15 for 78

yards and his longest throw went for only 19 in the first half. Dillon had four yards per carry, but he only had eight chances in the first half for 32 yards

On the second interception, Kitna had a first-and-10 from the Steelers 44 early in the second quarter and Pittsburgh leading, 10-0. He tried a pump fake short, but didn't set his feet and didn't get anything on the ball when he went long for wide receiver Peter Warrick down the middle.

Flowers was able to camp under the floater, and four plays later, Bettis broke through the right side of the Cincinnati line on a sweep for a 41-yard touchdown run five minutes into the second half. Free safety Cory Hall got kicked outside and rookie free safety Marquand Manuel missed Bettis in the open field when he went for his juke.

Bettis, who finished the half with 75 yards on 10 carries, hadn't had a carry longer than 16 yards this season.

The Bengals had a shot to take the lead with a crisp opening drive (Kitna hit four of his first five passes for 36 yards) that stalled on the three straight passes. But Neil Rackers came up short on a 47-yard field goal try and the Steelers' troubled offense didn't look back on its first series of the game.

Pittsburgh took a 7-0 lead seven minutes into the game with the Bengals now being outscored, 40-7, in the first quarter this season

The Bengals instantly gave up what has become their weekly wide-open big pass. This time it was Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress running so far open through a zone defense that he had time to stop and come back for an underthrown ball Maddox for a 36-yard gain. Burress nearly had his 100-yard day on his first five catches, finishing the half with 97 yards and finishing the game with 149 on eight catches.

With Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons dressed but not playing the first series with a pinched nerve in his neck, the Steelers went right up the middle with Bettis. "The Bus," made connections for 22 yards on five carries on the first drive with the last one coming from a yard out with 6:54 left in the first quarter.

Kitna and Maddox traded interceptions with Pittsburgh leading, 7-0, but the Steelers came out better. Bengals cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn didn't slip on the grass when Burress did and picked off Maddox's throw to the sideline. But two plays later Flowers picked off Kitna on an underthrown ball to wide receiver Danny Farmer down the middle.

With Farmer playing for the first time since the opener because of a knee injury, the Bengals made wide receiver Michael Westbrook inactive because of a coaching decision. Westbrook, who signed a three-year, $4.5 million deal back in July, walked out of the stadium 90 minutes before the game saying little. Asked if he was going to request his release, Westbrook said, "That's an inside matter."

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