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Bengals still struggling in early-season


Not even the ghost of the team's founder could help the Cincinnati Bengals, who haven't won more than two of their first five games in any season since 1995 and are a combined 13-37 in the first five games of each season since 1990.

Coach Bruce Coslet thought second-year quarterback Akili Smith was ready to roll, with running back Corey Dillon behind him and first-round pick Peter Warrick lined up outside. Smith disappointed the largest crowd to ever watch a sporting event in Cincinnati, in new Paul Brown Stadium, by completing just 15 of 43 passes and tossing two interceptions in a 24-7, season-opening loss to the Cleveland Browns.

"I had a poor day," Smith offered. "No excuses about it. We got off to a slow start with the first two drives and then we scored, so I said, 'Ok, here we go.' I just didn't feel comfortable out there."

It wasn't entirely Smith's fault. He was sacked seven times and, according to innocent bystanders, should have been sacked seven more. None of the aforementioned bystanders played left tackle.

Coslet was so flustered when left tackle Rod Jones gave up his second sack of the game that he pulled him in favor of veteran John Jackson, who was no better, giving up two sacks himself.

Smith got no help from Dillon, who ran for 192 yards against the Browns last December, but managed just 41 yards on 12 carries Sunday. Warrick caught three passes, but dropped three others.

The Bengals defense will take the field in Jacksonville this Sunday without middle linebacker Brian Simmons, who tore the lateral meniscus in his knee against Cleveland. Takeo Spikes will move inside, a spot he played when the Bengals ran a 3-4 front. Adrian Ross will replace Spikes.

The good news for Coslet and Bengals fans was the players reaction after the loss. Instead of the back-stabbing and in-fighting that had become a Cincinnati trademark in recent years, tight end Tony McGee urged his teammates to stick together and not allow anyone to get between them.

Up next: Jacksonville, 1-1

Cleveland Browns

The Browns knew their offense was going to take awhile to gel, and after their opening-day loss to Jacksonville, it seemed like it might take a long while. However, the Bengals were a perfect tonic for the ailing Tim Couch.

Couch completed 19 passes to 10 different receivers in the Browns' win in Cincinnati, and for the second-year quarterback, it was a redemption of sorts.

The first pick in the 1999 draft watched Bengals quarterback Akili Smith, the fourth pick of the '99 draft, pound his chest in victory in Cleveland last season. Couch wouldn't agree that Smith's antics motivated him as he prepared for a chance to show Smith up in his new stadium, but he wouldn't dismiss it either.

"I'm not going to lie. It drove me," said Couch, who opened the game with a 65-yard completion to David Patten.

Cleveland may also have found the makings of a running game. Rookie running back Travis Prentice was motivated to play, as he returned to the area where he became a college sensation. "Touchdown Travis" ran for 17 yards on his first NFL carry, then caught a 10-yard pass from Couch and ran around right end for a 16-yard touchdown, all in his first three plays.

Couch, though, will have to work without one of his targets next Sunday, and perhaps for the remainder of the season. Rookie wide receiver JaJuan Dawson broke his clavicle, and Dawson's injury is a blow to coach Chris Palmer, who's been touting the young pass-catcher since draft day last April.

Dawson wasn't the only offensive casualty. Left guard Jim Pyne, who hadn't missed a snap in the new Browns' first 17 games, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while running to celebrate a touchdown.

Free agent defensive end Keith McKenzie continues to steal the spotlight from first-pick-of-the-draft Courtney Brown. McKenzie had three sacks against Cincinnati and could have had two more. He has four in his first two games, which gives the Browns an element that was missing a year ago.

Brown did play well, hitting Dillon for a six-yard loss on the opening play of the third quarter. Rookie cornerback Lewis Sanders played well, breaking up two passes and intercepting a Smith pass intended for Ron Dugans in the end zone.

Up next: Pittsburgh, 0-1

Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers coach Bill Cowher planned no significant lineup changes.

"We just have to keep plugging away," he said. "There are some positive things we're doing. We're just not able to do some things consistently, or make big plays that can be a turning point. It's a game of momentum. A fine line."

The Steelers, who have lost 17 of their last 22 games, will try to jump-start a running game that produced just 30 yards against Baltimore, their lowest output in 18 seasons. Cowher expects to use Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley and Amos Zereoue in Cleveland.

He also hopes to have defensive end Chris Sullivan and nose tackle Kendrick Clancy back for the Browns game. Nose tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen played 51 snaps against the Ravens and was dragging in the fourth quarter.

Up next: Cleveland, 1-1

Tennessee Titans

The early signs of a quarterback controversy are starting to surface in Tennessee. The Titans trailed Kansas City 14-7 late in the fourth quarter when Steve McNair left the game with a bruised sternum. Backup Neil O'Donnell then rallied the troops for a game-tying touchdown with less than a minute to play, and in overtime drove the Titans 82 yards for Al Del Greco's game-winning field goal.

"This isn't Neil O'Donnell's first rodeo," fullback Lorenzo Neal said. "He's like a magician back there. Give him time and he'll pick you apart. It's great to have a guy like that on our team."

It isn't just O'Donnell's game-winning heroics that have fans clamoring for a change. Tight end Frank Wycheck threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Dyson on Sunday, which gives him one for the season. That's one more than McNair, who threw two interceptions against the Chiefs and fumbled a shotgun snap from center. If it hadn't been for O'Donnell, the Titans would find themselves in an 0-2 hole heading into their bye week.

Eddie George was contained until a 29-yard run in overtime. The Chiefs employed the same clog the middle philosophy as Buffalo had a week earlier. George had just 25 rushing yards at the end of the third quarter, and it's clear that keeping George at bay puts the onus on McNair, and he still doesn't appear ready to carry the load.

The defense held Kansas City to just 189 total yards, an average of just 3.3 yards per play, and stoned the Chiefs rushing attack on four consecutive plays from it six-yard line. The Titans defense did not, however, force a turnover, and that's two consecutive games in which the Titans haven't recovered a fumble or intercepted a pass.

Last season, in 16 regular-season games and four playoff contests, the Titans never went consecutive games without forcing a turnover. Remember, this is the team that forced 13 turnovers in three wins against Jacksonville.

Up next: Bye

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens' 39-36 win over the Jaguars sends them into week three with a 2-0 record for the first time in their history.

Tony Banks' career-high five touchdown passes has everyone in Baltimore talking about offense. Banks is now 8-4 in 12 consecutive starts and has 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions over that span.

Tight end Shannon Sharpe caught the game-winner from Banks and knows exactly what the win means.

"The playoffs run through Tennessee and Jacksonville," he said, "and we took a step in the right direction today."

Baltimore has serious concerns about the ability of their starting cornerbacks, after Mark Brunell torched them for 386 yards. Their inability to cover Jimmy Smith hamstrung defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who built his zone blitz on the premise that those two could handle receivers man-to-man. The exposed weakness in what was thought to be an almost impenetrable unit will give offensive coordinators a chance to keep the football away from middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

The Ravens find themselves alone in first place in the AFC Central for the first time, but with four of their next five on the road, including stops in Miami, Jacksonville and Washington, they're going to be hard-pressed to stay in first.

Up next: Miami, 1-1

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