So close, so ... Bengals

Monday, September 7, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tennessee's Marcus Robertson intercepts a pass intended for Carl Pickens.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Two months from now at election time, any politician weathering an experience like the Bengals endured in Sunday's season opener will demand a recount.

They forced Tennessee Oilers starting quarterback Steve McNair out of the game with a bruised right elbow. Their beleaguered rushing defense limited Eddie George, the AFC's third-leading runner last year, to only 3.4 yards a carry and 86 yards total. Neil O'Donnell, in his regular-season debut as the Bengals' quarterback, completed 75 percent of his passes.

But this equation for success somehow added up to just another defeat for the Bengals, who began what will surely be their most challenging season in years with a 23-14 defeat before 55,848 poached spectators at Cinergy Field.

Though slow starts have been a given for the Bengals in the '90s, they could not afford to lose this opener. Their schedule, the third most difficult in the NFL in terms of opponents' 1997 winning percentage, features nine games against playoff teams from last year. Including George, they'll face the league's top seven rushers from a year ago.

Gary Walker wrestles Corey Dillon to the ground.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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As an AFC Central Division foe, Tennessee was hardly a soft spot for the Bengals. But the enthusiasm of a fresh season, combined with the home-field advantage, gave Cincinnati as good a chance to win as it'll have this year.

The Bengals, whose effort reflected their resolve, knew it. "We put a lot into this one," coach Bruce Coslet said. "We left it on the field."

Players from both teams were physically spent after performing in temperatures that exceeded 130 degrees on Cinergy's artificial turf. More than a half-hour after the game, Cincinnati left tackle Kevin Sargent was still so exhausted that he paused in the middle of an interview and said, "Excuse me, I've gotta sit down."

Ultimately, enough happened to make the Bengals take a back seat to Tennessee despite the nuggets for victory they unearthed.

The offense occasionally showed pizzazz but often looked stale. O'Donnell completed 24 of 32 passes for 200 yards, including a 23-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to Darnay Scott that gave the Bengals a 7-3 lead. O'Donnell also directed a nine-play, 80-yard drive in the third quarter that resulted in Corey Dillon's 3-yard run, narrowing Tennessee's lead to 17-14.

"Neil did well," Sargent said. "He was calling plays with authority. He wasn't unsure about anything."

Neil O'Donnell is sacked by Kenny Holmes.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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But Cincinnati totaled just 292 yards, compared with Tennessee's 353. O'Donnell threw efficiently on short passes and showed promise on more daring patterns -- "He threw a few nice long balls that I was pleased to see," Coslet said -- but the nine-year veteran who owned the lowest interception ratio among active quarterbacks also hurled a crucial fourth-quarter interception.

Facing pressure from an un-blocked Oiler defender, O'Donnell overthrew Carl Pickens over the middle and suffered Marcus Robertson's pickoff with 7 minutes and 4 seconds left at the Bengals' 37-yard line. That set up Al Del Greco's 48-yard field goal with 5:29 to go that extended Tennessee's lead to 23-14 and essentially settled matters.

A pair of three-and-out series sandwiched the Bengals' first touchdown, helping Tennessee run 31 of the first 44 plays from scrimmage and erode Cincinnati's defensive energy.

"There'd be just some small, minor breakdown, then we'd be on the sidelines again," Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson said.

Darnay Scott catches TD pass.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Then there was the simple element of luck.

Trying to sustain a drive from the Oilers' 45 on the first play after the 2-minute halftime warning, Coslet ordered a fourth-and-2 pitchout to Dillon, who wound up to throw a pass that should have parried Tennessee's overpursuing defense. But officials didn't notice that Oilers linebacker Lonnie Marts was holding McGee, the intended receiver, so Dillon got smothered for a 4-yard loss.

Later, the Bengals forced a Tennessee punt and would have regained possession at their 33 with 10:49 left and a mere 20-14 deficit. But Tremain Mack was flagged for running into punter Craig Hentrich, sustaining the Oilers' possession.

Confronted with the impossible task of following his 246-yard effort against the Oilers last Dec. 4, Dillon rushed for a 87 yards on 20 carries. It was a respectable total, since he aggravated a left knee injury on his first carry.

Yet Dillon lurched through an uneven afternoon, gaining 10 yards or more on four carries while being held to 2 yards or less on nine other attempts.

"(The Oilers) sat back in a lot of deep zone (coverages) and gave us underneath (passes) and you have to take what they give you," tight end Tony McGee said. "But I think we were more successful when we mixed it up vs. trying to run every time."

Corey Dillon runs 3 yards for a TD.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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Dave Krieg proved to be more formidable than any official. The 19-year veteran, a month and a half short of turning 40, replaced McNair in the second half and completed 7-of-13 passes for 129 yards. Krieg was 3-of-4 for 51 yards on Tennessee's initial possession of the third quarter, sparking an 81-yard march that ended with George's 3-yard touchdown run that put the Bengals behind 17-7.

Krieg began Tennessee's next drive with his longest completion since 1993, a 55-yarder to Yancey Thigpen that set up Del Greco's 31-yard field goal for a 20-14 Oilers lead.

Such feats made the difference.

Had it not been for "just 2 or 3 plays," said Bengals defensive end Clyde Simmons, "we could be sitting here winners. But the effort and desire were there. We have to build from that."

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