49ers begin East Coast tour with Cincinnati stop

Published 11:34 pm Saturday, September 24, 2011

CINCINNATI (AP) — Welcome to the Buckeye State, you 49ers. Unpack your week’s worth of luggage and get used to early autumn in the Midwest.

First, you’ll notice the leaves are changing. Then, you’ll see that the Bengals are, too. If you’re not paying attention, it’s going to make for a very long and unhappy week in Ohio, starting Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

San Francisco (1-1) decided to play tourist for a few days rather than fly back and forth from the West Coast for consecutive games in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. The 49ers will play the youthful Bengals (1-1), then head to the eastern side of the state to work out in Youngstown before moving on to Philadelphia.

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“It’s an attempt to try to take the travels and jet lag out of the equation,” said coach Jim Harbaugh, an Ohio native. “Also, to have our team be around each other for a week. I feel it’s a team that enjoys each other’s company. It’s a chance to really have almost like a training camp, hone in on two really important games for us.”

Ah, but what about the evenings? Any team activities planned?

“We have a few,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s football. We’re not going sightseeing or anything.”

First stop: Cincinnati, where there aren’t a whole lot of pro football fans these days — at least, not Bengals fans.

Few teams had as bad an offseason as Cincinnati. Coach Marvin Lewis played out his contract, then chose to stay even though owner Mike Brown insisted there would be no significant change in how the team operates coming off its 4-12 season. Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer decided he wanted out — he hasn’t turned up and insists he’ll retire if he’s not traded.

The sense of hopelessness can be seen in the seats. The Bengals sold only 39,797 tickets for their final preseason game at Paul Brown, which seats 65,000. They opened the season with two road games, splitting against Cleveland and Denver.

There were so many tickets left for the home opener that the team took the unprecedented step of announcing eight days in advance that the game would be blacked out on local television because there was no chance for a sellout.

“Every Sunday is a chance to win the fans back,” running back Cedric Benson said. “It’s an unfortunate situation for the fans that they don’t televise games that don’t get sold out. We’ll work hard at changing that.”

It’ll be the first thing that the 49ers notice when they run onto the field — all those empty green seats.

“The fans — we haven’t given them what they wanted,” Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “Last year, we didn’t play up to the way we should have. With the lockout and all that mess, they’re a little disappointed from last year and I’m sure it lingered.”

Cincinnati did something interesting during a 24-22 loss at Denver last Sunday. With the Bengals trailing, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden opened up the passing game for rookie Andy Dalton, who threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. First-round pick A.J. Green had 10 catches, the first time in NFL history that a rookie quarterback and receiver combined for 10 completions in a game.

“I think they weren’t asking a lot out of me in the (first) half, and then they started to and realized it was working,” Dalton said. “I think the more experience I get and the more we go out and play, the more confidence and trust they’ll have in me.”

The 49ers’ main focus is Benson, who ran for more than 100 yards in an opening win at Cleveland but was held down in the loss at Denver. The Bengals’ new offense is based upon being able to run the ball and complete short passes.

San Francisco leads the league in run defense, allowing 54.5 yards per game, and hasn’t allowed a back to gain 100 yards in the last 24 games.

“To be honest with you, it’s something we don’t talk about a whole lot,” said defensive tackle Justin Smith, a former Bengal. “We’ve been able to get it done for a while now. It’s going to be tough to keep it going.”

Once they’re done in Cincinnati, the 49ers are off to Youngstown, hometown of the DeBartolo family that has owned the team since 1977. The 49ers will work out at Youngstown State, which has a DeBartolo Hall.

Harbaugh was born in Toledo and his family grew up in northwestern Ohio.

“Every year I’ve been alive, I’ve been in Ohio at some point to visit relatives,” he said. “Yeah, that’s special anytime I get to go back there.”

The players will spend most of the week practicing in a place surrounded by Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers fans.

“As long as you feed us and let us play football, we’re good,” receiver Joshua Morgan said.