Palmer closer to playing, Kitna still in charge

Updated: October 20, 2003, 5:01 PM ET

CINCINNATI -- Carson Palmer has moved up in the Cincinnati Bengals' order of clipboard holders.

The Heisman Trophy winner is now the No. 2 quarterback, only an injury away from getting to play. But he'll remain a passing arm's-length away as long as Jon Kitna keeps doing what he has for the past three games.

Kitna threw three touchdown passes Sunday in a 34-26 victory over Baltimore that solidified his hold on the job that will eventually be Palmer's inheritance.

With Kitna avoiding mistakes, the Bengals (2-4) have won two of the last three games, matching their victory total of last season. Coach Marvin Lewis is trying to bring Palmer along without causing a disruption for Kitna and the offense.

"Right now, he is the leader of that group and he sticks up for them," Lewis said. "And we have to keep supporting him."

Lewis also wants to develop Palmer for next year, when he's expected to be the starter out of training camp.

It amounts to quite a balancing act.

Palmer, the No. 1 overall pick in last April's draft, had been relegated to third-string until Sunday, when Shane Matthews was designated the emergency quarterback.

"Now he's one play away from playing, and we're all counting on him," Lewis said Monday. "We believe in him, or we wouldn't do that."

Palmer left Paul Brown Stadium shortly after the game ended, avoiding reporters, and wasn't available on Monday, when Lewis gave his team an extra day off as a reward for beating the Ravens.

Lewis has been coy about the young quarterback's readiness. He said he planned all along for Palmer to move up to the backup role during the team's bye week, when he could get more snaps in practice.

The first indication came when he was listed as the backup on Sunday, the first game after the bye.

"In Carson's case, we've held his feet to the fire the whole time to be in that situation," Lewis said. "I had the opportunity to be around what I thought was the ultimate pro in Trent Dilfer, and how he approached being the backup quarterback in Baltimore before he became a starter.

"I talked before the draft with Carson regarding that, after the draft and again last week to make sure we're taking those steps and that he does work like that."

It will stay that way as long as Kitna keeps the Bengals headed in the right direction and continues to cut down on the interceptions and fumbles that have been the hallmarks of his seven-year career.

In the last three games, Kitna has completed 64 percent of his passes -- well above his career average -- for 714 yards with six touchdowns and only one interception, caused when his arm was hit as he threw.

It's a marked improvement for a quarterback who has never gone more than two consecutive games without an interception. And he's done it without a healthy Corey Dillon, who missed one game and most of another with a groin strain.

"That's how we should be playing," Kitna said, after going 16-of-27 for 274 yards Sunday. "It shouldn't surprise anybody in that locker room. We've been trying to do it all year."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index