On what could be a harbinger of things to come, the Bengals offensive regulars smashed to a touchdown with six runs in a seven-play drive in their only appearance as Cincinnati took a 27-10 victory in Thursday night's preseason finale against the Colts at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals extended the lead to 20-3 four-and-a-half minutes into the second half with the aid of five penalties on that first drive that turned into Mike Nugent's 33-yard field goal. And then jacked it to 27-3 with 5:27 left in the third quarter when rookie running back Rex Burkhead followed fullback John Conner's seal block for a two-yard touchdown run before a PBS crowd of 49,229.
But the Bengals couldn't avoid the devastating injury. Emmanuel Lamur, one of their two starting nickel linebackers slated to play in the neighborhood of 500 snaps, was carted off the field on the second series of the game with what looked to be a serious shoulder injury. Head coach Marvin Lewis said after the game that it popped in and out, indicating a dislocation. In the world of football, that can mean Lamur is out anywhere from a month to all season.
The Bengals regulars, working against three Colts defensive starters, took a 7-3 lead with 6:40 left in the first quarter when rookie running back Giovani Bernard bulled to his third one-yard touchdown run of the preseason.
“To me, it’s all about determination and heart," Bernard said. "How bad do you want that touchdown? I really think anybody should be able to get one yard if you want it bad enough, no matter your size.”
Quarterback Andy Dalton's one pass came on the fifth play on a third-and-two and it went for 18 yards over the middle when wide receiver Mohamed Sanu ran out of an attempted tackle by cornerback Josh Gordy. Starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis took two runs behind the right side and one up the middle for a total of 22 yards and Bernard added two more for eight yards behind the right side before he punched it in from the 1.
The physicality then spread to the backups and the Bengals finished with 191 rushing yards.
“We seemed to get to the line of scrimmage quickly and run our plays crisply. That’s really just what you’re looking for in a game like this," head coach Marvin Lewis said at the half. "Defensively, we got a lot of guys some snaps, and it’s always a good effort when the other team scores only three points.”
Dalton did try another pass from the four-yard line, an obvious option with wide receiver A.J. Green isolated on cornerback Darius Butler. Butler mauled Green on a fade in the right corner and drew a pass-interference call.
"We came out tonight and did what we wanted to do," Dalton said. "We moved the ball with the first offense, especially running the ball, and we scored a TD. As far as the season, I feel like we’re ready to go. We’ve played together well, I like the new elements we have, and I’m looking forward to going to Chicago.”
Bernard's touchdown run conjured up a slew of possibilities when the Bengals came out with the triple tight ends set of Jermaine Gresham, Alex Smith and Orson Charles, plus fullback John Conner in the game. On the power play left guard Clint Boling pulled right, Conner kicked out safety Larry Asante and Bernard followed Charles for the score.
Charles and Conner are thought to be in a struggle for one fullback spot. But while the play displayed Conner's classic fullback blocking style, it also showed Charles's versatility and the problems the Bengals can give people with a roster that may very well have four tight ends, counting Charles, and no fullback. Rookie tight end Tyler Eifert (wrist) didn't play for the second straight game but says he'll be ready for Chicago.
But the key to the versatility that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden preaches is a physical running game that opens up his formation possibilities. In that first half the Bengals rushed it 15 times for 123 yards.
So the Bengals backups also pounded it on the ground, with running back Cedric Peerman offering another preseason finale MVP effort. The man who broke a 93-yard run in the '10 game and had a 17-yard catch last year in Indy, made a nifty move when he reversed his field after getting hemmed in and broke right for a 22-yard run that set up Nugent's 42-yard field that made it 10-3 with 1:07 left in the first quarter.
Backup quarterback Josh Johnson, who came into the game as the club's second-leading rusher, took off for 21 more yards on the next drive before chalking up his third touchdown of the preseason. He hit wide receiver Marvin Jones on a back-shoulder fade for a three-yard touchdown pass with 7:54 left in the half for the 17-3 lead.
Daniel Herron, trying to beat out Burkhead for the final running back spot, came into the game with a 6.1-yard average and added a 20-yard run late in the half to put the Bengals in a two-minute situation. The two rookie tackles, Tanner Hawkinson at left and Reid Fragel at right, held up pretty well as Johnson hit rookie wide receiver Cobi Hamilton for an 18-yarder on third-and-10 and got a nice, leaping catch by wide receiver Ryan Whalen for 16 more on third-and-10.
But the drive got blown up on a sack by a blitzing Asante.
Fragel, who missed the first two games with a knee issue, left with what looked to be another one. Indications were it wasn't serious.
The first defense couldn’t get off the field against the Colts second-teamers led by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck on the game's first series and gave up Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal 4:30 into the game as the Bengals had trouble tackling the short passes and screens.
After getting scalded on third down five days ago in Dallas, the Bengals gave up their third first down when on third-and-nine running back Vick Ballard slipped out of Lamur's attempted tackle on a dump pass. The third-and-long had been set up when SAM backer James Harrison forced Hasselbeck to unload an incompletion.
But on the next third down—a third-and-six from the Bengals 25—right end Michael Johnson got good pressure and cornerback Adam Jones had wide receiver Jeremy Kelley covered for an incompletion.
The tough thing about the Lamur injury is not only he the starter in nickel, he backs up both SAM and WILL and it's tough to see the Bengals replacing his cover skills. Linebackers coach Paul Guenther has compared rookie free agent Jayson DiManche to Lamur, a CFA last season. But DiManche is trying to make the transition to linebacker from college pass rusher and Lamur spent time on the practice squad before he got the call in midseason. Yet DiManche may now be going right to the roster.
With Lamur's injury, linebacker J.K. Schaffer's night had to be noticed. Thought to be in a battle for the last spot with DiManche, Schaffer had a sack in the first half and his interception set up Burkhead's touchdown. Now if Lamur's injury is severe, both may make it.
Burkhead also had a big night. He set up his own TD when his second-effort on fourth-and-short converted and he got the ball down to the 2-yard line on a six-yard catch and run.
Another battle being waged was going on in the trenches with backup center-guards Trevor Robinson and Mike Pollak. From the second series on they were playing next to each other at either center or right guard and there was a chance both could make it. But Pollak, a former second-round pick of the Colts, left the game with seven minutes left with what looked to be a knee injury that looked to be a short-term problem.
PREGAME HITS: The Bengals made it official 90 minutes before Thursday night's preseason finale against the Colts at Paul Brown Stadium and shelved left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left end Carlos Dunlap. That means if they do play in the Sept. 8 opener in Chicago they'll do it without playing a snap in a preseason game.
Their replacements, Anthony Collins on offense and Robert Geathers on defense, and the rest of the starters aren't expected to play more than a series with final cuts slated for Saturday by 6 p.m.
If Whitworth's status for the Bears isn't clear, Dunlap's situation seems more defined. Dunlap (concussion) indicated he was full go in practice Tuesday, he's been on the field for the last couple of weeks, and it looks like he'll be set for Sept. 8.
Also shelved for the Colts was right tackle Andre Smith. Replaced by Dennis Roland, Smith tweaked his knee day five days ago in Atlanta and head coach Marvin Lewis has indicated he'll be ready for the opener.
Rookies Tanner Hawkinson at left and Reid Fragel at right are expected to get the bulk of the snaps at the tackles with Hawkinson figuring to be on the final 53 and Fragel on the bubble.
Cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Brandon Ghee, both fighting concussion symptoms, were also scratched. They're thought to have a leg up in the roster scrum in the secondary, where the biggest questions appear to how many corners the Bengals keep and if Taylor Mays or Jeromy Miles makes it at safety. Second-year safety George Iloka hasn't played the last two games with a broken hand, but it's believed he'll be ready for the opener.
Lewis saluted players that have served in the preseason with distinction when he named them game captains: Collins and left guard Clint Boling for the offense, cornerback Terence Newman and WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the defense and wide receiver Brandon Tate for special teams.
SAM linebacker James Harrison got the start on a night he was honored at his alma mater. Kent State planned to retire his No. 16 at the end of the first quarter of its opener against Liberty at Dix Stadium and giving a framed jersey to his parents, Mildred and James Harrison Sr.
Harrison becomes the fifth Kent State player to have his jersey retired, joining Jim Corrigall, fellow former Steeler Jack Lambert, Eric Wilkerson and Joshua Cribbs.
“It’s a tremendous honor to have your school retire your jersey,” Harrison said. “It’s a long process I guess. I really wondered at some point whether it was going to happen. But it’s great that it got done, and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there for it. I sent my parents in my place.”