Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis gave running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis the night off and rookie running back Giovani Bernard responded as the bell cow with four straight touches for 47 yards that set up his one-yard touchdown to highlight the first offense's smooth outing Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium and jump-started the Bengals to a 429-yard effort in a 27-19 victory over the Titans.
The Bengals stretched it to 24-12 with 14:24 left in the game when running back Daniel Herron took a handoff from quarterback Josh Johnson at the Titans 40, went right, saw a wall, reversed his field left while moving the ball to his other arm, and took off on a touchdown run aided by Johnson's block at about the 10. Herron finished with 81 yards on nine carries.
Old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick cut it to 24-19 with 11:24 left when he hit wide open wide receiver Michael Preston double-moving past cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris for a 46-yard touchdown.
But the Bengals responded with Mike Nugent's 26-yard field goal with 4:43 left to make it 27-19 with Johnson relying on a couple of rookies. Wide receiver Roy Roundtree picked up 18 yards with a great move inside after a short catch. On the next snap he got in a good block at the end of running back Rex Burkhead's 22-yard sprint around right end.
Following fullback Orson Charles out of a three tight-end set, Bernard banged it up and in for his second touchdown in two games and finished his night with 37 yards on seven carries as the Bengals survived a sack-and-strip of quarterback Andy Dalton on the first series.
Despite getting pinballed consistently by the Titans defensive front, Dalton converted three third-down passes before lofting a perfect two-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu outmuscling cornerback Tommie Campbell to give the Bengals a 14-3 lead with 12:40 left in the first half.
“I think we were a little bit hungry tonight," Dalton said. "After last week, we wanted to put points on the board with the ‘ones’ in there. So we go out of this game feeling a little better than last week.”
Working largely behind a dominant right side of the line featuring tight end Jermaine Gresham, tackle Andre Smith and guard Kevin Zeitler, Bernard ripped off two runs of nine yards each before he went left for seven more. Then he leaked out of the backfield, caught a flare, and sped for 22 yards down the left sideline and finished it off lowering his head on safety Michael Griffin.
Then on third-and-10 from the Titans 25, Dalton hit Sanu on a crossing route where he fried safety Bernard Pollard in space and made it worse for him when he gave him a stiff arm, but his touchdown was reversed when he was ruled out at the 1 and Bernard came on for the TD.
After taking a shot to the foot after the throw to Sanu, Dalton got his shoe taped and then hooked up with wide receiver Brandon Tate to keep the next drive alive. Tate beat Pollard on another crossing route on third-and-eight for 22 yards and then Dalton found Sanu on a hook over the middle on third-and-five for a 10-yard gain and another conversion to set up his TD.
Dalton left after that with 9-of-14 passing for 115 yards and a 113.7 rating.
“The positive that sticks out with me is the offense. We made plays. We converted some third downs. We ran and passed well at times," Lewis said. "The only negative was the turnover.
“But our defense did a nice job with that sudden change. The defense was a little wormy against the run at a couple of points, but the positive is we forced them to settle for field goal attempts.”
Titans quarterback Jake Locker kept the Bengals off balance on the game's first possession with a heavy diet of intermediate and short play-action passes that allowed him to complete his first five passes and set up Rob Bironas's 44-yard field goal for Tennessee's 3-0 lead 5:19 into the game.
Locker worked play-action on third-and-two on the third play of the game and found wide receiver Kendall Wright for a 17-yard gain running across the middle from cornerback Leon Hall. Locker also went play-action on first down and got a quick 11-yard pickup to wide receiver Nate Washington on the sideline at the Bengals 29.
But then the Bengals defense did what it did last week on the opening drive in Atlanta and held for a field goal. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga hauled down running back Chris Johnson for one yard on a stretch play and on third-and-seven cornerback Terence Newman knocked down a sideline route headed to wide receiver Kenny Britt to bring on Bironas.
Dalton then got crunched on the third snap of the game to force an incompletion and on the next snap defensive tackle Jurrell Casey looped around the right edge to sack and strip Dalton of the ball at the Bengals 27.
The first defense took another bow when on second-and-three WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict stood up Johnson for no gain and cornerback Adam Jones had good coverage on Washington in the end zone to force another field-goal try, but Bironas missed it wide left.
At that point the Bengals seemed committed to keep the wolves off Dalton by running the ball and rolled out Bernard on the next three snaps. After Dalton's fumble the Bengals ran it 11 times for 55 yards to end the half.
After Sanu converted the third-and-five to put the ball on the Titans 22, the Bengals ran it three of the next four snaps, the last with Bernard jetting up the middle for four yards and setting up the Sanu TD.
Tight end Tyler Eifert, Bernard's rookie bookend in the passing game, then surfaced on the next drive when he was wide open over the middle and backup quarterback John Skelton hit him for a 25-yard gain to set up Nugent's 38-yard field goal that gave the Bengals the 17-3 lead with two minutes left in the half.
Eifert joined Tate, Sanu and Bernard as receivers that had catches of at least 22 yards in the half.
When Skelton checked into the game, left guard Clint Boling moved to left tackle for the first time in a game in his three-year career.
The Bengals first defense pitched another solid effort playing the entire first half. Johnson (30 yards on seven carries) and Shonn Greene (29 on six carries) hurt them a bit on the ground but the Bengals won five out of nine times on third down and it helped that the Titans missed another field goal, this one from 47 yards by Maikon Bonani.
Rookie safety Shawn Williams, who left briefly in the second half when he had the wind knocked out of him, was the leading tackler in the first half with five.
“It’s always great to turn a team away without points when you’ve given up a turnover in your own end," said cornerback Terence Newman. "It’s also good of course that we forced them to settle for field goal tries. But they got some of those tries after moving the ball downfield on us a little bit, so we can’t feel totally good about our performance. There was some good, but also some bad.”
PREGAME HITS: As expected the Bengals are taking it slowly with two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and despite Thursday's brilliant practice they shelved him for Saturday night's Paul Brown Stadium preseason opener against the Titans.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, also resting his knee, went to the bench as well after he returned to work earlier this week. Also, defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson got the night off with Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry, respectively, replacing them.
There is concern that fourth-rounder Sean Porter has suffered a significant shoulder injury and he was ruled out for Saturday, as were fellow linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Vincent Rey. That meant two young backers coming off big games last week in Atlanta, rookie free agent Jayson DiManche and first-year J.J. Schaffer were going to get plenty of snaps.
Dave Lapham on the Bengals Radio Network said before the game that Porter has a torn labrum and is mulling season-ending surgery or playing with a harness.
George Iloka, who appeared to have suffered a wrist injury that needed a cast-like apparatus a week after being named the starting safety opposite Reggie Nelson, was also ruled out Saturday and Taylor Mays got the start. Iloka's injury isn't believed to be long term.
Also out were wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, offensive linemen Tanner Hawkinson, Reid Fragel and Otis Hudson, and defensive lineman Brandon Thompson. All but Hawkins could be back for the Aug. 24 game in Dallas.
The game captains were Domata Peko, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Jermaine Gresham, Leon Hall and Jeromy Miles.