CLEVELAND — With an offense disjointed and disheveled all day, the Bengals failed to capitalize on another sterling effort by their defense and saw their quarterback outplayed by Cleveland's Brian Hoyer in just his third NFL start as the suddenly-mighty Browns came away with a 17-6 win Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
It was the first time since the third start of quarterback Andy Dalton's NFL career in 2011 that the Bengals offense or defense didn't score a touchdown.
The Bengals were looking like they were about to throw off some mega sluggishness early in the fourth quarter when tight end Jermaine Gresham made a leaping 24-yard catch on third-and-13 to put the Bengals at the Cleveland 41, trailing 10-6. But to sum up their offensive misery, the first-down snap slithered through Dalton's hands for a 14-yard loss.
If the Bengals were supposed to be the better team on paper, the Browns were the better team on the field and did what the Bengals are supposed to be doing with their two tight-end offense. Browns tight end Jordan Cameron killed Cincinnati with 10 catches for 91 yards, including a 31-yarder over the middle that set up Cleveland's final score, a one-yard pass to running back Chris Ogbonnaya that made it 17-6 with 4:54 left.
And with the Browns grinding the clock on the ground (something else the Bengals were supposed to do), they exhausted a Bengals defense that was the victim of an offense that ended up throwing it twice as many times as it ran it and was on the field 71 snaps after 81 the week before. That last TD drive went 91 yards and took more than six minutes against an offense whose backs ran it just four times in the second half.
Dalton didn't play well. He finished just 23-of-42 for 206 yards and a 58.2 rating, the third-lowest regular season rating of his career. He uncorked his first interception of the day with four minutes left when middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson deflected a pass to rookie tight end Tyler Eifert and the tip was hauled in by cornerback Buster Skrine.
For the second straight week, wide receiver A.J. Green struggled with just 51 yards on seven catches and Dalton couldn't find anybody else.
Hoyer and the Browns did what the Bengals offense couldn't do and rattled off enough third-down conversions to take a 10-3 lead with 5:10 left in the third quarter.
Billy Cundiff's 51-yard field goal came on the heels of the eighth Bengals turnover and eighth fumble of the season when cornerback Chris Owens blitzed inside and swiped the ball out of Dalton's hand as he started to throw and he recovered his own forced fumble at the Bengals 47.
The Browns could only go 17 yards, but it was enough to get the field goal and came on two third-down conversions for Hoyer leading an offense coming into the game with the league's worst third-down conversion rate. Cameron got the first one on his eighth catch of the day working between safety Taylor Mays and cornerback Adam Jones on third-and-six on the sideline and wide receiver Josh Gordon got inside cornerback Terence Newman to convert a third-and-seven for nine yards before a Geno Atkins-Carlos Dunlap sack brought on Cundiff.
Hoyer gave the Bengals fits with his short, quick sets, hitting 25 of 38 passes and racking up 269 yards passing. The Bengals offense, stoned on a fourth-and-one from the Browns 7 and hampered by a sluggish passing game that generated just 69 yards in the first half, frittered away a host of chances to take control of a game they trailed 7-3 at halftime. It could have been more but Cundiff missed field-goal tries of 37 and 49 yards.
Browns defensive end Dez Bryant, working on the left interior, jammed up Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the fourth-and-one for no gain. Cleveland was the team that came into the day gunning for it with nine tries on fourth down in this young season along with some trickery.
But it was the Bengals that got down there with some deception of their own when Green-Ellis took a handoff into the line and tossed it back to Dalton and when the dust cleared on his bomb down the middle Skrine was called for a 40-yard pass interference penalty.
It's about the only way the Bengals could get a big play in the first half as their seamless red-zone offense that had scored touchdowns on six of seven tries in the first three games stalled. Dalton was just 8-of-15 passing for those 69 yards in the half. He threw it seven times to Green, but they only hooked up three times for 16 yards.
Before the unsuccessful fourth down, Dalton tried to hit Green on one of their patented fades in the right corner as Green worked against cornerback Joe Haden. But Haden had position and Green and Dalton never got timed up.
Cincinnati's last snap of the half summed it up on third-and-four from the Browns 45 when Green was in the slot and covered by Skrine. Green had him beat deep but it was overthrown.
And the Bengals could only manage 46 yards rushing on 3.5 yards per carry with Giovani Bernard carrying it seven times (26) and Green-Ellis five times for 10 yards.
The Bengals had to deal with an injury up front in the first half when right guard Kevin Zeitler left with a foot injury and the Bengals went through a major shakeup. For the first time since 2008 left tackle Andrew Whitworth moved inside to play significant snaps at left guard while Anthony Collins went to left tackle and Clint Boling moved to right guard. Zeitler checked back in on the second series of the second half.
Using a bushel of quick passes, Hoyer hit his 10 of his first 11 throws —including his first eight—and he put the Bengals in a 7-0 hole with a two-yard touchdown lob to Cameron with 2:13 left in the first quarter. Hoyer's longest completion of the half was a 39-yard wide receiver screen, but it worked for 16-of-24 passing for 178 yards and a 102.4 passer rating as Dalton struggled.
The Bengals let the Browns off the hook when Ogbonnaya ripped off an 11-yard gain on third-and-one from the Cleveland 14 and wide receiver Travis Benjamin ran a screen on the outside that worked in the teeth of a Bengals blitz up the middle for 39 yards. And the Bengals couldn't hold the Browns to a field goal on third-and-six when wide receiver Davone Bess beat Brandon Ghee inside for a 17-yard gain to the Bengals 1.
With Leon Hall, one of the league's top slot corners out with a hamstring injury, Ghee made his first appearance Sunday from scrimmage since late in 2011 and Bess added to his NFL-leading total on third-down catches. And it was the second of four straight third downs the Browns would reel off on their way to converting nine of 18 after they had made just 11 in the first three games. After running back Willis McGahee lost one yard at the hands of defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, Hoyer floated a back-shoulder ball to Cameron split wide on safety Taylor Mays for the touchdown.
Unlike the Browns, the Bengals couldn't convert in the red zone on their next series, which began at their own 47 when safety George Iloka caught an onside kick drilled right at him. But the Bengals could only gain 46 yards on 13 plays before coming up with Mike Nugent's 25-yard field goal that cut the Cleveland lead to 7-3. On third-and-three from the Bengals 8, Haden cut down Green on a quick throw looping to the sideline for a one-yard gain to force the field goal.
Dalton converted his first third down when he hit a wide-open Gresham for a 26-yard gain in a zone on third-and-10 and Green-Ellis and Bernard mashed for another first down. On third-and-three Dalton had his pass batted down when end Paul Kruger came off the edge and defeated the block of Bernard to force a punt.
The Bengals defense succeeded on their first third-down try when Dunlap pressured Hoyer on a play-action bootleg on third-and-safety began his first start of the season blowing up Ogbonnaya for no gain.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
As feared the Bengals went into Sunday's game at FirstEnergy Stadium without starting cornerback Leon Hall and safety Reggie Nelson, as well as Hall's backup at slot corner in Dre Kirkpatrick. All were shelved by hamstring injuries with Hall and Nelson laid low on cornerback Terence Newman's 58-yard fumble recovery for the winning touchdown with 3:47 left in last Sunday's 34-30 victory over the Packers.
The Bengals are hoping that at least two of them are going to be available for next week's game against the Patriots at Paul Brown Stadium.
Third corner Adam Jones got the start for Hall, but Jones has been there before. It's his third start of the year. The slot corner figured to be Brandon Ghee, active for the first time since the 2011 Wild Card game and taking his first snaps from scrimmage since he took two late in that season against the Rams for his only defensive work of the season. Taylor Mays, making his fourth start as a Bengal and first of the season, got the nod in place of Nelson.
Also inactive for the Bengals were offensive linemen Mike Pollak and Tanner Hawkinson, running back Rex Burkhead and defensive end Margus Hunt. Browns kicker Billy Cundiff, struggling with a thigh injury, was active.
The Bengals captains were A.J. Green and Clint Boling on offense, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap on defense and Alex Smith on special teams. The Bengals won the toss and deferred to the second half and the Browns got the ball.
TOUGH CALL: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis also doubles as a member of the NFL Competition Committee and he's going easy on the George Iloka fine. Iloka, the second-year safety, didn't get a flag when he collided with Packers tight end Jermicahel Finley early last Sunday. But Finley left with a concussion and Iloka got a letter a few days later fining him $15,000 for hitting a defenseless receiver.
Both Iloka and secondary coach Mark Carrier argued that Iloka did what he was supposed to do on the play. He didn't leave his feet, he didn't lead with his helmet, and he didn't hit high. Iloka, who is appealing, said that when Finley dove he hit Iloka's bicep.
"It is a difficult thing for officials in real time to be 100 percent with," Lewis said. "It's part of the game. We have to just keep working hard and coach them hard to try and eliminate as much of that as you can."
Told it looked on the replay that Iloka didn't do anything wrong, Lewis said, "That will be up to the voice of appeals."
SPECIAL CONCERNS: Former Browns special teams titan Josh Cribbs and Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons have tortured each other for much of this century giving as good as they got. But even with Cribbs gone, Simmons is still worrying.
The new man is Travis Benjamin, who is returning punts.
"He's one of the fastest people on the planet," Simmons said this week.
He scored on a 91-yard punt return in the preseason opener and has returns of 18, 28 and 31 yards in the regular season, where he also has a couple of muffs.
Talk about how things change in the NFL, wait five minutes. When the Bengals cut to the 53 before Opening Day, Simmons had pretty much his core players back from last year.
But safety Jeromy Miles, his most prolific player on special teams who came into the season with 35 special teams tackles in 38 games, pulled a hamstring early in the opener and then got caught up in the numbers game of the injury situation at linebacker and cornerback. He was waived two straight weeks and got picked up by the Ravens the second time around.
Miles, a gunner on punt coverage, was a big reason the Bengals finished first in the league last season in punts downed inside the 5. Another gunner, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins (ankle) doesn't come back until the second half of the season and yet another gunner, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring), is expected to miss his second straight game Sunday.
Look for third wide receiver Marvin Jones to keep busy. He's been working at gunner and last week he racked up 10 special teams snaps while also taking 54 percent of the offensive snaps.
Throw in the fact the Browns have tried a fake field goal and fake punt already this season and Simmons says, "You have to not only know every situation, you have to play every situation out and be aware of any tips they may or may not give you."
Simmons certainly isn't beyond going for it, especially early on in a road game. In the second quarter at Jacksonville last season in a game the listless Bengals trailed, 7-3, personal protector Cedric Peerman's 48-yard run on a fake punt set up a touchdown and ignited a 27-10 victory. In Kansas City, Peerman went 32 yards on a first-quarter fake to finish off the first touchdown drive in a 28-6 victory.
GAME TO .500: With an 81-81-1 regular-season record, Lewis is looking to get over the .500 mark for the first time in five years and a day. He was 42-41 heading into a Sept. 28, 2008 Paul Brown Stadium game against the Browns, where backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick lost his first Bengals start, 20-12. Lewis's high-water mark was nine games over .500 at 35-26 after the Bengals beat the Raiders at PBS, 27-10, on Dec. 10, 2006.