CLEVELAND - A funny thing happened on the way to the debut of Johnny Football Sunday before a befuddled sellout at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Instead, it was another rookie who dominated the mega story when running back Jeremy Down Hill's 103 yards sparked a 20-0 half-time lead that stretched to a 30-0 victory as the 9-4-1 Bengals hung on to first place in the AFC North and eliminated the 7-6 Browns.
It was the Bengals' first shutout since they came here six years ago and posted a 14-0 victory against quarterbacks Ken Dorsey and Bruce Gradkowski. The running game complemented the defense with 244 yards for a season high, anchored by Hill's 148 yards. It was punctuated by running back Rex Burkhead's first NFL TD on a 10-yard run with 23 seconds left.
The Bengals came out fast and aggressive in all three phases and crashed the party celebrating Johnny Manziel's first NFL start. The Bengals defense kept him in the pocket and when he ran out of it they were all over him and sent him to the locker room at halftime with a passer rating of 12 on four of nine passing for 22 yards and two interceptions.
The defense poured it on in the third quarter, sacking him three times and extending his skein of third-down futility to 0-for-7 until wide receiver Josh Gordon found an opening in a zone against cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick late in the third quarter and when he avoided Kirkpatrick's tackle he picked up 32 yards for his longest completion of the day.
But the Bengals who, didn't blitz much but got plenty of pressure from their front four, ended that drive when left end Carlos Dunlap sacked him on second down and forced the punt when the rush made him throw a quick check-down pass.
When Manziel got the ball with 10:21 left in the game, he had completed just seven of 14 passes for 63 yards. But he was also facing a reduced nickel defense because both linebackers had to leave the game. SAM backer Emmanuel Lamur left for good with a hamstring injury in the second half and with 10 minutes left in the game WILL linebacker Vincent Rey got checked for a concussion when middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's helmet hit him in the head on a tackle. Rey was cleared to return.
After the Bengals scored on their first four series to take a 20-0 lead in the game's first 20 minutes, their offense went into neutral even though the Browns were missing three of their top four cornerbacks when Pro Bowler Joe Haden (shoulder) and first-round pick Justin Gilbert (concussion) left in the first half.
With Green (five catches for 49 yards) getting called for offensive pass interference wiping away a first down and then getting called for a false start, Dalton (14 of 24 for 117 yards), went to tight end Ryan Hewitt to set up the third of Mike Nugent's field goal, a 34-yarder that made it 23-0 with 2:35 left in the third quarter.
They actually picked off Manziel twice in the last drive of the first half, but the first one, a throw right into the stomach of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, but it was negated by an offsides call on right end Wallace Gilberry. Later in the drive on second-and-13, Dunlap ran down Manziel on a scramble to set up third-and-four from the Bengals 19. Manziel then high-stepped out of a potential sack by Gilberry, but he didn't get anything on his throw and cornerback Adam Jones cut in front of Taylor Gabriel for the end-zone interception that counted.
It was an interception by Dalton that started all that with 6:19 left in the half when Dalton had Hewitt wide open for a touchdown down the seam, but he underthrew it and linebacker Craig Robertson plucked it out of the air.
Dalton could only manage a 37.1 passer rating in the half on eight of 15 passing for 66 yards and finished with a 53.6, but the running game carried the day with 128 yards on 21 carries in the first half. Meanwhile the Bengals run defense rebounded nicely after the struggles last Sunday and held Cleveland to 3.8 yards per 17 carries.
The Bengals answered the buzz of Johnny Football in the best AFC North response they could fashion when they hogged the game's first drive for 14 plays and 7:07 to produce Hill's two-yard touchdown run as they bolted to a 20-0 lead 20 minutes into the game piling up 152 yards to the Browns' 12.
Hill, one of the Bengals' villains from last month when he proclaimed, "They were worse than I thought," tried to pull off a LeBron James-type throw-the-chalk celebration after his first TD with The King in attendance.
There was plenty of Hill in the drive as he pounded for 29 yards on six carries and Referee Walt Anderson threw his league-leading 12th roughing-the-passer call on a third-down incompletion from the Bengals 47 when outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo hit Dalton high. On fourth-and-four from the Browns 32, Dalton hit Green on a 10-yard slant in front of Haden and he converted the next third down when running back Giovani Bernard was wide open in the flat for 14 yards on third-and-seven.
Then they sent Manziel on a three-and-out on his first series. On third-and-two the Browns clumped four wide receivers wide and when the Bengals had a slant covered to the other side, Manziel tried to run and safety Reggie Nelson stopped him to force the punt.
The Bengals then kept it nine more plays to get Mike Nugent's 44-yard field goal to make it 10-0 when defensive tackle Desmond Bryant beat center Russell Bodine for a sack of Dalton after he had two sacks last month in Cincinnati.
The Bengals stuck with the running game and got 20 yards from Hill on an option pitch, It was supposed to be Manziel popping the option, but Dalton held it long enough to freeze Jabaal Sheard on the edge.
Then Bernard popped up the middle for 14 yards and Hill checked in to slash for five yards on the next snap to get close for Nugent.
Nelson followed that up dislodging a third-down ball from former Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins after a Manziel scramble that would have been a first down and wide receiver Brandon Tate returned his longest punt of the season on a 30-yarder to put the Bengals at the Browns 36.
The Bengals tried to take a few shots deep, but came up empty and went back to the ground-and-pound. Doing his best Johnny Football, Dalton ran a delay off the read option to the left side on third-and-four and Hill squirted for the first down on s nine-yarder. Then Hill punched in a 16-yard touchdown run virtually untouched behind fullback Ryan Hewitt on the right side as Hewitt blew up WILL backer Chris Kirksey and the Bengals went up 17-0 a minute into the second quarter.
The toughest part of the run was when Hill saw a Bengals fan in the front row and tried to leap into the stands, but he was thrown back by some Browns fans.
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, playing for Adam Jones (chest) in the base defense while Jones came in on passing downs, got his first interception of the season when he jumped a route on the sideline intended for Hawkins to give the ball to the Bengals on the 33. The Browns got good pressure in the series and forced Nugent to kick another 44-yarder with 10:20 left in the first half to make it 20-0.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals were dealt a huge blow even before Sunday's game at FirstEnergy Stadium when tight end Jermaine Gresham (toe) and starting cornerback Terence Newman (ankle) were iced on the inactive list.With Gresham and Tyler Eifert out and Kevin Brock getting his first Bengals start, look for the Bengals to go with tackles playing tight end and a heavy dose of the running game. Throw in starting wide receiver Marvin Jones on injured reserve, and quarterback Andy Dalton was down to one of his top four targets from last season with Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green. Gresham is the club's third leading receiver with 50 catches for 378 yards.
But the devastating impact without Gresham is if the Bengals go with that extra tackle who is no threat to catch the ball, the Browns defense can crowd the box more than usual. Clint Boling went again at right tackle for the second straight week, but Marshall Newhouse was expected to get a lot of work as the extra tackle and, possibly, the newly-signed Eric Winston.
Adam Jones gets the start for Newman, but look for Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard to get some snaps at corner, particularly in nickel.
Also down for the Bengals were quarterback A.J. McCarron, wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson, wide receiver James Wright, and defensive end Margus Hunt.
Both teams have extenuating circumstances at kicker. The Bengals' Mike Nugent didn't practice with the team last week in the wake of the sudden death of his father on Monday night, but he did kick by himself late in the week and was with the team Saturday night and went through pre-game warmups. The Browns cut Billy Cundiff at the last minute this weekend and signed former Saints Super Bowl hero Garrett Hartley when Cundiff surfaced on Friday's injury report.
According to media reports, the Bengals had a Sunday stage rivalling prime time. With the game getting flexed from CBS to Fox, it was beamed to 46 percent of the country as opposed to 16 percent.
Green, the usually taciturn Pro Bowler, broke down the Bengals' pre-game huddle urging his teammates to have the-be-the-best-ever mentality.
Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins was one of the captains against his old club at the coin flip that the Browns won and deferred.