The Bengals ended up winning an old-fashioned tractor-pull with the Jaguars Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium when two old friends, special teams and A.J. Green, helped a new face deliver another grinding victory, this one by 33-23 as the Bengals extended their unbeaten home streak to 14.
When the Jags cut the lead to 26-23 with 8:13 left, Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill took the first snap after the score and went 60 yards for a touchdown on his way to a day he became the first Bengals rookie running back to rush for more than 150 yards since Corey Dillon in 1997 when he set what was then the NFL rookie record with 246 yards.
He finished with 154 yards on 24 carries, most by a Bengals back since Cedric Benson went for 189 against the Bears at PBS on Oct. 25, 2009.
Hill followed a block by rookie fullback Ryan Hewitt to the right perimeter, cut it back inside and then raced inside the four, where safety Josh Evans fell off his arm. Also clearing the way was pulling right guard Mike Pollak's kick-out block in the secondary.
Safety George Iloka then secured it with a leaping end-zone interception with 3:55 left.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Not with Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles coming into the game with an NFL-high 12 interceptions.
But it was Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton who threw the first two Sunday, the last a crushing turnover he threw off the back of left tackle Andrew Whitworth on a blown screen pass at the Bengals 25 that put the ball on the seven. That set up Jags running back Denard Robinson's five-yard touchdown run that cut the lead to 26-23 with 8:13 left on a day he just missed 100 yards himself with 94 on 17 carries.
The Bengals couldn't put the young Jaguars away when they went up 19-3 in the opening moments of the second half. Bortles wasted no time cutting the lead to 19-10 when he launched a 40-yard touchdown pass to a fellow rookie, wide receiver Allen Hurns. Cornerback Leon Hall lost the pass at the goal line and Hurns adjusted for the rarest of plays. The Bengals came into the game allowing the second fewest passes of at least 40 yards in the NFL.
Dalton threw his first interception Sunday when safety Sherrod Marin undercut a deep slant to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu at the Jaguars 29, thwarting the Bengals' bid to score on back-to-back series to open the second half.
On the previous series, Dalton went deep to Sanu working on another safety, Evans, and even though Evans was Velcroed to Sanu, he made a tumbling 36-yard over-the-shoulder catch to put the ball on the Jacksonville 11.
That set up Hill's one-yard touchdown run with 10:33 left in the third quarter for the 19-3 lead. Hill started tight to the middle, then followed pulling left guard Clint Boling and nose tackle-fullback Domata Peko to the left perimeter, where Hill burned the defensive back in space and cut inside for the touchdown.
The Bengals took a 26-10 lead early in the fourth quarter when Green came off his month-long absence with an 18-yard touchdown on an arrow post from Dalton, his second touchdown pass of the game. Green finished with three catches for 44 yards and Sanu just missed his second straight 100-yard game with 95 yards on four catches. The TD came courtesy of Adam Jones' 31-yard punt return off a short hanger.
Dalton's second pick of the day spoiled what had been a solid day as he went 19 of 31 for 233 yards, but the two picks gave him a 79.1 passer rating.
Bortles outpitched him with 22 of 33 for 247 yards and a 96.4 passer rating, but his late pick hurt the Jaguars more.
The Bengals were working without right tackle Andre Smith, who injured his ankle late in the first half and was replaced by Marshall Newhouse. He's questionable for Thursday night against Cleveland, as is Hall (head).
After seeing a touchdown taken off the board via penalty, the Bengals responded with back-to-back blocked punts as they took a 12-3 half-time lead.
The Bengals defense harassed Bortles into one-for-seven on third down in the half and left end Carlos Dunlap's third-down sack (with help from penetrating defensive tackle Geno Atkins) set up a punt from the Jacksonville 11 with 3:07 left in the half.
(Atkins had his best day of the year with six tackles, a tipped pass, and was bearing down on Bortles when he threw the pick to Iloka.)
Safety Taylor Mays had linebacker Telvin Smith alone on the right edge on the punt and after he deked him he swiped the ball off punter Bryan Anger's foot and the ball took a bad hop out of the end zone for the safety.
On the previous punt, running back Rex Burkhead came from the left edge to deflect a punt from the Jags 35 that rolled to the Bengals 38.
Dalton again hooked up with Sanu for another third down with the help of old friend Green just lining up wide. Earlier in the game Green, playing for the first time since Oct. 6 with a toe injury, climbed the ladder to make one nine-yard catch after he caught a 17-yarder on the sideline. and finished the half with those two catches.
Now, with Sanu in the slot and in the face of an all-out blitz, Dalton wound up and threw a perfect deep ball and Sanu made a wondrous over-the-head catch working against Martin for a 33-yard catch to put the ball at the Jaguars 9.
Green, who played about half the snaps, made a nice catch on a low screen on the perimeter. But he fumbled the ball on the run and Sanu hopped on it for a three-yard loss. Green then fried Gratz deep for what looked to be a 12-yard touchdown catch but it was taken off the board when Green was called for lining up offsides.
Mike Nugent then hit a 31-yard field goal to give them a 10-3 lead with 2:58 left in the half.
Dalton broke his drought of ten straight quarters without a touchdown pass when he hit Sanu on a 19-yard slant past Martin to give the Bengals a 7-3 lead with 11:48 left in the first half.
A huge assist went to running back Cedric Peerman when he took a three-yard dump pass on third-and-eight and made linebacker Telvin Smith miss the tackle for a 17-yard pickup that kept the drive going.
Hill then followed it up with a 10-yard run behind Hewitt before Dalton found Sanu snaking past Martin. Dalton finished the half 10 of 17 for 132 yards for a 103.1 passer rating compared to Bortles' 66.8.
The Bengals gave up 6.1 yards per rush in the first half, but they were at their best on third down. Bortles came in with a NFL-leading 12 interceptions and didn't have any in the first half but the Bengals could have had three of them when cornerback Terence Newman got his hand on one pass and SAM backer Emmanuel Lamur got his hand on two. Lamur dropped another one in the second half.
The Jaguars took advantage of the Bengals' poor tackling to jump to a 3-0 lead on Josh Scobee's 32-yard field goal with 1:21 left in the first quarter.
Robinson went over left tackle and came out clean for 39 yards to get the Jags out of a poor drive start at their own 14. Then Dunlap hauled down Bortles on a rollout, but he grabbed him by the neck for a 15-yard penalty and a first down. Then on third-and-16 from the Bengals 33 (after Hall blew up a screen), running back Toby Gerhart made a slew of Bengals miss and ran over Iloka for a 19-yard gain.
Defensive linemen Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry then swarmed Robinson on the next two snaps to force the field goal. Robinson finished the half with 49 yards on eight carries. The Bengals could only grind for 3.6 with Hill getting 27 yards on seven.
After a three-and-out on the Jags' first series of the game (Iloka tipped away a third-and-four pass), Adam Jones padded his NFL punt return lead with a 17-yard burst he cut back up the middle to put the ball at the Bengals 34.
But the Bengals had a tentative opening drive after Dalton hit tight end Jermaine Gresham on the first play on a rollout for 11 yards. But on first down the extra tackle who went in motion, Newhouse, false started. Then on third-and-12 against a defense with the second most sacks in the NFL, Dalton called a timeout before he took a coverage sack when he couldn't find a receiver against a four-man rush.
On their first series, the Jags suffered a holding call. On their second series, right tackle Austin Pasztor's chop block on Bengals defensive tackle Brandon Thompson wiped out Robinson's 12-yard gain up the middle. That set up a third-and-15 screen the Bengals smothered. Earlier in the series Newman dropped an interception on the sideline at the Jaguars 30 after Dunlap levelled Bortles on a roll-out pass.
The Bengals also struggled on their second series after Hill picked up nine yards behind the pulling Whitworth on the first snap. After they got the first down, Dalton took his first target at Green when Green ran a go route down the left sideline. But Gratz had the inside position and knocked it away.
Hill lost two yards on the next snap and on third-and-12 the Jags had good coverage on Sanu on an all-out blitz for an incompletion to force a punt. PREGAME NOTES: As expected, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green got Sunday's start against the Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium and injured running back Giovani Bernard was scratched. What wasn't expected was Nico Johnson making his first Bengals start at middle linebacker.
Johnson, who arrived in Cincinnati Oct. 15 from the Kansas City practice squad, made his second NFL start after playing just two snaps in his Bengals debut from scrimmage last week in the win over Baltimore.
With two starting backers out, Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, the move to Johnson looks to be a bow to experience in the base package. It puts their two most experienced backers on the field at their natural spots. Vincent Rey moves from the middle to Burfict's spot while Emmanuel Lamur stays at SAM. It also puts their two least experienced backers, rookie Marquis Flowers and sophomore Jayson DiManche, in reserve roles.
The 6-2, 249-pound Johnson, a fourth-round pick of the Chiefs in 2013 out of Alabama, is seen as a pure middle backer. He made one start in Kansas City last season in six games before the Chiefs cut him this season and put him on the practice squad. Lamur and Rey figure to be the backers in the nickel package when Johnson comes off the field on passing downs.
Rookie Jeremy Hill got his second start in place of Bernard and running back Rex Burkhead figures to get his first NFL carry at some point Sunday. He was active for the third time this season and fourth time in his career.
Even though he missed Friday's practice, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson was active for the first time since injuring his knee Sept. 14.
Also inactive for the Bengals besides Bernard and the injured backers were right guard Kevin Zeitler (calf) and cornerback Darqueze Dennard (hamstring). Wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher and defensive end Will Clarke appeared to be healthy scratches, indicating their confidence that Green can make it through a game.
Dennard is a tough loss for special teams, where he's a starting gunner for a unit that is third in the league covering punts. The next man up at cornerback is Chris Lewis-Harris, active for the first time this season.
The Jaguars are going through their own injury problems at linebacker. On Sunday they started Jeremiah George in the middle, a rookie they took off the Jets practice squad in September.