Marvin Lewis watched his first-teamers Saturday tune impressively for the opener.
The next time we see most of them, they'll be in the Black Hole in Oakland. And the Bengals' first teamers dug themselves out of Monday night's black hole in Tampa with a thorough exhibition on both sides of the ball in Saturday night's 21-10 pre-season victory over the Bears at Paul Brown Stadium.
Quarterbacks Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron went 12-for-12 in building a 21-3 half-time lead while converting five of their seven third downs.
The first defense opened the game forcing quarterback Jay Cutler to punt the first four times he had the ball. By the time the starters exited at halftime, the Bengals had outgained the Bears by nearly 100 yards with four different players making plays of at least 20 yards and no Bear making one longer than 16.
Cutler was sacked twice, the Bengals weren't sacked any, and Bengals running back Jeremy Hill nearly doubled his pre-season carries with 11 on Saturday for his obligatory 4.2-yard average.
And there are now 14 days until they meet the Raiders in a place they have never won during their 48 seasons.
"This is the team we think we are. That we can be," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "Lulls happen. You have to overcome them and great teams bounce back. That's what you have to have and that's what we did tonight.
"This is who we want to be," Whitworth said. "Play good defense, be able to run it and throw it and do what we want. We feel good about that."
Dalton is Cincinnati's version of William Jefferson Clinton, "The Comeback Kid." Vaporized by the critics Monday night, Dalton threw six darts for 52 yards on Saturday's first drive, a 16-play sojourn that included three of his own dashes. And on the last one, a fourth-and-one that bore no resemblance to last year's season-on-the-brink-fourth-and-one against Baltimore, he literally stuck his neck out to get the touchdown and begin the march to Oakland.
In the time it took for the refs to get the two tons of humanity off Dalton and then decide if he got in, the most mature of Bengals could have thought back to the 1978 pre-season finale when head coach Tiger Johnson let Ken Anderson start the second half and Anderson promptly broke his hand.
By the time Anderson returned, the Bengals were 0-5 and Johnson was soon gone. But current head coach Marvin Lewis has no such worries. The Comeback Kid found a way to set the tone for Oakland without getting seriously hurt. And as if to make sure there would be no repeat of '78, Lewis pulled Dalton with a sore neck.
"That's what we want to do," Dalton said. "I was hoping that we would get down there and just run the ball and set the tone for our guys being physical up front. There were a couple of times before I thought we got it but we didn't so we can sneak it on fourth down; I will take it."
The Bengals offensive line is known for getting push, but on Saturday night they got stopped on one third-and-one in the first half and needed four runs to get in from the 3.
"Those were our first real goal-line reps of the year," Whitworth said. "It started at the 3 and it's the worst-case scenario. You're close enough to where you can't do a lot of things and you have to line up on the goal line and get it in. We expect to get it in from there. It's been something we've been really good at. It's something we've always been really good at. It's just something we'll look at the tape and figure out a way to get it done."
That's the bottom line for this team that refuses to do anything easy, but always seems to win when it plays ugly on offense and pretty on defense. The Bears came in averaging 166 yards per game on the ground in their first two pre-season games. They left PBS with 67 and two of the Bengals' best run-stuffers, tackles Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims, didn't play because of injuries. Talk about complementary football, the Bengals kept the ball for 9:11 for the first drive. When they grind, they win.
Cincinnati Bengals host Chicago Bears in preseason week 3 08/29/2015
"Geno (Atkins) and I were talking about how the offense was on the field for almost the entire first quarter," said nose tackle Domata Peko. "You love that as a defense. We feed off of each other. I'm excited about our team. We need to keep grinding and keep getting better."
The third pre-season game is supposed to be the closest thing to the real deal, so offensive coordinator Hue Jackson flashed just enough of his playbook to get the Raiders thinking.
He ran out his extra tackle package early. He also split his tackles to the hash mark for one play and saw Dalton scoot for seven yards up the middle off a read option. He not only put running back Rex Burkhead in the slot, Jackson also put running back Jeremy Hill in the slot on the same play.
"You never want to go out like we did in Tampa," said wide receiver Marvin Jones. "If that had been today, that would have stunk. We feel good just about the success in the game in all phases. We were sharp. That's how you want to go out in the preseason. This was a great way to transition into Oakland."
They're feeling good because this certainly isn't the way they came out of Indy in last year's Wild Card Game. Just look at running back Rex Burkhead, an emergency receiver in that game. Now he's a regular slot receiver and on Saturday he showed the depth of Dalton's weapons.
Not only can linebackers not cover Burkhead (he singed inside backer Shea McClellin for a 10-yard gain), but safeties can't either because on the next snap he made a leaping 25-yard catch battling with safety Adrian Amos.
"Rex is a talented guy. He is real versatile and we can move him around and put him in different spots," Dalton said. "With the personnel and
the stuff we had going, he was able to make some big plays. He
is a nice luxury to have."
They almost had as much fun on defense. Left end Carlos Dunlap almost never cuts inside his man, but he froze right tackle Charles Leno this cut and Dunlap sacked Cutler.
"We have games, but that wasn't one," Dunlap said. "Domata saw me and went around me.
"That's pretty good," said Dunlap, when informed they forced four punts on the first four drives. "That's great being able to come back from Tampa like that…Today the young guys stepped up. They look like they can help us. I'm excited about those guys. (The starters) have to continue to do that. We can't be spotty. Today was good to build on. But we still have work to do."
Wide receiver A.J. Green, who went into Oakland with two catches for 19 yards from McCarron, still thinks about Tampa.
"We feel good, but we still have a lot of work to do. Not just a little," Green said. "We're the same team that got our butts kicked Monday night in Tampa. We have to keep our head down and keep grinding."
But on Saturday night, the gears looked to clicking smoothly.