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Bengals Find Their Opening Day Defense

Battle of rookies: Pratt vs. Jacobs.
Battle of rookies: Pratt vs. Jacobs.

OAKLAND - This is how they drew it up at the beginning of the year.

Go on the road against a veteran quarterback with a big offensive line and frustrate a surly home crowd by holding the hosts to just a field goal in the second half to give the offensive plenty of chances to win.

That's what the much-maligned Bengals defense did Sunday during their last appearance in The Black Hole. But as if to underscore this season of bone-chilling uncomplementary football, the Raiders escaped with a 17-10 victory that, by all rights, the Bengals should have locked away.

This is what the Bengals defense played like in the opener, that oh-so encouraging 21-20 loss in Seattle that now seems like it was about 51 years ago when they made their first journey out here. Not the dead last group in the NFL. But on Sunday they allowed their fewest points of the year.

"I thought overall that the defense played with the energy that we've expected them to play with all year," said head coach Zac Taylor. "They were swarming to the ball which we challenged them to do as a group, rushing attack we were facing, and then they created the turnovers that really should have given us an opportunity to win the game and we just couldn't get it done."

Scraping the bottom in turnovers and sacks, the Bengals stunned the usually meticulous Raiders with both. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr came into the game with just four interceptions and none on third down, but Bengals safety Jessie Bates III got a big one on third-and-four a week after he stopped the Bengals' skein of five straight games without an interception.

"We didn't do anything different. We didn't put in any new defense or anything. I just think we played very well as a whole defense," Bates said. "We played very physical. We controlled the front. Like I said, it's a testament to us how well we can play and the potential that we have as a defense."

Nothing different.

The Raiders' new look offensive line had allowed just 12 sacks all year. The Bengals got them for a quarter of that with tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap finally combining for a sack while Atkins and Carl Lawson each got one on their own. When the dust cleared, Atkins maintained his 1.5 career sack lead over Dunlap (75.5-74) as Dunlap got in the sack column for the first time since the opener.

"We're at our best when we can put them in third-and-long so we can rush the quarterback," Dunlap said. "We got an opportunity today and you see the results. We're just going to keep doing that."

The Bengals didn't stop the run. Rookie running back Josh Jacobs went for 112 yards on 23 carries. But they controlled it on 3.3 yards per carry.

Nothing different.

"We weren't doing anything real cute," said right end Sam Hubbard. "We were just defeating blocks. One-on-one and getting knock back. Playing like a good physical front we know we are. And doing it consistently throughout."

The defensive tackles have been one of the strongest units on the team and they showed why Sunday.

"Andrew Billings, Josh Tupou. Renell (Wren), Geno," Hubbard said. "We got them into some situations where we were finally able to rush the passer."

The Bengals did it with a relatively new corps of linebackers in the first game after the cut veteran Preston Brown. Rookie Germaine Pratt filled in for Brown next to Nick Vigil and Pratt was his usual stout self against the run, although he was flogging himself for giving up a 23-yard pass to tight end Darren Waller in the last drive.

"That's on me. I gave up inside leverage," Pratt said. "(Against the run) Guys were just playing football. Flying around playing football. Running to the ball, just trying to get win."

Hubbard: "He was good. He was vocal in the huddle. I like the direction where he's headed."

Also getting more snaps at backer were Jordan Evans and Hardy Nickerson in his first game this season up from the practice squad. It marked the first multiple turnover game since Seattle with safety Jessie Bates' interception that set up a field goal and Tupou punching the ball away from rookie running Josh Jacobs in the red zone so linebacker Nick Vigil could recover to set up the touchdown.

"We worked on it all week. Ripping the ball, punching the ball. Picking the ball," Hubbard said. "To come in here to do this, I think this is something we can build on."

Tip of the hat to Hubbard. One of the guys he was working against was 6-8 right tackle Trent Brown and he hit quarterback Derek Carr twice as he was throwing along with getting a big stop of Jacobs near the goal line to keep it a one score game.

"He's definitely the biggest tackle I've ever played and you know he's the highest paid tackle for a reason," Hubbard said. "(The tackles) just played a really physical game and did a great job holding down the middle and made the job on the outside easier. But, I think we were finally able to get comfortable and cut it loose and get after the quarterback. Definitely, he was feeling our pressure. I think we played a good game and we just need to make those plays."

Carr had his moments. A week after Lamar Jackson opened the game hitting 10 straight passes, Carr hit 14 straight to start and he missed only four the entire day. But Hubbard and his mates think something may be percolating on defense.

"That's something we still need to work on, eliminating explosive plays and we're not doing that right now," said Bates after they allowed nine plays of at least 20 yards and have allowed the third most such plays in the league. "So, you know we got the turnovers, we got the sacks. Now the next thing is, is eliminating the explosive plays and continuing to stop the run."