After the starters and regulars unveiled the talents of rookie running back Joe Mixon in the first half, the Bengals flexed some depth in the second half to take a 23-12 victory over Tampa Bay in Friday night's pre-season opener at Paul Brown Stadium before 44,495.
Third-string quarterback Jeff Driskel ended nearly a year-long wait to make his Bengals debut in spectacular fashion when he led touchdown drives the first two times he touched the ball to open the second half. The first one came on an 18-yard sprint off a zone read and the second on an eight-yard pass to stretching rookie wide receiver Josh Malone cutting across the back of the end on third down.
Then his third-and-eight pass to rookie wide receiver Kermit Whitfield for 15 yards late in the game set up veteran Randy Bulllock's 49-yard field goal that kissed the left upright and went through with 2:48 left in game. When Bullock drilled the ensuing kickoff for a touchback, it went nicely with his 54-yarder in the first half in his roster duel with Jake Elliott.
Driskel, a sixth-round pick of the 49ers last year who was claimed by the Bengals on waivers on Cut Down day, hit his first seven passes for 82 yards and added 36 yards on his first three carries in the third quarter to stake the Bengals to a 20-12 lead. Driskel, who passed for 21 TDs and rushed for 14 in his career at Florida, ran one in off a deft fake and then spun away from defensive end Channing Ward as he danced down the left sideline.
The backup offensive line, anchored up the middle by center T.J. Johnson and guards Alex Redmond and Christian Westerman, gave running back Tra Carson room to run for 33 yards on seven carries.
The Bengals second-line defense was superb as the Bucs couldn't stop defensive Chris Smith rushing off the edge and tackle DeShawn Williams added a few stops and knocked down a pass. When old, old friend 35-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick got the ball at the Cincinnati 21 on a punt return out of the end zone, rookie safety Demetrious Cox, undrafted out of Michigan State, made an athletic catch going to his knees and made an even more athletic 37-yard run on the return.
Mixon lived up to his billing when his running and receiving set up field goals by both kickers, but the Bengals still trailed the Buccaneers, 9-6, at halftime.
The half's lone touchdown came courtesy, of all people, Fitzpatrick, a 35-year-old backup who walked into the end zone on a six-yard touchdown scramble when the Bengals back-up defensive line got washed away in its running lanes.
Mixon, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma, had one catch for 11 yards on two missed tackles that set up Bullock's 54-yard field goal. He added 31 rushing yards on six carries as the offensive line looked to hold its own, except on a few running plays. His 13-yard bolt up the middle set up Elliott's 45-yard field goal.
Quarterback Andy Dalton threw a rare red-zone interception at the Tampa Bay goal line to spoil the Bengals' first drive of the season despite Dalton hitting his first four passes for 38 yards.
"We moved the ball really well rushing and passing," Dalton said. "It felt good to get back out there in a game situation, but you don't like to turn the ball over, especially on the goal line. I just wish I could have that last play back."
Facing a third down from the Tampa 5, Dalton tried to hit wide receiver Brandon LaFell on an out pattern on the right side, but cornerback Vernon Hargreaves stretched out and picked it off at the 1 before going out of bounds. It was LaFell that converted a third-and-three moments earlier to put the ball on the Tampa 13 when Dalton spread the field with five receivers (running back Jeremy Hill was wide) and found LaFell in the slot for 13 yards easily winning his matchup against linebacker Lavonte David.
Dalton's only drive of the night was still pretty impressive. He had plenty of time back there behind the offensive line that helped Hill rush six times for 22 yards as he cashed a third-and-one and broke one for nine yards up the middle. Mixon's first carry, a springy five-yarder up the middle, netted another first down. Add two balls to wide receiver A.J. Green for 21 yards (one off a nicely executed screen fueled by a block from wide receiver Tyler Boyd), and it was a nice set until the pick.
The first offensive line went back out there for backup quarterback Andy Dalton on the next series and got the 53-yarder from Bullock that tied the game at 3 with 9:12 left in the first half.
McCarron got a leaping 17-yard catch over the middle from wide receiver Cody Core to ignite the drive after fullback Ryan Hewitt got called for a face-mask penalty on the first play. Boyd got the first down on third-and-three stretching for a ball and then it was the Mixon show.
The crowd really got into his 11-yard gain on a dump pass in the flat. He put on a couple of moves that left safety Justin Evans annd linebacker Cameron Lynch in the dust with missed tackles.
They wanted Mixon to get work with the first line, which worked out well since it played for the entire first half as they try to answer some questions. It featured Trey Hopkins at right guard and Westerman replaced left guard Clint Boling for the last drive of the half.
Mixon got that hurry-up drive going with three minutes left on that 13-yard run where he patiently made a cut into the middle and easily accelerated into the second level. A roughing the passer penalty put the Bengals in great shape at the Tampa 35 with 1:52 left. But bad blocking up the middle resulted in Mixon losing a yard and they had to rely on Elliott kicking that 45-yarder with 1:08 left in the half that made it 9-6.
The Bengals defense got off to a shaky start even though the Bucs started sat their own 6, thanks to a penalty and linebacker Bryson Albright's tackle.
But quarterback Jameis Winston chewed up the Bengals with the big play a 29-yard strike to 6-5 Mike Evans easily getting position on cornerback Darqueze Dennard down the sideline to key a drive lasting 6:19 that opened the preseason with Roberto Aguayo's 20-yard field goal for Tampa's 3-0 lead.
Winston, who hit his first four passes and five of eight in the drive with nary any pressure on him, converted a huge 3rd-and-8 from the Bengals 16 when the pass rush lost contain and allowed Winston to sprint out and hit wide receiver DeSean Jackson all alone in the middle of a zone for 12 yards.
"They moved the ball on us, but we held them in the red zone when it counted," said left end Carolos Dunlap. "That's something to build on, and something to take pride in. We'll live with that, but we'll fix it, clean up the mistakes and not give up as many yards moving forward."
Cornerback Adam Jones gave his club a lift. He didn't start the game, so Dennard and William Jackson could get some work. But when they went nickel late in the drive, Dennard moved into the slot and Jones was on Evans on the outside and Jones was draped all over Evans in one-on-one coverage for incompletions on second and third down in the end zone to set up the field goal.
The Bengals had a little trouble getting some ballast against the run as the Bucs averaged 4.1 yards per 17 carries in the half as the backups looked to take over the second quarter, when third-round pick Jordan Willis got a sack at defensive end. "I thought our team did OK. Our first-team offense looked sharp and crisp overall," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "But defensively, we are going to have to do better tackling the ball carrier and holding our opponents on third-downs."
PRE-GAME HITS: The Bengals unveiled a new look secondary before Friday night's pre-season opener against Tampa Bay at Paul Brown Stadium when back-up cornerbacks William Jackson and Darqueze Dennard and back-up safety Clayton Fejedelem were expected to start.
Dennard and Jackson are dueling to see which one replaces Adam Jones in the Opening Day lineup when Jones serves his one-game NFL suspension. Jackson, the first-round pick who missed all last season with a shoulder injury, is making his NFL debut at left corner in place of Dre Kirkpatrick. Dennard, the 2014 first-round pick who has been saddled by injuries in his first three seasons, goes in place of Jones on the right.
Jones is expected to play at some point Friday, but the Bengals apparently want to make sure they see Jackson and Dennard work against the best receivers. Kirkpatrick isn't expected to play even though he hasn't missed any time in training camp with the hand he broke back in May. But indications are they want to protect him and this way the kids get to test their mettle against Tampa's highly-regarded receiver tandem of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson.
Fejedelem, a second-year player who played sparingly from scrimmage as a rookie, got the start with George Iloka close to returning with a hyperextended knee.
The Bengals are also looking to protect running back Giovani Bernard in his supersonic rehab from reconstructive ACL surgery, so they sat him Friday night even though he's looked terrific in training camp.
As expected, tight end C.J. Uzomah (ankle), who may be out a month, was scratched. So was first-round pick John Ross (shoulder), who may be fully cleared in time to play in third pre-season game in Washington. Running back Cedric Peerman (hamstring), who has yet to practice, was scratched as well as rookie safety Brandon Wilson (knee), shelved virtually since he arrived in the sixth round out of Houston. Also out with injuries are cornerback Tony McRae and defensive lineman David Dean.
With the Bengals signing punter Will Monday late in the week, he'll probably work Friday to rest Kevin Huber's leg. But Huber would still probably hold for field goals and point-after attempts.
Cincinnati Bengals host Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Paul Brown Stadium in week 1 of the preseason 8/11/2017