PHOENIX, Ariz. - The Bengals found an old friend Sunday night at University of Phoenix Stadium and forged a 13-3 half-time lead over the Cardinals when cornerback Terence Newman picked off Carson Palmer and took it 54 yards for a touchdown with 6:43 left in the first quarter.
When Mike Nugent kicked a 36-yard field goal with three seconds left in the half, that was it for the first teams. It was left for the Bengals backups to gouge out a 19-13 victory. Quinn Sharp's 51-yarder with 5:29 left brought the Bengals to the doorstep of their first preseason victory of the year. Last season the Bengals won every game they scored one of their six defensive touchdowns and after a third straight solid preseason outing it looks like the first-team defense is headed back that way. They continued their dominant play this preseason and allowed only a field goal for the third straight week. The half ended with the Bengals' first-teamers holding a 40-9 edge of their pre-season foes.
And Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict left after the series with a hamstring injury that is probably going to keep him out of Thursday's preseason finale so he'll be ready for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener in Baltimore.
They stoned another old friend, Palmer, on a 31 passer rating in the half after he came in sifting people at a 137 clip and had directed two touchdown drives in the previous two games. But he completed just seven of 19 passes for 92 yards against the Bengals.
"It means something to me, for emotional reasons I guess," said cornerback Leon Hall of playing Palmer. "But really, I'd feel almost the same way regardless who we were playing. This was what they call the dress rehearsal game, where you get to play a lot of snaps, and you want to show up well. I feel like, at least a little bit, this builds some momentum for us for Baltimore."
The Bengals special teams (three more penalties in the first half after five last week) did them no favors for the offense with some horrendous field position and the offense sputtered until they get off the deck on their last two drives of the first half. They drove for two Nugent field goals despite drives that started from their 7 and 4, respectively.
"We got a lot of work for our offense in backed-up situations because of the penalties we drew on special teams," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "That's not exactly what you want, but the offense perked up in the second quarter and moved the ball well. On defense, we had some negative plays, but overall, the effort — and of course the point total — was what you are looking for."
The Bengals didn't allow a point Sunday until 18 minutes into the game on a chip-shot field goal set up by poor offense and Kevin Huber's 35-yard punt coming out of his own end zone.
But they made a nice stand from their 6, where on second down linebacker Emmanuel Lamur came up the middle to pressure Palmer into an incompletion. Then on third down cornerback Adam Jones had wide receiver John Brown blanketed on a fade into the left corner.
On the previous series before Newman's interception, Palmer slightly overthrew wide receiver Michael Floyd in the end zone when he ran by Newman and on the next snap Palmer forced a punt when he had Floyd wide open by five yards and overthrew it.
On the interception, Hall passed off Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to Newman in a zone and Palmer thought Fitzgerald was going to stop. But he kept going deep and Palmer threw it right to Newman short.
On the next series Palmer did exploit a blitz when Fitzgerald knifed inside Newman and Palmer got rid of it quickly and was rewarded with Fitzgerald's 43-yard catch-and-run that featured his stiff arm of Newman.
But the defense stiffened against the run and on third down safety Reggie Nelson in the middle of an active night made a diving break up of what would have been a first down and Jay Feeley missed a 48-yard field goal with about three minutes left in the first quarter.
Two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins made his first appearance since tearing his ACL on Halloween and rotated with Brandon Thompson.
On that first drive that jump-started their offense with 1:56 left in the first quarter, wide receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu exhibited nice yards after catch. Sanu racked up 18 on the first play from the 7 on a quick throw outside and later in the drive Green skittered for 21 yards on a hitch when he ran away from cornerback Patrick Peterson.
The Bengals also got a lift from rookie running back Jeremy Hill as the second-rounder took his first snaps with the first team. On a night the Bengals could barely sled in the running game (41 yards on 15 carries in the half), Hill promptly converted a third-and-one for five yards running behind rookie fullback Ryan Hewitt. On third-and 10, quarterback Andy Dalton found Sanu over the middle for a 13-yard gain that kept it going at the Bengals 39.
It was a gutty night by Dalton, who had miserable down and distance to go along with the abysmal field position. The big thing is he didn't have a turnover (the first team offense still doesn't have one this year) and he made some big throws backed up. He finished the half with a solid 84.8 rating on 13 of 21 for 157 yards and the difference in the first half? Palmer gave it up with the pick and Dalton didn't.
What Lewis didn't like is they became field goal drives and not touchdown drives because of holding calls
A holding call on left tackle Andrew Whitworth stopped the drive after 13 plays and 68 yards and Nugent's 48-yard field made it 10-3 with 5:55 left in the half.
The defense then forced a three-and-out when Nelson blitzed and defensive end Carlos Dunlap dropped in coverage to force an incompletion to running back Andre Ellington on third-and-six.
Adam Jones waved off the ensuing punt and it rolled to the 4, where Green started the drive with a marvelous leaning-back catch for 13 yards on a ball thrown slightly behind him. Hill, who matched his preseason average of 5.8 yards per pop on 23 yards with four carries in the half, then blasted up the middle for runs of five and 10 yards. That set up Dalton's pretty loft ball down the seam to Gresham for 33 yards. But he held on the perimeter three snaps later and Nugent had to rescue the drive on a 36-yarder with three seconds left in the half.
Green and Sanu had productive nights with Green catching five balls for 53 yards and Sanu adding five more for 70 as Dalton threw to them a total of 15 times and five to others.
As good as the Bengals first team offense looked in the first two games of the preseason, they looked as bad in the first quarter Sunday as running back Giovani Bernard had no yards on five carries and Dalton was harassed enough to be called for intentional grounding while completing four of eight passes for just 39 yards.
They could get nothing even when they put an unbalanced line right with Whitworth and Gresham flopping, but Bernard's sweep to the right was stopped for a one-yard loss by linebacker Matt Shaughnessy.
Once the first teamers exited, the Cardinals tied the game at 13 late in the third quarter on a tough back-to-back sequence for veteran cornerback R.J. Stanford. Stanford, fighting for the last cornerback spot, was called for a 35-yard pass interference penalty when wide receiver Jaron Brown got behind him. Then on the next snap wide receiver John Brown ran by him for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 1:29 left in the third quarter to tie it.
The Bengals watched their first player carted off the field in the preseason when rookie guard Trey Hopkins went down with a shin injury when he blocked on a third-and-one that running back Cedric Peerman bounced outside for the first down at the Cardinals 19 with 12:22 left in the game.
Then two snaps later, when backup quarterback Jason Campbell hit rookie wide receiver James Wright in the end zone, safety Curtis Taylor delivered an elbow shot to Wright's head that broke up the play and Wright had to be carted off with a concussion.
The third player carted off with an injury in the fourth quarter was guard-center T.J. Johnson with an uknown.
Then on third-and-six, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton dropped a first-down pass on the sideline and they had to settle for Sharp's 34-yard field goal with 11:25 left that gave the Bengals a 16-13 lead. A few minutes earlier Hamilton had made his biggest play of the preseason when he grabbed a 34-yard pass from Campbell down the middle.
On the next drive Peerman bounced another run outside after the play was jammed up in the middle and this time he veered 37 yards down the left sideline. But he injured his hip and left for the rest of the night. But it set up Sharp's 51-yarder that kept the Bengals perfect in field goal tries this season.
But Lewis would no doubt be unhappy with 11 penalties for 112 yards.
PREGAME NOTES: With running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (hip) and middle linebacker JK Schaffer (head) out of Sunday's game against the Cardinals, look for rookies Jeremy Hill and Marquis Flowers to get plenty of snaps at their respective positions.
And with Dane Sanzenbacher (head) out, rookie James Wright is also going to get a big workload at wide receiver. Wright, a seventh-round pick, may get some time in the slot, Sanzenbacher's primary spot. Hill, a second-round pick, has yet to take a handoff from first-team quarterback Andy Dalton but both head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson have said they expect him to play with the first teamers at some point.
Also looking to get a lot of time Sunday is second-year linebacker Sean Porter, but Flowers figures to spend a lot the backup time in the middle while Porter plays outside. Porter, who has played just one preseason game in his career, could get a look inside as they try to come up with a quick answer on him.
Apparently Sanzenbacher and right tackle Andre Smith failed to pass the last hurdle of their concussion protocols and were ruled out. Smith has yet to play in a game this preseason and tight end Tyler Eifert (shoulder) missed his second straight game.
Also out were rookie cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Lavelle Westbrooks with hip injuries, meaning R.J. Stanford and Chris Lewis-Harris are going to get their shots to compete for the sixth and final cornerback spot. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is back after missing last week with a hip injury.
The Bengals are down to three quarterbacks with the return of backup Jason Campbell and the de-activation of Tyler Wilson (head).
The Bengals scheduled Vontaze Burfict to start at WILL linebacker in his first appearance on the field since his four-year contract extension was announced on Wednesday. But the Bengals have yet to announce it and Burfict missed the last three practices with had been characterized as a virus.
The Bengals first teamers on both sides of the ball figure to play through at least the first half and they've had a good summer, outscoring foes 27-6. The Cardinals' first teamers have also cruised by a 24-3 count.
Lewis sent out Burfict as one of his captains, along with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, quarterback Andy Dalton, defensive tackle Domata Peko, and safety Shawn Williams.