ATLANTA — It didn't matter which defensive unit or special teams group was in there as the Bengals flexed their top-ranked muscles in Thursday night's preseason opener here at the Georgia Dome in a 34-10 win. The 24-point margin of victory was the largest in a preseason opener in Bengals history and began the buzz about just how deep they think this roster is.
"We were talking about that on the sideline," said backup quarterback Josh Johnson, the author of exhibition history. "We have a collection of talented guys all over the roster. You can go four, five deep in some positions. The hard thing is only 53 guys make it."
With backup linebackers like rookie free-agent Jayson DiManche (a sack) and first-year man J.K. Schaffer (team-high six tackles) roaming all over, the Bengals, ranked sixth in NFL defense last year, held the Falcons to five of 15 third-down tries. When tackle Devon Still batted down a third-down pass, it set up wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher's 71-yard punt return for a touchdown that made it 27-10 with 5:39 left in the third quarter.
The Bengals, who finished first in the league's 10 major special teams categories last year, walled off the left sideline for Sanzenbacher with a new crew of rookies and backups as Schaffer blew up the first man to set up the wall. Earlier Bengals rookie free-agent kicker Quinn Sharp nailed a 47-yard field goal to extend the Bengals lead to 20-10 with 5:02 left in the third period.
After Sanzenbacher sailed up the sideline untouched, the third-year pro out of Ohio State via the Bears was just beginning. John Skelton, Cincinnati's third quarterback of the night, hit Sanzenbacher running out of the slot down the seam with a 36-yard beauty on third-and-eight that made it 34-10 with 13:49 left in the game on a play Sanzenbacher said was "the right call against the right defense," when the seam opened up on a safety rotation.
"I think the thing I feel best about is that we took care of the ball. First preseason game of the year and you don't get careless with the football," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said after his team had no turnovers. "Overall I was pleased. On defense we (played well) on the line and that's a good thing. Being in the right coverage position. We just have to play the ball in the air better. I thought special teams did a nice job throughout the night."
But the Bengals couldn't escape the injury bug that has saddled the NFL early this preseason when rookie offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson was carted off with a left ankle injury with 7:30 left in the game. It looked like he got it rolled up on the perimeter when he got tangled up with wide receiver Taveon Rogers.
Yet Lewis, calling it a sprain, said he'll miss time but that it's not serious. That would be a tough loss because Hawkinson was projected to be a backup at both guard and tackle. And on Thursday night he played left guard before he got hurt at left tackle.
With the unknowns leading the offense behind Johnson's 21-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Tate and rookie running back Giovani Bernard's one-yard touchdown surge on fourth down with two seconds left in the first half, the defense turned out the lights in Georgia with a 17-3 lead. The first defense stoned Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the red zone to force Matt Bryant's 37-yard field goal and the backups kept swarming to blunt the Falcons on six of the first eight third downs. DiManche came up with a sack and backup cornerback Brandon Ghee had an interception while second-rounder Margus Hunt and DeQuin Evans chased Falcons No. 2 quarterback Dominique Davis out of bounds.
But the Bengals first offense struggled in quarterback Andy Dalton's two series. They featured plenty of double tight-end sets with Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, but couldn't overcome offensive line penalties on each drive that ended in Kevin Huber punts.
While the defense stuffed the Falcons on their first four third-down chances, Dalton couldn't convert third-and-12 and third-and-20 plays after penalties.
Cincinnati's first drive of the season snagged when left guard Clint Boling moved as the play clock ran out on third-and-seven, and on third-and-12 wide receiver Ryan Whalen fell down as he was about to complete his route and the ball fell for an incompletion.
Then on the second drive, Eifert made his first catch as a pro running in the flat for a two-yard gain that would have made it third-and-six. But center Kyle Cook was called for hands to the face and when Bernard couldn't get out on a screen pass, Dalton threw it away to make it third-and-20. He threw it to Bernard over the middle and he had some running room but slipped on his cut to end the gain at 16 yards.
Dalton wasn't down, but upbeat about the flashes he saw from Bernard and Eifert.
"If Ryan doesn't slip, we get that first down and if Gio doesn't slip on his cut we pick up that first down," Dalton said. "It's good to what he can do after he catches it. We had two series. We got a couple of first downs. Obviously you'd like to drive down and score, but we can't have the penalties."
Tight end Jermaine Gresham looked sharp in the double-tight sets, catching two balls for first downs and was wide open on each. On the first one Dalton (3-for-7, 37 yards) rolled toward him in the flat for a 10-yard gain. On the second one Gresham, lined up next to Eifert, released quickly and Dalton hit Gresham right away for 11 yards.
Johnson was terrific. His 43-yard scramble set up Mike Nugent's tying 32-yard field goal with 10:39 left in the half. He gave the Bengals a 10-3 lead with 7:38 left when he threaded a bullet to Tate off play-action between safety Charles Mitchell and cornerback Robert McClain. It was set up on a 31-yard pass interference penalty when McClain was called for manhandling Bengals rookie wide receiver Cobi Hamilton on a pass down the sideline.
"I was impressed overall with what (Johnson) did out there," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "We know he can make plays with his legs, but throwing the ball is how a quarterback has to make a living in this league, and it was a real nice play to Brandon Tate."
Johnson worked into the second half and when Skelton came on in the last minute of the third quarter Johnson was finished with 9-of-16 passing for 100 yards.
"I was happy with that throw, and that's a play where you can chalk it all up to trust," Johnson said of the TD to Tate. "I was going to work strong side, but I saw the safety take a step in. I have a loto f trust in my receivers of beating the corner and when the safety slid in just enough, I felt like I could squeeze it in there. Tate did a great job holding the corner off. He settled in the hole right and I was able to put it on him."
Johnson performed in front of the head coach that drafted him in the fifth round in Tampa Bay five years ago, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden. Jon's brother, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was on that staff and is the reason Johnson is here. Johnson and Jon Gruden visited Wednesday at the Bengals hotel and Johnson clearly got a kick playing well in front of him. Not to mention the nation.
"It was good to see his face. I really appreciate him. He taught me a lot of football," Johnson said. "Unfortunately he's not coaching. We'd like to see him coaching. But Jay's doing a great job." Ghee's interception with Hunt and Evans in hot pursuit came at the Bengals 49 with 2:24 left in the half and set up what amounted to a successful two-minute drill.
"The quarterback just rolled out and gave me a gift. I give a lot of credit to coach (defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer) for the call," said Ghee, savoring a sweet moment after missing all last season with a broken wrist. "But for me, it has been a year and some change off. So it feels great to get out there and make a play."
But Ghee couldn't savor it for long. He left late in the third quarter with a head injury after making a tackle.
Johnson, who hit six of 11 passes for 71 yards in the first half, threw a great ball to Whalen on the sideline on third-and-14 for a 24-yard gain that gave the Bengals a first down at the 9 with 38 seconds left.
The Bengals were content to give it to Bernard on the last two plays for six yards as the clock ticked. He almost punched in a draw on third down, but on fourth down followed the power play on blocks by fullback John Conner and Hawkinson pulling from left guard. Lewis said if it was a real game and a tight one, he would have gone for it. Bernard wasn't surprised.
"Got to be a football player," he said. "They want to go for it so you've got to be the man to step up."
The Bengals put Bernard on display with 14 first-half touches. He had 28 yards on 10 carries, 16 yards on three catches and a 10-yard punt return.
When he came out of the game, the Bengals proceeded to pound out the clock with their last two sixth-rounders and they delivered. Rookie Rex Burkhead got the call first and ran as advertised with a tough and sleek 52 yards on nine carries and it could have been more but a seven-yarder was wiped out by penalty. Daniel Herron followed it up with 30 yards on eight carries.
The Bengals first defense picked up where it left off in last season and lowered its head on third-and-two in the red zone when left end Robert Geathers and tackle Geno Atkins mauled 10,000-yard back Steven Jackson for a three-yard loss back to the 19 to force Bryant's field goal with 10:48 left in the first quarter that gave Atlanta a 3-0 lead.
The Falcons got down there when Ryan made the Bengals pay for cornerback Leon Hall's blitz out of the slot and he flicked a screen where Hall would have been. When wide receiver Drew Davis got a block on the perimeter on cornerback Adam Jones, wide receiver Harry Douglas went off on 42-yard play.
The defense gave Ryan nothing on the next series. Still came off the bench to stop Jackson for a three-yard pickup and when the Falcons finally tried the outside, safety Reggie Nelson came up to push him out of bounds for no gain. On third-and-seven Ryan took a shot at Douglas, but last year's 69-percent passer overthrew him with Hall draped all over him.
The Bengals struggled up front with the flags. Five of the eight flags thrown were on the offensive line.