Tyler Kroft had a career day Sunday.
CLEVELAND - The Bengals kept their season beating Sunday when quarterback Andy Dalton cut the heart out of Cleveland's Cover Two zone with an 83 percent scalpel that fashioned the Bengals' first win of the season over the downtrodden Browns, 31-7.
But then, this was the Downtrodden Bowl because who ever lost would be 0-4 and downtrodden and who ever won would be 1-3 and revived. With teams digging into play Cover Two against an offensive line rotating like its preseason, Dalton revived them with his most accurate passing day ever, that 83 percent on 25 of 30 passing. With the Browns dropping rookie safety Jabrill Pepper miles off the line to help their Joe Haden-less corners, Dalton racked up 286 yards with his first four-touchdown game since 2013.
It was the first time they had scored 30 points in a game in nearly a year, since Oc. 23 and, yes, against these Browns in a 31-17 win.
The longest pass Dalton tried Sunday was a go route to wide receiver Brandon LaFell and when it fell incomplete it stopped his completion streak at 16. But his 22-yard dart to tight end Tyler Kroft up the seam converted a third-and-15 and changed a game the Bengals led just 7-0 late midway in the second quarter.
"The first three games I couldn't tell you if we were a spread team, a pound-the-ball team," LaFell said. "But now … our quick game is kind of our M.O. That's what has been getting us going. When we get in trouble we go to the quick game. … For the last two weeks it's been working so no reason to change."
With the Bengals running game mired at 3.3 yards per carry and the offensive line responding to inconsistent pass protection with a rotation at tackle, Cover Two has been difficult to conquer.
"When you don't beat (Cover Two) early in the season, that's all you're going to face," LaFell said. "We've been seeing it every week. There's a lot of space. There's a lot of check downs. It's hard to throw the ball down the field. But we completed a lot of balls in the seam to the tight ends today. Hopefully we can beat more Cover Two and they start playing different coverages and we can throw the ball down the field."
In order to do that they need a tight end and with the status of Tyler Eifert (back) in doubt, Tyler Kroft did on Sunday what they hoped he would do when they drafted him in the third round out of Rutgers in 2015. He's a red-zone threat in his own right and on Sunday he had his first two TD game in college or the pros.
"He's been paying well for us. That's something he can do," Dalton said. "Getting some quick completions and letting our guys have the ball in space is what we're good at. We've got guys that can make guys miss and get positive gains, so that's definitely a part of it … "Anytime you're gaining yards it's big. If you can get a quick completion that turns into a more than a few yard gain, it goes a long way.
"I feel like I got into a good rhythm and was seeing things well. I was able to get the ball to different guys and felt like I was in a good rhythm today."
Kroft had a career day all the way around with a team-leading six catches for 68 yards and woke up the echoes of Notre Dame's Eifert with scoring catches of three and 16 yards for a team that had just two red zone TDs all year.
But it was the 22-yard catch on third down that was the talker with 5:17 left in the first half and the Bengals up, 7-0. The Bengals had just given up another sack on first down, their second of the game, and it came up the middle as the Bengals tried to adjust to the momentary loss of right guard T.J. Johnson. Then Dalton had to scramble on second down. Third-and-15 and Dalton went down the seam.
"Because of the way the safeties were playing," Kroft said, "I knew if I could beat the linebacker Andy would be able to get it to me."
Dalton was now in rhythm. They were chewing up yards and time on a drive that would consume 7:28. He hit wide receiver A.J. Green in stride on a simple slant that was about 20 yards after the catch good for 25 yards and on second down from the 3 he found Kroft in the middle of a zone.
"I felt the defender inside me," Kroft said. "I knew if Andy was going to get it to me it would be on the outside shoulder and that's what he did."
It was Kroft's second NFL TD catch, but first from Dalton. His second one from Dalton was the only touchdown of the second half and marked the first time since maybe high school he had two in a game. It came, naturally, down the seam, off a play-action fake and Kroft climbed the ladder over the backers down the middle at the goal line.
"It's awesome. It's hard to score touchdowns, it's hard to win games," Kroft said.
It's not hard if you're running back Giovani Bernard. After scoring on the longest catch of his career from 61 yards out with 47 seconds left in the half and basically ended it, somebody asked him if he'd ever been that wide open.
"Yeah, last week," Bernard said of his wide open six-yard TD in Green Bay. "The guys did a good job - Russell - (center Bodine) getting down there."
If there's anybody who is the personification of the Yard After Catch on this offense and finding check-down creases in Cover 2 it is Bernard. He praised offensive coordinator Bill Lazor with not only the perfect call, a screen pass into a vacated area of a blitz, but also for going back to a play they ran unsuccessfully in the first quarter.
In fact, it was such a brutal play that it was Dalton's only incompletion for the first 32 minutes of the game. With pressure in his face and Bernard covered, Dalton sailed the screen over Bernard's head.
"That time he was covered," Dalton said. "The (TD) he wasn't covered. That was the only difference."
Even the big play Green (five catches, 63 yards) can eat in the red zone against Cover Two. From the Browns 7, Lazor put Green in the slot and when the Browns blitzed, that left Peppers one-on-one with Green. No contest as Green ran down Dalton's touch pass racing past Peppers to the left corner. For the second straight week, Green was the only wide receiver with a play of plus-20 and it was only one.
"I'm hoping they'll start playing different coverages and we can get the ball down field," said LaFell, knowing the quick game will force them to. "Instead of all these 10- and 12-play drives this year and get some three- and four- play drives like we did last year."
But they'll take it. The quick game has quickly given them an identity.
Cincinnati Bengals take on the Cleveland Browns in week 4 of the regular season.