ST. LOUIS — A 56-yard punt return by Brandon Tate broke open an ugly 6-6 game, setting up running back Bernard Scott's one-yard touchdown with 17 seconds remaining in the third quarter to give the Bengals a 13-6 lead, and Cincinnati held on for a 20-13 victory.
With the Bengals courting disaster at the Edward Jones Dome in a dangerous tussle with the 2-11 Rams late in the third quarter, their special teams responded when Tate's play turned the game when he bolted past Quan Cosby's single-season punt yardage record for the Bengals on the play. When Rams safety James Butler got 15 yards tacked on for a hit out-of-bounds after the play, the Bengals had the ball at the Rams 12 and then at the 1 when Scott ripped off an 11-yard run.
The Bengals then snapped that skein of failing to score touchdowns on seven straight first-and-goals when they rolled out the heavy artillery with backup tackle Dennis Roland and nose tackle Domata Peko for blocking and Scott barreled in behind Roland and left tackle Andrew Whitworth for a 13-6 lead as the third quarter was about to end.
Scott's score calmed things down enough that the Bengals immediately jacked it to 20-6 when two unsportsmanlike penalties on Rams linebacker Chis Chamberlain set up running back Cedric Benson's four-yard touchdown run to the left edge that made it 20-6 with 9:14 left in the game.
Cincinnati's day-long misery running the ball was momentarily lifted when the longest Bengals run of the day, Benson's 15-yard shot up the middle followed former Rams wide receiver Andrew Hawkins running eight yards on a reverse.
The Bengals tied the game at 6-6 on their first drive of the second half when quarterback Andy Dalton hit wide receiver Jerome Simpson on third-and-three for a 10-yard gain that set up Mike Nugent's 41-yard field goal. And rookie Ryan Whalen's first NFL catch converted a third down early in the drive.
It was tough sledding all day. On the next drive the Bengals committed two false starts (tight end Jermaine Gresham's second of three on the day) and an Anthony Collins holding call.
The defense was there though to save the day. Cornerback Nate Clements had a sack off a blitz, and on the drive with three minutes left in the game and the Rams in the red zone, defensive tackle Geno Atkins got his eighth sack of the year on third down and fourth down a safety blitz by Reggie Nelson forced quarterback Kellen Clemens to thrown an errant pass.
Benson finally got the running game untracked with 76 yards on 22 carries and Dalton hit 15 of 26 passes for 179 yards. With six catches for 115 yards receiver A.J. Green broke the Bengals rookie record with his fourth 100-yard game and he's now three yards shy of Cris Collinsworth's club record.
But how bad was that first half Sunday?
Needing one yard at the Rams 42 against the NFL's worst run defense with less than two minutes left in the first half, the Bengals offensive line and Benson got overwhelmed on third down for no gain and on fourth down for a one-yard loss.
That allowed Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens, with all of five practices with the team, to click off six plays in 51 seconds to set up Josh Brown's 43-yard field goal with 31 seconds left to give the woeful Rams a 6-3 halftime lead.
To make it even more horrific, Green, the only glimmer of offense in Cincinnati's most horrendous half of the season, left with a right shoulder injury late in the first half, but he came back for the second half.
With the offense reduced to simply throwing it deep to Green against the decimated Rams secondary, Green drew a 25-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Rod Hood, but he injured his shoulder tumbling to the turf after the play.
The first half was a miserable reaction to last week's last-second loss to the Texans. The fourth down stand gave the 2-11 Rams one field goal. A blocked punt, two weeks after a blocked field goal, gave them the other field goal. The offensive line failed to control the line of scrimmage. The one sack the Bengals allowed in the first half to left end Chris Long was a coverage sack, but the running game averaged just 1.7 yards on 14 first-half runs against a team that came in giving up five yards per carry.
And the Bengals committed five penalties in the first half.
Green picked up 30 yards on a catch-and-run screen in which he didn't need much blocking, and the Bengals survived the first fumble by a Bengals running back this season when Benson recovered his own bobble on a first-down run to the Rams 20.
But Bengals right guard Mike McGlynn, who committed a holding call in the first quarter, committed his second penalty of the day early in the second quarter on a hands-to-the-face call and Benson lost a yard on the next snap. The second-and-21 led to Dalton throwing a bad interception into the undermanned Rams secondary when cornerback Josh Gordy jumped a sideline route.
Gordy. a first-year player from Central Michigan, began this season on the practice squad and has started the last six games.
But the Bengals forced the punt when defensive tackle Jon Fanene came up the middle for his fourth sack of the season.
The Bengals offense found itself in a fog against a Rams defense that had allowed 326 points coming into the game. After Gresham committed a false start on first down coming out of a break, the Bengals had to punt from their own 18 and punter Kevin Huber nearly suffered a bad injury when rookie defensive end Robert Quinn came over the Bengals left side and partially blocked the punt that spun out to the Bengals 39.
But the only way the Rams could get into field-goal range was another Bengals mistake. The Bengals stopped St. Louis on third-and-one from the Bengals 30 but cornerback Adam Jones was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty and that led to Brown's tying 26-yard field goal.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden tried everything in his power to break a skein of six straight first-and-goal situations without a touchdown when Dalton's 55-yard bomb to an outstretched and diving Green put the Bengals right where the Rams wanted them: on the St. Louis 2.
On first down, Gruden rolled out Roland and Peko, but Benson got drilled for a loss of one over left tackle. Then on third down Green and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins started out in the backfield but ended up split wide. Dalton tried to hit Green running the right corner, but he ran out of room.
That brought on Nugent for what is becoming his specialty, a chip shot from 21 yards for a field goal that gave the Bengals a 3-0 lead seven minutes into the game.
The Rams came in as the NFL's worst team on third-down conversions and on their first one of the day, a third-and-seven, Clemens pitched to Jackson on a sweep to his left out of the shotgun and defensive tackle Geno Atkins penetrated and dragged him down to force the game's first punt. Jackson finished the half with 48 yards on 12 carries.
Dalton completed just seven of 13 passes in the half for 117 yards, 85 of them to Green. With the 55-yard catch, Green passed Eddie Brown for the second-most receiving yards by a rookie. PREGAME NOTES:With fullback Chris Pressley and backup Brian Leonard not suited up because of knee problems for Sunday's game against the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome, the Bengals figure to use their backup tight ends as fullbacks at times.
Rookie Colin Cochart and veteran Donald Lee are also expected to be a part of double tight ends package that may get more use today against a Rams defense that has shown a tendency to wear down late in games as its offense struggles. With Kellen Clemens starting Sunday in place of Rams quarterback Sam Bradford despite practicing just five times the Bengals were hoping to get plenty of possessions.
Lee got the start at fullback but both he and Cochart have lined up in off-set formations and despite his miscue that gave up a key sack and strip last week, Cochart continues to receive good reviews as a willing and improving blocker.
The big surprise was that head coach Marvin Lewis sat down slot receiver Andre Caldwell and dressed rookie receiver Ryan Whalen for just the second time this season and first time since Sept. 25. The move most likely meant that rookie Andrew Hawkins moves into the slot full time, giving the Bengals three active rookie receivers.
Caldwell has caught just two balls for 10 yards in the last two games and is averaging 8.6 yards per his 37 catches with three touchdowns. In a spot role, Hawkins, the former Ram for a day, is averaging 12 yards per his 18 catches and is looking for his first NFL touchdown.
Starter A.J. Green, with 891, is 52 yards from passing Eddie Brown for the second-most rookie receiving yards in club history with leader Cris Collinsworth 118 in the future.
With right guard Bobbie Williams out, Mike McGlynn was expected to start but rookie Clint Boling was active for the first time since the fourth game.
Right tackle Andre Smith (ankle) was inactive and, as expected, Anthony Collins drew the best Rams pass rusher, 12-sack man Chris Long. James Hall, the second-best Rams pass rusher, was inactive but rookie Robert Quinn has looked good in backup roles.
The Rams are devastated all over by injuries. On Sunday they started their seventh different offensive lne in eight games. Jason King, the fifth of their top five preseason cornerbacks, was inactive. That left Rod Hood, Josh Gordy, Nate Ness, and Chris Smith.
Hood is a veteran, but has played just six games in the past two seasons because of a knee injury. Ness, a second-year player, joined the practice squad on Oct. 30, played two games, got cut and was brought back. Smith is a rookie who didn't join the club until Nov. 20 on the practice squad, played his first NFL game last week. Gordy. a first-year player, started on the practice squad this season and has started the last five games.