After watching their best player walk to the locker room on the first series and three more starters leave for the rest of the game during the first half, the Bengals dug deep on Bloody Sunday and offered one of the more impressive efforts of the Marvin Lewis Era as they took a 24-10 victory over the Falcons in the Paul Brown Stadium opener before 58,574.
While the defense stoned the NFL's best offense in what has become a typical PBS suffocation job on three interceptions (two by safety George Iloka), an undermanned offense responded with a punishing running game and another resourceful effort from quarterback Andy Dalton as the offense had no sacks and no turnovers for the second straight week. They went to 2-0 for the first time since 2006 with a franchise-tying 10th straight regular-season victory at home.
By the time left tackle Andrew Whitworth limped off the field with 12:43 left in the game with a lower leg bruise, the Bengals had rolled up 447 yards with 147 coming on the ground from the emerging running back 1-2 punch of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
Whitworth came back, but also declared out at that point was Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict with a stinger after he oversaw a defense that kept the Falcons out of the end zone until 8:35 left a week following a 37-point outburst against New Orleans.
The Bengals cooled off a red-hot offense when they took a 10-3 half-time lead by holding Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to 33 yards passing by the time he got the ball with 2:06 left in the half.
But the Bengals, who not only lost three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green on the first series with an injured right toe, saw tight end Alex Smith (bicep) and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (knee) leave for the rest of the game early in the second quarter.
And when right guard Kevin Zeitler led Bernard into the end zone on a leaping four-yarder with 2:11 left in the first half for a 10-3 half-time lead, Zeitler went into the locker room for good with a calf injury.
Yet the second half belonged to the Bengals. Until Ryan hit wide receiver Julio Jones for a 14-yard touchdown pass with 8:35 left in the game that made it 24-10. Atlanta got a life when cornerback Adam Jones was called for a hold on third-and-18.
Running back Cedric Peerman then recovered an on-side kick at the Bengals 41.
Before then, everyone stepped up. Early in the second half Bernard helped pick up an all-out blitz on third-and-six and Dalton hit wide receiver Mohamed Sanu in stride over the middle as he beat cornerback Robert Alford. There was nobody behind Alford and Sanu was off on a 76-yard touchdown play less than three minutes into the second half that made it 17-3.
On the next snap, Burfict tipped Ryan's pass in coverage and cornerback Leon Hall made a diving interception at the Falcons 43. Dalton got a big 19-yard gain from tight end Jermaine Gresham as he muscled the ball away from coverage over the middle, Dalton then sifted an eight-yard pass to Sanu working on Alford on the left sideline on third-and-five at the Falcons 10.
From there it was Hill banging his way to his first NFL touchdown on the next three snaps, the last one a one-yarder where offensive coordinator Hue Jackson went out of the box in the box. He moved left guard Clint Boling to right tackle and right tackle Andre Smith to left guard and put nose tackle Domata Peko at fullback and Hill roared in behind Peko to make it 24-10 with 6:28 left in the third quarter.
Bernard racked up 90 yards on 27 carries and Hill added 74 more on 15 carries as the Bengals had their biggest rushing day since a November, 2012 victory over Oakland with 170 yards. Dalton went three figures with a 116.6 passer rating and bested Ryan's 48.6
It was bloody and ugly. Mike Nugent, who made five field goals during the win in Baltimore last week, missed three straight, the last from 55 yards away when the Falcons had to be called back from walking to the locker room when the Bengals were awarded a timeout with a second left in the half.
It left the Bengals gulping for air when it came to receivers. Coming into the game they were already without their other starting wide receiver, Marvin Jones, as well as tight end Tyler Eifert. Plus, Alex Smith is a highly-regarded blocker.
So the Bengals really had no choice but to run the ball and run it they did behind the marvelous Bernard and the blossoming Hill. But it was a great play by Bernard in the passing game that set up the touchdown. With Dalton about to get sacked, he dumped it off to Bernard in the middle of the field and he veered to the left sideline where he went off on a 46-yard play punctuated by a hellacious cut back to put the ball on the Falcons 30.
Bernard and Hill did the rest as Bernard finished the half with 80 yards on three catches and 52 yards on 16 rushes. Hill took the next two carries up the gut for a total of 26 yards as the Bengals ended up pounding it six straight times to get the touchdown.
Hill ended the half with 39 yards on five carries for a whopping 7.8 average. Dalton's best wide receiver was Dane Sanzenbacher with two catches for 42 yards as he finished the half with a 92.4 passer rating on nine of 15 for 145 yards.
The Bengals jumped to a 3-0 lead in a grinding but costly opening drive that saw Green go to the locker room with the right toe injury that took him out of practice earlier in the week.
Green came back to the bench just as the Falcons' Matt Bryant hit a 46-yard field goal to tie at 3 with 1:08 left in the first quarter, but he was declared out for the rest of the game.
So Hue Jackson went right to his gadgets. He ran an end-around to Sanu and for the third time in his NFL career he threw a down-field strike. This one was a 50-yard beauty down the right sideline to wide receiver Brandon Tate, but again the Bengals could do nothing in the red zone and Nugent nudged a 38-yarder wide right early in the second quarter.
The usually reliable Nugent blew another one on the next drive when he pulled a 49-yarder wide left. So by the time Dalton got the ball at his own 9 with 7:31 left in the first half of a 3-3 game, he was looking at a Falcons defense now crowding the box as they smelled blood against a reduced offense.
On the previous drive Dalton made a great play in the face of blitzing cornerback Marcus Trufant. At the last instant he side-armed a shovel pass to Bernard and he took off a on a 24-yard ramble that included a hurdle.
The Bengals went 13 plays, but didn't score in the red zone for the third straight time to open the season and got Nugent's 31-yard field goal with 5:19 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals came out and pounded it on the first series. Bernard led the way with 22 yards on five carries and Hill picked up 18 yards on a dump pass out of the back field when he made safety William Moore miss in the midde of the field.
Hill added a nine-yard burst up the middle behind the pulling Boling, but the drive stalled when Dalton had Sanzenbacher open on third down in the end zone but couldn't keep the ball in play.
Sanzenbacher had a nice run-and-catch over the middle for 26 yards on the last drive of the half to get to the Falcons 32. But he was called for a hold on the next play as they tried to set up a screen to Sanu and Nugent was backed up.
The Bengals defense was immense, basically mothballing the Atlanta offense that motored for more than 500 yards the week before. But they got the PBS treatment and managed just 98 first-half total yards with Ryan, last week's 448-yard man, throwing for just 60 in the half and 231 for the game. In typical home fashion, they held Atlanta to one of six third downs after holding foes to 23 percent in eight PBS games last year. They finished the game at 25 percent in holding Atlanta to 3-for-12.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther tried a variety of pressures and had success using lineman Robert Geathers at times as a blitzing linebacker. Carlos Dunlap got a sack when Ryan tripped over running back Steven Jackson and was all over the place in straight four-man rushes. Iloka contributed by wrenching a pass away from Julio Jones in the end zone to go along with his two interceptions.
But the key was holding the Falcons to yards after catch by the exhaustive cornerbacks.
The Bengals certainly had sure tackling on that first drive from their cornerbacks with Adam Jones dropping wide receiver Devin Hester for a two-yard gain in the flat and Terence Newman coming up on third-and-12 and holding wide receiver Harry Douglas to five yards. It was the first third down of the day and the Bengals blitzed both and Ryan had to unload it quickly.
For the game, three of their five top tacklers were cornerbacks with Newman (six), Hall (three) and Jones (two).
PREGAME NOTES: With Pro Bowl WII linebacker Vontaze Burfict cleared from a concussion for Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium opener against the Falcons, the Bengals were at full strength defensively against the NFL's No. 1 offense.
First-round pick Darqueze Dennard figured to make his NFL debut at some point playing backup cornerback against Atlanta's fleet of fleet receivers. But his most important job is teaming with another backup cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick at gunner as they play the prime position in the effort to stop punt return great Devin Hester. Hester comes into PBS with 13 punt return touchdowns, most on the active list.
Dennard missed his first game last week with a hip injury. Also expected to make his NFL debut is wide receiver James Wright, out last week with a concussion. With five wide receivers now healthy, the Bengals opted to sit G-T Tanner Hawkinson and go with seven offensive lineman.
They decided to go with an extra defensive lineman and one less offensive lineman, probably the product of their desire to get pressure on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. The extra guy is defensive tackle Devon Still, signed from the practice squad on Wednesday. Still's strength is as an inside pass rusher.
Also inactive were G-C T.J. Johnson, linebacker Sean Porter, wide receiver Marvin Jones, running back Rex Burkhead, and rookie defensive end Will Clarke.
The Bengals clearly needed their offense to keep pace with Ryan's hurry-up offense and that is what head coach Marvin Lewis may have had in mind when he introduced his offense to begin the day in their all-white uniforms. The Bengals won the toss and deferred.