ARLINGTON, Texas - As good and as crisp as the Bengals offense looked in last week's pre-season opener, it went the other way in Saturday's first half the Cowboys posted a 10-0 half-time lead while piling up 22 more plays than the Bengals.
But kicker Johnathan Brown pulled them within 10-3 early in the third quarter on a 55-yard field goal that would have tied the team record last set in 2012 by Mike Nugent and first by Chris Bahr in 1979.
"Third downs have been the difference in the game so far," said head coach Marvin Lewis at the half. "We didn't do a good job on defense getting stops. And on offense, we didn't convert. We need to pick up the tempo, in and out of the huddle."
Despite being on the field for more than 22 minutes, the Bengals defense played pretty solidly with the No. 1s allowing pretty much only a 17-play touchdown drive. When Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott exited with the first stringers on either side of the ball, the Bengals backup defenders overwhelmed Dallas. Rookie right end Sam Hubbard forced a fumble and Carl Lawson, one of the few starters on the field, got a sack.
You wonder what the numbers might have been if the time of possession had been sane during a first quarter the Cowboys had the ball all but 3:32. The Bengals suffered their first two three-and-outs of the season on the first two series when they couldn't get anything on the ground and quarterback Andy Dalton had to go with a play-action roll-out pass for 23 yards to tight end C.J. Uzomah to start the third drive.
But the Bengals had trouble giving Dalton time. He was 5 of 7 for just 41 yards and never seemed comfortable in the pocket. Uzomah's false start didn't help and on third-and-seven Dalton got some pressure from the edges as he overthrew A.J. Green.
It was a tough night for the Bengals' first offensive line, capped off by a grim sequence at the end of the half when running back Giovani Bernard got two yards up the middle and right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was called for a false start. Ogbuehi and right guard Trey Hopkins were taking their turns after right tackle Bobby Hart and right guard Alex Redmond worked much of the half.
Lewis, most likely not very happy, promptly sent that first line back out there in the second half. Hart had been having trouble on some rushes with left end DeMarcus Lawrence.
Running back Joe Mixon could manage just five yards on the first two plays to the right side and on third down Green broke open against cornerback Anthony Brown and Dalton had time but overthrew him. That first unit really struggled on the ground. Mixon had eight yards on four carries and take away Dalton's 13-yard scramble on third down and they had seven yards on six carries in the first half.
The next series was not good. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd, running a jet sweep to the left side, got chewed up for a three-yard loss on first down when the Bengals line couldn't fend off the linebacker. After Boyd made a great catch for five yards, Dalton got a bit of pressure from both edges and he could only get off a five-yard completion to tight end Tyler Kroft.
That opened up Dallas' massive 16-play touchdown march and the Achilles' heel was the defense's inability to keep Prescott in the pocket. On the last play, a third-and-six from the Bengals 6, defensive tackle Geno Atkins did what he does and knifed into the backfield, but Prescott was able to whirl to the edge and extend the play. He extended it so long that their best cover cornerback, William Jackson, dropped off wide receiver Terrance Williams and as Williams stepped in front of Jackson for a touchdown Jackson motioned he wanted a push-off penalty called. That gave the Cowboys a 10-0 lead with 10:47 left in the first half.
As a bow to the Bengals' pressure, Prescott got rid of the ball quickly and made hay with short throws, finishing 10 of 15 for 86 yards. On that touchdown drive they also got burned on Dallas' biggest run of the first half when running back Rod Smith burst through the middle with Preston Brown and nose tackle Chris Baker left behind on a 16-yard run
But the Bengals wanted to shut down the Cowboys' elite running game and with Dallas missing only its Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick and for the most part they did by holding the Cowboys to just 2.4 yards per rush on 17 first-half carries. Middle linebacker Preston Brown and defensive tackles Ryan Glasgow and Andrew Billings were quite active on the series and gave Smith no more than three yards on a carry.
But Smith beat Brown in coverage for a 19-yard gain pickup that put Dallas in the red zone. Still, the defense gave them nothing from there and forced Prescott into two overthrows with good coverage. Rookie safety Jessie Bates, playing with the ones, teamed with safety Shawn Williams to cover wide receiver Allen Hurns to force Dan Bailey's 35-yard field goal that gave Dallas a 3-0 lead with 6:40 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals just couldn't overcome things in the first half, like two turnovers: Boyd's lost fumble on a second strip running across the field after a catch and Driskel's underthrow interception to wide receiver John Ross on a go route down the sideline.
Lewis sent out for his captains Dalton and Green, safety Clayton Fedjelem and defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson.