Updated: 8-25-13, 12:20 a.m.
ARLINGTON, Texas — The Bengals had an uneasy first half Saturday night as their league-leading offense turned it over twice on third down that included quarterback Andy Dalton's first interception of the preseason and right tackle Andre Smith left the game with a knee injury as the Cowboys handled the Bengals in every category in a 24-18 victory. The Bengals called Smith's injury "a tweak," and after the game Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Smith suffered "a minor knee injury," and should be OK for the regular-season opener in Chicago on Sept. 8. Also, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick showed concussion-like symptoms following the game.
Lewis didn't like the scent of this one after two crisp victories to open the preseason. Not with four turnovers, seven penalties and the Cowboys converting 55 percent on third down with nine-for-16.
"Now we can quit having all that smoke puffed up our butts and get to work," Lewis said.
The first-team offense went no-huddle for Quinn Sharp's 28-yard field goal on its last drive of the night that cut the Dallas lead to 14-10 early in the third quarter. The Bengals got rookie running back Giovani Bernard's longest run of the preseason, an 18-yarder, and Dalton went play-action to generate a 26-yard gain to wide receiver A.J. Green on the drive.
Dalton and Green tried to hook up on their signature fade from the Dallas 10 as Green caught the ball over the DB and got one foot in-bounds in the corner but he couldn't get his other heel down.
"Toe-heel doesn't count," Green said. "I've got to learn to get the toe down and fall out of bounds."
On the next snap tight end Jermaine Gresham got no blocking in the flat on third-and-four for no gain and Sharp came on.
"There were some bright spots during the game," Lewis said. "We did some things well. But not enough long enough."
The Cowboys first offense scored its first two touchdowns of the season on third-down passes and took a 14-7 halftime lead as quarterback Tony Romo bedeviled the Bengals on third down, converting five of nine in the half. He finished the half 13-of-18 passing for 137 yards against the first secondary missing third cornerback Adam Jones (ribs) and quickly took advantage of his replacement, second-year man Dre Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick committed two pass interference penalties in the half (naturally on third down in sticking with the theme of the night) and on third-and-goal from the 5 when Romo floated a back-shoulder throw to wide receiver Dez Bryant, Bryant outmuscled Kirkpatrick for the touchdown that tied at seven with left 12:35 in the second quarter.
Romo, hitting his first nine passes, hooked up with Bryant early in the drive when Kirkpatrick gave him too much cushion and Bryant skated to the first down after the catch on the sidelines. Bryant didn't just dish it to Kirkpatrick. He made cornerback Leon Hall stumble on a 15-yard catch over the middle in that first touchdown drive, as well as a 15-yard slant over the middle working on cornerback Terence Newman.
"This is a good learning tool," said linebacker Vontaze Burfict. "I wouldn't say everybody was big-headed on the team but this is a good game to at least bring our ego down. We won the first two games and everyone thought this was going to be handed to us. But this is a good tape to learn off."
Bryant was immense with six catches for 54 yards, but it was wide receiver Miles Austin that strafed the Bengals in the second touchdown drive. After Kirkpatrick kept the drive alive on a pass interference penalty on a third-and-three from the 50, Austin caught a 23-yard pass on third-and-six when the Bengals ran a zone blitz and right end Michael Johnson dropped into coverage.
Then on third-and-10 from the Bengals 12, Romo stepped up in the pocket and hit Austin running across the back of the end zone with safety Taylor Mays trailing behind.
Wide receiver Brandon Tate racked up the second Bengals punt return touchdown of the preseason to stake Cincinnati to a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter. Tate made one move after he burst up the middle for five yards. He cut to the right and kept going to the sidelines and beat everyone in a 75-yard race. The play naturally came off a re-kick because Chris Jones's first punt ticked off the stadium's monstrous scoreboard.
"Darrin always tells us that nothing good happens for the punt team on a re-kick, and we made them pay," Tate said of Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. "I give all the credit to the other 10 guys out there with me. Everybody blocked it perfectly, and all I had to do was find the hole and shoot through it. Nobody really had a good shot at me."
The Bengals started Saturday night the way they've led the NFL in offense this preseason and drove the ball down the field on Dallas. But they couldn't score on the first drive when wide receiver Marvin Jones lost a fumble at the Dallas 4 after a 16-yard gain.
Dalton, completing his fourth straight third down pass dating back to last week, hit Jones on a quick square out over the middle on third-and-11. But with Jones fighting for more yards, safety Barry Church ripped it out of Jones's hands.
"I thought Andy did a good job. I thought he handled things pretty well," Lewis said. "He didn't have enough snaps in the first half so we brought hm back to get him some snaps in the third quarter and he was pretty efficient."
Dalton hit his first six passes for 54 yards, two of them to Green in his first game of the season and finished 12-of-16 for 113 yards. Green and Dalton looked to be on the same page with a crisp out route for seven yards to get a first down on second-and-six.
"I felt good. I felt 100 percent. It's great to be back out there," Green said. "It seemed like a long time since I got hurt, but I knew I'd be back in plenty of time."
When the Bengals got the ball back, they weren't nearly as crisp. Marvin Jones committed a false start and Dalton's pass over the middle to Gresham was well defended by cornerback Brandon Carr. Then on third-and-15, Dalton had time but his throw over the middle to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu was short and rookie cornerback R.W. Webb picked it off.
Dalton: "They were in two man and we tried to get a shot down the middle and to get a shot down the middle. I might have been late on it. The guy made a good play."
"We came out right away on offense and did a good job of moving the ball, but obviously the two turnovers are killers," Lewis said. "You can do a lot of good things, but turnovers will take it all away.
"Defensively, you don't want to give up the scores, but we did get to stay out there for a lot of plays. We needed that. The defensive players needed to get their wind under them. The drives were long ones, but you've got to make the play to get off the field."
Early in the second half the Bengals second-team defenders got a chance a chance to go against the bulk of the Cowboys starters led by veteran quarterback Kyle Orton. The Bengals gave up a 14-play touchdown drive that took 9:11 and was punctuated by three missed tackles by Kirkpatrick, safety Shawn Williams and linebacker J.K. Schaffer on running back DeMarco Murray's seven-yard touchdown catch-and-run that made it 21-10 early in third quarter.
Bengals backup quarterback Josh Johnson took over for Dalton at that point and engineered a 14-play, 60-yard drive capped off by a four-yard scoring pass to rookie wide receiver Cobi Hamilton. Johnson then hit wide receiver Ryan Whalen for the two-point conversion that cut the Dallas lead to 21-18 with 7:01 left.
The Cowboys responded with their own long drive (14 plays, 79 yards) that ended with a 26-yard Dan Bailey field goal that upped the Dallas lead to 24-18 with 0:52 left. Then a 53-yard Dane Sanzenbacher kickoff return that he took nine yards deep from the end zone put the Bengals in good field position at their 44-yard line. But one play later Johnson was picked off by Dallas DB Xavier Brewer and the Cowboys ran out the clock for the win that dropped the Bengals to 2-1.
Rookie end Margus Hunt came back to his college home to record his first sack in the second half, but it was a struggle for his team as Dallas came out hitting. Cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris picked up another penalty on a pass, this one for 36 yards. And wide receiver Ryan Whalen looked to be closing in on a first down, but got blown up and dropped it. But he came back to catch the two-point conversion from Johnson.
The Bengals are expected to make cuts Sunday since they have to be down from 87 to 75 by Tuesday. One player that doesn't figure to get cut is quarterback John Skelton even though he didn'y play Saturday. He'll get plenty of work in Thursday's 7 p.m. preseason finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the Colts.
PREGAME NOTES: Left tackle Andrew Whitworth isn't going to play in Saturday's preseason game at AT&T Stadium against the Cowboys as he sits out his third straight week.
Same with left end Carlos Dunlap even though he didn't miss a practice this past week, his first since coming back from a concussion during one of the first few days of training camp. Robert Geathers, who started the first two games in Dunlap's place, didn't work this week with a minor shoulder issue and Wallace Gilberry got the start. But Geathers wasn't on the not expected to play list.
Two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green was expected to start his first game of the preseason after bruising his right knee on the first day of camp.
Rookie tight end Tyler Eifert (wrist) and long snapper Clark Harris (elbow) weren't expected to play with minor wrist injuries and cornerback Adam Jones (rib) may not go either.
Safety George Iloka missed his second straight game with a broken hand and Taylor Mays got the start again. Linebacker Brandon Joiner, out for the season with an ACL injury, and rookie linebacker Sean Porter, still getting his torn labrum examined by various sources, were also scratches.
Other scratches included three players that have yet to practice in camp, running back Bernard Scott, fullback Chris Pressley and quarterback Zac Robinson, as well as wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, out since Aug. 1 with an ankle injury, and cornerback Brandon Ghee, who had a concussion in the opener. Guard Otis Hudson, signed for depth when rookie Tanner Hawkinson got his ankle rolled in the opener, is out with a foot problem of his own. Hawkinson has had a quick recovery but he didn't dress Saturday night.
In the wake of offseason surgery to relieve pain in his knee by removing scar tissue, Whitworth looked to be on target to make his season debut against Dallas as one of the tuneups for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener.
After returning to practice about 10 days ago, Whitworth took some time off last week but still indicated he could play after suiting up Thursday.
After Whitworth practiced for the first three days of training camp and then was backed off, he indicated he wouldn't need to get many snaps to get ready for the season.
"I understand how to play, I know what I am good at and I have done it for a long time. Do I need to practice? I don't know, if you are coming back from surgery and you are going to push something a little too fast it becomes not a need because now you are doing more damage then you are doing positive," Whitworth said. "It's going to be just making sure that as the doctor keeps telling me, we have plenty of track record that you are tough. It's not a tough thing, you need to take care of yourself. It's kind of getting in that mentality and trying to figure out the fine line in between that so you have steps back and you are going to have to have days where it's going to adjust and you are going to have to adjust with it. We'll figure out a way to make that happen."
Making his 2013 debut is second-year defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (knee), and he was expected to take a ton of snaps.
The Bengals game captains were Green, Andre Smith, Reggie Nelson, Geno Atkins and Cedric Peerman.