CLEVELAND - In front of one of his NFL mentors Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton staged a clinic for Browns head coach Hue Jackson Sunday when he hit 19 of his first 20 passes that included 16 straight and threw four touchdown passes to give the Bengals their first win of the season in 31-7 victory.
After an incompletion on a deep ball to wide receiver Brandon LaFell, Dalton logged the longest completion skein by a Bengal since Ken Anderson hit 20 straight in the 1982 regular-season finale.
The 1-3 Bengals came into the game with just two touchdowns from their offense, but took advantage of three missing key defenders for Cleveland in rookie pass rusher Myles Garrett, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, and linebacker Jamie Collins.
With Cleveland rookie safety Jabrill Peppers playing back in Lake Erie, Dalton carved the Browns’ deep zone underneath. Wide receiver A.J. Green (five catches for 63 yards and one touchdown) and tight end Tyler Kroft (six for 68, two TDs) each scored a touchdown as Dalton went on to hit 25 of 30 for 286 yards to post a 146 passer rating, just missing his career best of 146.8 set here in 2015.
The Bengals stalked their first shutout since a 30-0 win here against the Browns Dec. 14, 2014 as the Bengals suffocated rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, limiting him to 16 completions on his first 32 passes before he got lifted for Kevin Hogan. The defense was immense. During the first half linebacker Nick Vigil recorded his first NFL sack and safety Clayton Fedjelem got his first NFL interception on a red-zone pick and the Bengals kept it going in the second half with head coach Marvin Lewis emptying his bench early and often.
Reserve cornerbacks William Jackson and KeiVarae Russell got plenty of work in the half, as did backup defensive linemen Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow. The shut-out bid ended with 1:54 left in the game when Hogan led a TD drive ending with running back Duke Johnson Jr., scoring from one yard out with the aid of penalty flags on Jackson and middle linebacker Kevin Minter covering passes in the end zone.
The only orange-and-black downer was the Bengals’ failure to drain the clock and aid the shut-out bid with a running game that has some serious issues. On their next-to-last series, rookie running back Joe Mixon lost ten yards on first and second down and went into the last series with just 17 yards on 14 carries. At that point they were less than three yards per carry with 74 yards on 27 carries.
Dalton’s last throw of the first half came on a perfectly called screen pass in the second game of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s tenure when Dalton flipped a three-yard screen pass to running back Giovani Bernard right where the Browns had called a blitz. No one put a finger on Bernard as he split the Browns defense and logged the longest catch of his career by outrunning everyone, including right guard T.J. Johnson and center Russell Bodine leading the way.
It was far from pretty, but when Dalton converted a third-and-six from the Browns 7 with a perfect touch pass to Green running underneath it in the left corner, the Bengals had a 7-0 lead after the first play of the second quarter.
It was the third third-conversion of the drive that began at the Cleveland 35 on cornerback Adam Jones’ 40-yard punt return, his longest since 2014. A low snap almost cost them on third-and-five but Dalton rolled out to find Kroft making a contested sliding catch for one first down and Dalton scrambled for five yards on third-and-two.
The Bengals went to that tackle rotation right away. After playing his first 26 snaps of the season that included his first NFL work at left tackle, Andre Smith started at left tackle and when Cedric Ogbuehi replaced him on the third series, Smith moved to right tackle in place of Jake Fisher.
Smith was big on the touchdown pass to Green. He communicated with Bernard to pick up a twist and give Dalton time.
The Browns finally drove into the red zone with 10 minutes left in the first half, but their problems with drops surfaced. Wide open tight end Seth DeValve dropped a second-down ball and on the next snap running back Duke Johnson had a pass go off his hands and Fedjelem grabbed the carom at the Bengals 12.
The Bengals couldn’t run the ball a smidge with running back Joe Mixon getting just six yards on five carries and Jeremy Hill had just two yards on four carries and saw his streak without a fumble dating back to the 2015 Wild Card Game end.
But Kroft bailed them out on third-and-17 when he went up the seam of the Cover Two and made a 22-yard catch. Green then ran a simple slant to the middle for 25 yards and Dalton followed it up by drilling a three-yard touchdown pass into Kroft’s belly to make it 14-0 with 2:33 left in the half and ending a 13-play drive that ate 7:28.
In the process of holding Cleveland to 106 yards in the first half, the Bengals forced their third three-and-out to set up the Bernard play.
But it wasn’t the way you want to start it. A three-yard run by Hill on first down got just three yards and on second down Browns defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah raced past right tackle Jake Fisher, sacked Dalton, and stripped the ball out of Dalton’s hand at the Bengals 31.
But Vigil dropped Browns running back Isaiah Crowell for a five-yard loss and on third down Kizer threw it into the ground to bring on rookie kicker Zane Gonzalez and he pulled a 48-yard field-goal try left.
The Bengals’ running game just couldn’t respond to the Browns’ deep Cover Two Zone. Dalton did hit wide Green for a 16-yard gain on a crossing route, but Mixon couldn’t any room in the running game and Kroft was called for a hold when they tried a screen to Mixon. Another screen to Mixon got blown up and when Dalton tried a screen to Bernard on third-and-12 he sailed it over his head with pressure in his face.
The Browns went three-and-out for the fourth straight week on their first possession, courtesy of defensive tackle Geno Atkins’ shot on Kizer as he threw to cause an incompletion on third-and-eight. Later in the first half the Bengals extended their NFL-best 33 straight games with a sack when Vigil blitzed untouched.
Tight end Ryan Hewitt hurt his knee in the first half and didn’t return.
PRE-GAME HITS: When Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis handed in his inactive sheet before Sunday’s game but it was Browns head coach Hue Jackson’s sheet that got all the attention when he sat down rookie pass rusher Myles Garrett and defensive tackle Danny Shelton because of injury.
Earlier in the week the Bengals ruled out tight end Tyler Eifert (back), wide receiver John Ross (knee), and linebacker Jordan Evans (hamstring) because of injury. On Sunday Lewis sat backup safety Derron Smith (ankle) after he didn’t practice all week. Right guard Trey Hopkins (knee) returned to practice in limited fashion for the first time since his Opening Day injury but wasn’t active Sunday.
Wide receiver Josh Malone and guard Christian Westerman were again inactive by coach’s decision.
Cincinnati Bengals take on the Cleveland Browns in week 4 of the regular season.