CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Bengals found themselves in an ugly tractor pull Sunday here at Bank of America Stadium when their struggling offense could barely keep up with the Panthers' elementary package scaled back for rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen's first NFL start.
But the defense came to the rescue with about nine minutes left in the game to lift the Bengals to a 20-7 lead when middle linebacker Dhani Jones popped the ball from the hands Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart. Left end Robert Geathers recovered the Bengals' fourth forced turnover of the day and quarterback Carson Palmer's beleaguered offense needed just three passes for a touchdown with 8:18 left in the game and the Bengals held on for their first road victory since last Nov. 15 in Pittsburgh.
The last two passes on the game-clincing drive came off play-action, the first a 17-yarder to rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham, and the second a seven-yarder to running back Cedric Benson for his first career receiving touchdown. Palmer faked to Benson before hitting him wide open in the flat.
It was a rare moment of execution for Palmer. He finished the game 19-of-37 for 195 yards with two picks and a passer rating of 53.3.
It didn't last. The Bengals went for two, center Kyle Cook was called for a false start, and they opted to have Mike Nugent kick the point.
Big plays? The Bengals didn't allow wide receiver Steve Smith's first catch until 9:34 left in the game and right end Michael Johnson stopped one third down inches from the stick.
The Bengals were ruling the clock and field position, but as the third quarter became the fourth the Bengals could go only 18 yards on seven plays and had to get Nugent's 50-yard field goal to take a 13-7 lead with 14:53 left in the game. The Bengals turned to Benson on the ground in the third quarter, where he got 38 yards on 12 carries. Benson finished with 81 yards on 27 carries as the Bengals went 29-1 under head coach Marvin Lewis when a back carries at least 25 times.
Benson was getting checked out on the bench by doctors when the Bengals started the drive to salt it away with 3:44 left. Huber took care of that with his third punt inside the 5.
The sledding was brutal. On third-and-three (the Bengals could convert only four of their first 12 third downs), cornerback Richard Marshall knocked away Palmer's pass over the middle for wide receiver Terrell Owens to set up Nugent's eighth straight field goal to start his Bengals career.
Clausen cut Palmer's lead to 10-7 midway through the third quarter when he broke out of his 0.0 first-half passer rating with an eight-play, 75-yard drive capped by running back Jonathan Stewart's one-yard run with 8:16 left in the third quarter.
Clausen used some mix of play-action and quick throws and hit Stewart over the middle on play-action for a 15-yard pass. When defensive tackle Pat Sims was called for roughing Clausen, the ball moved to the 16 and when safety Roy Williams just missed running back DeAngelo Williams in the backfield and the linebackers couldn't get off their blocks, Williams put the ball on the 1 to set up Stewart's score.
Bengals wide receiver Jordan Shipley made a catch over the middle on which he took a big hit early in the third quarter and he left to get his shoulder examined. He did return.
To underscore just how tough it is for the Bengals to get anything down on offense, they blew a chance to kick a field goal on the last play of the half when Palmer couldn't spike the ball in time from the Panthers 5.
The Bengals sheepishly took a 10-0 lead into halftime on the strength of Palmer's 22.2 passer rating, 22.2 points better than the goose egg laid by Clausen in his first NFL start.
Trailing 10-0 with 42 seconds left, the Panthers gift-wrapped points on running back Michael Goodson's fumble that Bengals cornerback Morgan Trent recovered at the Carolina 27. Palmer immediately hit Shipley down the middle for a 22-yard gain, but when right tackle Dennis Roland false-started on the next snap the Bengals had to take their final timeout with 18 seconds left. (They had wasted one in the first quarter to escape a delay of game flag.)
After safety Sherrod Martin knocked away a pass to Owens over the middle, Palmer didn't opt for the end zone and hit Gresham over the middle but the Bengals couldn't regroup in time to bring on Nugent.
Nugent extended his skein to seven straight to open the season with a 33-yard field goal with 1:10 left in the half to give the Bengals a 10-0 lead despite the horrendous offense. Palmer had two interceptions and three more passes that were dropped. Benson wasn't getting much either to that point with 43 yards on 16 carries.
As usual, the defense showed up and held the Panthers backfield of Williams and Stewart to a combined 42 yards on 10 carries in the first half.
The Bengals survived a shaky first 10 minutes to take a 7-0 lead over the Panthers when Benson shook off two tacklers on a sweep to the left to score from one-yard out with 4:21 left in the first quarter.
After nearly throwing his third interception of the game, Palmer got a 27-yard catch from Gresham on a screen that featured him bowling over a couple of Panthers. After Palmer and Owens hooked up for a first down on a third-and-four with a seven-yard play over the middle (Owens' fumble at the Carolina 15 was negated on forward progress), Palmer had to get a third-down pass interference call on safety Jordan Pugh in the end zone working against wide receiver Andre Caldwell to set up Benson's run.
So much for the Bengals starting fast and striking first.
Palmer threw a pick in the first two minutes of the game when Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn got a ball thrown right to him in the middle of the field on a route to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco.
Then Williams took his club's second snap 26 yards up the middle to the Cincinnati 25. But on his third NFL snap as a starter, Clausen fumbled and Bengals safety Roy Williams recovered.
But on the ensuing series, Benson lost four yards on his first carry and on third-and-two disaster was narrowly averted when cornerback Chris Gamble dropped a pick-six pass in the flat headed to The Ocho.
With the Bengals leading, 7-0, late in the first quarter, they again traded turnovers to negate a Palmer interception. He had Owens running past the linebackers and into the open down the middle and when Palmer tried to jack up a long one, he was hit as he threw from pressure up the middle and the ball ended up terribly short and in the hands of safety Charles Godfrey.
His 38-yard return put Clausen in the red zone, but on his first snap he tried to hit Smith inside on a slant and cornerback Leon Hall stretched out to pick it off at the Cincinnati 5.
But the Bengals offense somehow managed to slip into neutral despite embarking on a 16-play drive. How many teams you see go 16 plays and punt? And while the ball may have been wet, it wasn't raining when the Bengals embarked on the march.
Palmer almost threw another interception that got dropped when Gresham slipped on a quick outside throw and The Ocho dropped an eight-yard pass that he let get in on his chest. But he came back to catch a 14-yarder on third down and the Bengals converted a fourth-and-two when running back Brian Leonard lined up in a Wildcat formation and ran it left for a first down.
But the Bengals could get nothing running the ball and Palmer looked out of sync. On a third down he wobbled a low ball to Leonard out of the backfield for an incompletion that forced a punt.
Huber obliged in this grind job of an effort and rolled it to the Carolina 1 and after Clausen's obligatory three-and-out, the Bengals were at the Carolina 42 with 5:23 left in the half. When Palmer threw low to The Ocho on third-and-one, the Bengals needed another fourth-down conversion from Leonard as he followed pulling left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
The Bengals, hounded by penalties in their first two games, didn't get one until the last three minutes of the half when Gresham was called for holding that pushed the Bengals out of the red zone. They couldn't overcome it and the Panthers got a hand on another Palmer pass on third and nine when he tried to hit The Ocho in bracket coverage. The underneath defender, linebacker James Anderson, batted it away, to bring on Nugent.
The Bengals came into Sunday trying to unleash their offensive weapons in a regular-season game for the first time this year. Palmer's longest pass remained a 51-yard Hail Mary to Shipley in the opener and his longest throw to his starting wide receivers was a 29-yarder over the middle on Owens' run-and-catch last Sunday against Baltimore.
But even though the Bengals had the ball 21:15 in the first half, they showed no signs of coming out of it. Owens had two catches for 24 yards and The Ocho had two for 19.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals did the expected and sat cornerback Adam Jones (shoulder) and defensive lineman Jon Fanene (hamstring) for Sunday's game here against the Panthers. They did the unexpected when they sat right tackle Andre Smith after a week he practiced with no apparent injury and right end Antwan Odom (wrist) after a week he did get limited work.
Moments after the inactives were announced, a downpour enveloped eerie Bank of America Stadium lit up at 11:40 in the morning.
With Jones inactive, rookie cornerback Brandon Ghee was active for his first NFL game. Second-year linebacker Michael Johnson got his first NFL start in place of Odom. Also up for the first time was rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Running back Brian Leonard (foot) made his first appearance of the season with running back Cedric Peerman on the shelf.
Also inactive for the second straight week was wide receiver Jerome Simpson. Rookie center-guard Reggie Stepehens also was inactive with the Bengals opting to go with all seven linebackers and just seven offensive linemen in what appears to be a nod to the Panthers running game.
Think the Panthers are going to run it? They went into the game with just three active wide receivers when they sat Dwayne Jarrett and Armanti Edwards. Look for the Panthers to try to get rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen comfortable in his first NFL start with quick throws to tight end Dante Rosario and running back Mike Goodson.
The fiancée of late Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry and their children visited the Bengals hotel Saturday night and had dinner in the team dining room with Jones, his teammate at West Virginia. Henry died after injuries in a truck accident last December in Charlotte.
Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco made the Sunday morning paper outside the sports section, landing on the front page of The Charlotte Observer's Local & State section. Via Twitter he set up a dinner with the first 85 people that could get into uptown's China Brazilian Steakhouse. The bill came to $8,000 with a $1,000 tip, the paper said.
For the second straight week, the Bengals' foe won the toss and deferred. The Bengals, wearing black jerseys and white pants (13-18 record), sent Bernard Scott and Quan Cosby back to receive.